Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Summa Cum Laude

Friday's Wall Street Journal had a story on "The Most Praised Generation Goes to Work," describing how many employers now struggle to heap praise onto the twenty-somethings that grew up with lots of positive affirmation and can't stand to be without it. Older managers are baffled by the trend, and while handing out an unending stream of "atta-boys" is contrary to their nature, they feel they have to do it or else lose their younger talent.

According to the Enneagram personality typing, I am a Type Three, a "Performer." It might as well be labelled "Praise Junkie," because Threes fundamental sense of worth derives from how they imagine other people see them. I understand all too well how legitimate ambition and desire to succeed can degrade into a reflexive, unending need for praise and recognition. I have great sympathy for those who became hooked on positive affirmation; vanity is a cruel master.

Still, I don't think those managers are losing too much if their uber-stroked employees hit the door. This is not merely a matter of communication style, where you can swap one set of words for another and keep going. This need for constant affirmation is a serious limitation on a person's capacity. When I hire someone to do a job, it's not necessarily because I need a skill set that I don't have myself -- usually it's because I don't have time to do everything, and I need to delegate to others. I hire out work because I want to stop thinking about it. By that standard, the best employees are the most autonomous: those who just do their jobs, reliably and well, with a minimum of supervision. But if I have to watch an employee's every move, providing feedback every minute, then my attention is still chained to that job. If the management overhead is too much, I might as well have done it myself.

Could a praise junkie possibly be fit for genuine leadership? Could someone who needs a pat on the back every day possibly start and run a business? Because, last time I checked, customers are not known for giving out unstinting praise. Just the opposite: they tend to be full of demands. Vendors do not fret over your feelings. Employees, if they think about you at all, usually complain, or (these days) demand that you give them the pat on the back. Entrepreneurs, with their large and varied constituencies and perpetually limited resources, play an unending game of "Who am I going to disappoint today?"

I suspect that the younger generations praise-fixation is also an attention deficit in disguise. The trend towards "snack culture" -- where the content is short and the payoff quick -- has attenuated their capacity to stick to something for a long period of time. In those realms where they did exercise discipline -- school, sports -- the activities were completely defined, with clear winners and losers, beginnings and endings. They probably didn't get enough unstructured time: time to play in the sandbox, time to read a book, time to organize their friends into a baseball game. Their parents taught them to win the game; it never occurred to them the world needed people who can make up new games.

To accomplish anything of real significance, you have to be liberated from the need for praise. You have to want something else. You have to be focused on the accomplishment itself, rather than people's opinion of it. Rather than teaching managers how to praise, they should be holding workshops for the employees: "Learning to live with ambiguity."

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