“If the praise is gonna feel genuine, then the people praising us have to know us well enough to praise us for something that is genuinely ours.”

On praise- our need for it (even when we want to remain unseen), and how creating space for praise in our workplace can open up space for deeper connections and better communication.


Recorded 30 June 2023.


Hi everyone, thanks for tuning in.

And so I was listening to a story recently about the Maya- from the Maya. And this idea that when they were creating the first people, when the gods were creating the first people, they created one that was too fragile, that just crumbled. And then two in a row, kind of rough drafts, two in a row that they thought were good, but that were arrogant that thought they had the power of the gods or the thought they were smarter than everybody else. And here's the key: they did not praise the gods.

And then finally, they created the people out of cornmeal. And those are the people who became the people who survived. Who had the right mix of strengths and weaknesses, and humility, and gratitude for the gods. And praised the gods and made offerings to the gods.

And it got me thinking. That story- it was in Braiding Sweetgrass, which I recently finished reading, and it got me thinking. Got me thinking about this thing about praise. What is it that makes us want to be praised? Because one of two things is true about theology, and possibly both at once. One is that there are no gods. And the gods' images that we have are simply reflections of ourselves. And the other is that there are gods and that our experience of those gods is reflective of, in some way, the reality of those gods and that those gods have some probably very human qualities.

Because if we look at the various theologies around the world, and through history, it is extremely rare to find gods that don't carry a lot of human-ish behavior with them. And so, when we hear that gods want to be praised, want to be prayed to, want offerings, it leads me to believe that we, too, want to be praised. That we, too, want to be honored. That we, too, want some kinds of offerings from the other people in our world. Not necessarily in that same, much higher than I am, obeisance sort of thing. But like something right?

We want, we want praise. And certainly I've met enough people who really crave praise. More than anything else crave praise. And it's always puzzled me. Because my response to praise is to flinch. Now unpacking that is mostly for me and my therapist, but my response to praise is to flinch. Because I feel like I just want to do the thing brilliantly, and so smoothly and perfectly, that people love it in their hearts.

But when somebody says to me that they love a thing I do, it feels awkward. And also, just to be clear, it's important to me, also. Like it's awkward, and some part of me needs to hear that what I'm doing is valuable. Somehow, I need to hear that. Because if I don't think what I'm doing is valuable, then I don't necessarily want to do it anymore.

And that's not true of everything. That's not true of my arts or my crafts, those things are valuable to me. And me alone, probably. I'm not that good at most of them, but good enough, right? Something. My praise in those cases is, if I make something that someone else uses, and they use it, and it gives them pleasure or it works the way it's supposed to or... something. It fills a need. It fills a need that wasn't filled before. So in that regard I need at least feedback, if not praise.

But the idea of praising the gods, praising the gods. Whether they're gods of our own imagination or gods that are real and I'm not going to I get theology on this podcast. But the idea of praising the gods is this idea of abundant gratitude for something that the gods did that often feels like it was easy. And we can't be praised for something that nobody knows we did. Someone can praise the thing itself. But we can't be praised unless somebody knows about it, which means we have to be known about it. Somebody has to, it's got to be out there somehow. It has to be known that that that, that we did it.

And this is an interesting part of the complicated conversation around selfless acts and whether it's possible to make a selfless act at all ever. Because if you get satisfaction out of it, is it selfless anymore? No, you got some good feelings out of it, maybe that's what your thing is. But it is possible to do something that nobody can praise you for. Because nobody knows you did it. And people do that. For a variety of reasons.

I recently found out that Hunter Biden, of many headlines recently, is, among other things, an artist. And his work is showing in a gallery in I believe in New York. And in order to protect any possible influence on the White House, the names of purchasers are hidden from not just Hunter Biden, but also President Biden and the White House. There's, there's no way for them to find out without actually investigating, there's no way for them to actually find out who's buying these paintings.

I think it would be really hard for me to sell my work anonymously. Because to me, the work is completed in the moment of interaction between the recipient and the work. And so I want to know how the story ends. I'm always curious what people think about after having heard me speak or write. What did you think? What what did it move in you? What did it open in you? What did it change in you? What did it give you? How are you different? How is your life different? Am I doing the thing I set out to do, which is to make the world a better place?

And I know not everybody has that goal. And not everybody needs to know if it's being fulfilled through their work. But that, to me is better than praise. Or maybe it is praise. Maybe that's what praise means to me is knowing that the thing is doing the thing that I wanted it to do that I think is better for the world. There's a lot of me in that. There's a lot of I think in that. And also, why do we want praise so badly? Why do we need praise so badly?

