“Daddy, come look!” my ten-year-old daughter Sophia yelled, excited.
We were in Savannah, GA at my wife Eleanor’s childhood home, heading to a lunch. I was standing at the edge of the front lawn by the car and did a quick scan but couldn’t see her.
“Let’s go,” I yelled back, “I need everyone in the car.”
“But I want you to see me up here. I’m in the tree,” she yelled back.
At the far side of the lawn is a massive Magnolia tree that my wife used to climb when she was a girl. Sophia must have been in it.
“Sorry sweetie, but we don’t have time,” I answered. “Come.”
As we were driving to the lunch I noticed that she looked sad and I apologized for not coming to see her in the tree, adding, “but we would have been late.”
“I just wanted you to be proud of me,” she said.
I was taken aback. So struck by the directness, the simplicity, the humanness of her longing and willingness to tell me what she wanted.
Of course I was proud of her whether she climbed the tree or not. And, of course, I told her that. And I added that I was proud that she had climbed the tree too.
But that’s not the point.
The point is that she wanted me to see her doing something challenging – really see her – and tell her I was proud. I had missed the opportunity.
Here’s the unspoken truth: it’s not just her.
We all want to be seen – especially in those moments when we are climbing a tree. This is so simple and yet it has huge implications for how we lead and how we live.
When you are in Sophia’s shoes, can you ask for what you want?
One the one hand, it’s remarkably simple (my ten-year old did it beautifully). On the other, it’s excruciatingly difficult. To ask someone to be proud of us seems infantile, needy, and weak. A confident, well-adjusted person is self-sufficient, finding strength from inside, we say to ourselves. I shouldn’t require that of others.
Except we do. We are social animals who thrive in connection. We all want the people around us to be proud. “If you think what I’m doing is good,” we can say, “please tell me.”
Sophia’s request is also a wake-up call to those of us who manage and lead. Are you seeing – really seeing – your colleagues and the people who work for you? Do you tell them that you are proud? If that feels patronizing to you, be specific. “I just saw you do X,” you can tell them, “and I was really impressed. It makes me proud to work with you.”
It’s so easy. It costs nothing. It’s universally appreciated.
So why don’t we do it more?
I think there are two reasons. One, is fear. The other is time.
It takes emotional courage to reach out to someone and tell them you are proud of them. Somehow it feels soft and a little awkward. We don’t want to come off patronizing, or suggesting that they are needy of praise. And we’re not entirely sure how they’ll receive it – maybe they’ll respond awkwardly themselves, uncomfortable with the compliment. Maybe we’ll both have to sit in the uncomfortable aftermath of praise.
We also may not be proud of everything they’re doing and we’re afraid of sending them the wrong message.
Meanwhile, there are so many other important things we’re focusing on, it’s easy to let this conversation slide. It’s not a necessary conversation.
But it’s a remarkably valuable one. It has a massive impact and takes virtually no time. That’s an enviable price/earnings ratio.
“I want you to see me up here. I’m in the tree.” Sophia yelled to me. “Sorry sweetie, but we don’t have time,” I yelled back. That is such a mistake.
Think of it this way: If she had fallen out of the tree, would I have had the time to run over to her?
There is no better use of our time – especially from the perspective of driving high performance – than to “see” the people around us and celebrate their successes and hard work.
Who are you proud to work with? Tell them and tell them why.
“As soon as we get back home,” I told Sophia, “I want to watch you climb that tree and I want to take your picture.”
“OK,” she said with a smile. And we did.