“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.
You are a 100% right man. I really enjoyed this article.
What a nice article! I’ve done the same mistake with my daughter. Not anymore. Everything is human construction, so if easy done, easy undone!
Another powerful observation from you, Peter! How helpful these are! You know, Peter, the first article I read from you—and, it was fascinatingly captivating from the first sentence, I vividly remember—was also based on a reflection you had after you had reacted to your daughter for “getting you late” by causing a “coffee spill over” – you needed to change your shirt – she eventually went to school without properly finishing her breakfast – then you realized how unaware you were of the gap between the real effect of your “communication” or action and the effect you would have desired (it was in HBR blog)…Thanks so much for taking time to write and for sharing these, Peter. These are very very helpful. We need to do practice these at home, at workplace, at public spaces – everywhere, really; if we can, we should try to make these natural…you know, so that one day, human genes get imprinted over with more-closely humane behaviour and…who knows, maybe one day, insha’Allah, no one would possibly think of intentionally harming others ever…And, we would find the Heaven here on Earth more often in more places :-) Warmest regards to Sophia, Daniel, Isabelle, your wife Eleanor – and all your dear ones! Wish you continued great happiness :-)
This is so beautiful. Thank you. Your article really touched my heart.
A great article Peter. Been reading your articles for the past 3 years….. for your real life anecdotes which so smoothly drives the point you are making because we can relate to it so well.
All the best. Wish you and family a very Happy Holidays.
Thanks Peter! Excellent article that really hit home.
Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing your human-ness with us. You put out your personal learnings for the world to see, and that takes incredible courage. But the wonderful thing is that we all relate and understand, and we all think more highly of you for it.
I see you Peter!
I work with elementary-age children who are placed in our small-group classroom for emotional/behavioral disorders. Most just need a chance to start over and re-learn (or learn for the first time) how to interact with others and then they go on to be successful, happy students back in general education classrooms. An honest compliment is one of the biggest tools we use in our classroom. “I love how you helped your friend when they were feeling down.” “I love how you were about to have a tantrum but instead took a few minutes to get yourself together.” “The work you just completed is as close to perfect as it gets.” I think this philosophy works in many, many aspects of life. I always try to let my husband know how much I appreciate all that he does for my kids and me. Being appreciated for one thing causes us to try harder in other areas. Great article!
Another wonderful article, Peter! You are spot-on once again. Thank you for being so honest and open to sharing your stories to help others. You make a difference! Happy holidays to you and your beautiful family.
I own your 18 Minutes book. Love it. Wouldn’t it be cool to put 30 seconds of the 18 minutes to catching someone doing something right? I also want to make the point that we also need to be our own best approval sources. Continually looking outside ourselves is exhausting and fraught with disappointment if the approval does not come. Split the 30 seconds: 15 for outside approval, 15 for self approval. Have a wonderful holiday…and keep writing. You’re great. ☺️
Best wishes and continued success for the new year!
Peter, I remember well this tree in my youth. Fell out of it 65 years ago, thank goodness the tree limbs broke my fall on the way down, hurting only my pride and a couple of ribs. To your point, you are right on with the empathy and needs of children or for that matter all people who look to you for acceptance, guidance, love, etc.
Great article, I really enjoyed it. The great thing about kids, they give us the opportunity to “undo” or “retake” these kinds of opportunities. With the praise at work, I found that being sincere and making it a habit of it eventually takes the initial awkwardness out of it and then it flows and leaves a great feeling for all involved. Interestingly though, I am at ease giving praise to those I manage but not receiving it…..