This story goes back to a non-profit job I had several years ago. Early on in my time there I’d been given the responsibility of maintaining a contact list for our department. As we had unusually high staff turnover, including transfers in and out of the department, it took up a fair amount of time. When we relocated to a different building, it made sense to expand the contact list to include all of our organization’s staff in that building, not just our department. Then someone got the idea that the contact list should include all our staff, not just those in the building.
In the meantime I’d formed a virtual friendship via e-mail and phone with the technicians in the IT department, who were mostly at one of the other locations. I’d only met two of them: the technician assigned to our site and the guy who managed all our cell phones. But the IT guys were a great team and very helpful even though we hadn’t yet met. One of the things they helped me with was the contact list, even to the point of creating an automatic notification system that would let me know when a new e-mail address or cell phone number had been assigned to someone on the staff.
The IT Manager was named Levi. He’d had a long career in computers, back to the days of “data processing” and punched cards. After taking early retirement he did some volunteering, but soon found himself back on the job, this time for the non-profit where we worked. As IT Manager he was back and forth to meetings at both the building where the IT office was and the building where I worked.
One day he passed by my desk and asked how things were going. He mentioned how helpful the contact list was, what with our staff being spread across multiple locations.
“Your technicians are my best source of information for that contact list. They always let me know when someone has been assigned a new e-mail account or a cell phone.”
“Did you tell them?”
He asked immediately. It was clearly a question so instinctive that it was almost a reflex. Fortunately I had told them, and recently. I looked up the e-mail I’d sent to the IT guys thanking them for their help with the contact list and forwarded it to Levi. It was in his inbox before he got back to his office.
As things turned out, Levi left us not long after. He wasn’t a New Yorker, but had worked here for almost ten months. Finally he went home. Not long after I had an opportunity to transfer to the IT department as an adminstrative assistant, and I got to work with those technicians I’d come to know mostly through e-mail.
Early on I realized that the technicians respected Levi enormously. One guy told me he took the job because he wanted to work for Levi. Another confessed (much later) that Levi had once chewed him out for an inadvertant mistake. It stung, but he also remembered the many times Levi had told him he’d done a good job and figured the two had to go together. The positives outweighed the negatives.
The brief conversation I’d had with Levi stayed with me. When I said his staff were helpful to me, he immediately asked if I’d told them. It was important to him that they know their work was appreciated.
Gold Stars & Lollipops
Not long ago I was talking with a friend about her job frustrations. When she’d taken the job her new boss told her not to expect “any gold stars and lollipops” from him for doing her job well. She was beginning to understand that he gave very little feedback, and almost none of it was good. He criticized when he wanted his staff to improve their performance, but he never let them know when they were on the right track.
In one sense I agree with her boss. We’re grown up and don’t need gold stars to tell us when we’ve done a good job. Lollipops aren ‘t good for my figure. I have more than enough t-shirts.
But I do want to know when I’ve done a good job. I also want to know when I’ve done a sub-par job. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, just a few words or an e-mail.
The truth is, very few of us are superstars. Not many of us are failures, either. The vast majority of people are somewhere in the middle, doing a few things well and a few others not so well. We have good days and bad days. We like a little praise but are embarrassed if we feel we’re getting more than we deserve (or, worse, that it may be insincere). A simple “thank you” can mean a lot.
We are always learning, but rarely in formal settings. Most of what we learn happens informally, without tests or grades. One of the most important ways we know we’re heading in the right direction is how others respond to us.
The best way to learn is in small increments. My high school math teacher gave quizzes every week. At first we hated them, but after a while realized that regular feedback meant we never went too far the wrong way without a warning. Flunk a quiz and you know you need to review the chapter before you can master the next lesson. In the same way I can improve my performance if my boss tells me when my work is a little below expectation—before it becomes a big deal and we’re having a meeting with HR and warnings are issued.
The same goes for doing well. I may never land a million-dollar grant for my employer, but if I’m doing small things well and contributing to the smooth running of the organization, I want to know. I’ll do better work if I get a little pat on the back or a “thank you,” and I’ll accept criticism more readily if I know I can earn a kind word by doing better.
When Levi asked me if I’d told his team they were helping me, he wanted to be sure they knew their work was appreciated and that what they did mattered. He wanted them to know they were doing it right. Perhaps he also was reminding me that people need to be thanked when they do good work—and they will continue to do it if given encouragement.
Did You Tell Them?
This post comes with an assignment: Think of someone you know—whether at work or elsewhere—who is one of those quietly competent people you rely on to get things done. Thank them. Don’t get fussy (if they’re the quietly competent sort they might be embarrassed), just say “Thanks” and tell them why. Let them know they do a good job and that it’s appreciated.
I’ll start. Levi, as they say in Brooklyn, you done good. You built a terrific IT department and I was proud to work there. Amid all the craziness, and all the staff turnover, IT was the one department that didn’t lose a single staff member (among those whom you hired) until their planned sunsetting date, except one who returned to college. You taught us all well. And happy birthday.