Why do we need to be told that someone thinks that we're good for doing the things that we do? I think especially in this world, we get so many messages about how we're not good, and we're not doing the thing we should be doing- from all sides- and so this is a doorway, this is an opportunity to change that. I just want to be good. I just want to do the thing that I set out to do.

And my brain is so good- like so many of our brains, my brain is so good- at retaining all of the terrible things that it thinks I've done. Real and imaginary. They sit with me. They weigh heavy on my heart. For months, for years, for decades. And I don't think I'm alone in that. I think especially a lot of leaders have that experience. But what does it mean to be praised in a role of leadership?

Well, if the praise is gonna feel genuine, then the people have to know us well enough to praise us for something that is genuinely ours. And in many cases, as leaders, it is our job to redistribute that praise. To say, Oh, well, it was my team. To say Oh, well, it was my assistant. To say, Oh, well, we did it together. To say it was my colleague. To say it was my collaborator. That's part of our job. That's part of how we lead is by making sure that everybody feels the gentle rain of praise when it happens.

And sometimes that can feel like we're deflecting all of the praise, and then none of it ends up with us. And sometimes that's okay. But sometimes we need more. Because all of our needs need to get met even our own. Everybody's needs need to get met. And so if we have a need to know that we're doing the right thing, or to know that we are moving the world in the direction we want to, or even, just to know, just to know that the code worked.

The satisfying thing about coding, which I haven't done in years, but the satisfying thing about coding is that when it works, and you watch it run, you know, it worked at least once. And then if it goes into production, and nobody sends you back bug reports, then you know that it worked a bunch of times. That it continues to work, that it is helping something happen that needs to happen. That you've made life easier for somebody. That you've done something that is almost objectively of value.

But when people who are below us, in the structure of the institution, people over whom we hold some kind of power, whether we want to or not- That's mostly how leadership works. Even if it's just that we are in a power position, because people think of us as a leader- then the praise is different. It feels different. Because people change how they are with you, when you're in a position of leadership.

No matter what you do, it changes things. And it can change things significantly and deeply. So how do we... How do we get that praise? And make it make it feel right and make it feel okay, and not demand it? Are these the big questions? How do we create the spaciousness for that kind of communication?

How do we create a culture that supports exchanges of gratitude and praise all the time? How do we not decide the people not praising us means that they are not grateful? How do we make sure that they have the tools that they need to communicate good things to us, and that we have the tools that we need to communicate good things to them? And that we're all using the tools we have?

When we're dealing with intensives, it can be as simple as starting the culture of, you know, throwing that praise out all the time, telling people good things all the time. It's easy to focus on the bad things and things need to change. And then we just keep going like, like when you're hiking, and one of the hikers gets to the resting spot before the other hiker and then as soon as the second hiker arrives at the resting spot, the first hiker takes off.

That's not fair, it's actually worse than not fair, because the second hiker is probably more tired, and moving more slowly, and probably needs the break more. Maybe not. But maybe. It's important for everyone to rest together for a while and then set off together for a while. It creates a different culture.

And so making sure that we have a culture of mutual praise, admiration, appreciation, gratitude, out loud on paper, to make sure that we have space for it, especially with expansives. Because expansives don't just off-the-cuff that stuff. They don't give any kind of feedback off the cuff, but they especially won't give feedback that they aren't sure about giving. So sometimes that's praise, and sometimes it's criticism, but whatever it is, if you want that communication, and you've got expansives on your team, which I hope you do, you're going to create spaciousness. You're going to create deliberate spots.

If there's a written evaluation, you're going to ask specific questions. If there's a verbal evaluation time, you're going to give them, tell them that that's coming, do the rest of the meeting, let them think about it for the rest of the meeting. And then by the time you get to the end of the meeting, they might have something to say. They might feel like they can say it and then you have to leave the space. You have to leave. Leave the space.

When we think about religious practices, religious traditions, almost all of them have built in feast days and rest days. In the Jewish and Christian traditions, they talk about on the seventh day he rested. Right from the beginning, there's rest, there's silence, there's space. That's hard for intensives. We don't rest well.

But having that rest and that silence and that space allows us to use some of our resources for praise. It allows us to dream up ways to appreciate each other. It allows us to get to know each other in ways that allow us to know what would feel like praise. What would feel like gratitude. And it allows us to have that space itself that rest itself as a place for us to have praise and gratitude for ourselves.

When was the last time you praised yourself? When was the last time you were grateful for something bigger than you? So big, so far outside yourself. We are all interdependent, interconnected. And when we find the space for praise, we find the space for connection. And we build the foundations that make other kinds of feedback more viable, more possible.

And that means that our connections become more real.

Thanks for tuning in. Talk with you soon.