Standing in the kitchen, getting ready for a rare outing of just the three of us (his younger sisters were with their grandparents),
the request seemed innocuous enough…”Would you read mommy the story you wrote?” Surprisingly, he stated that he preferred she read it herself. And so she did. A few moments into reading it, she pointed out a spelling mistake, and that’s when everything came out. At first, he tried to hold it back, but the force of the tears was too strong. Soon, he was crying uncontrollably. Our repeated inquiries into the problem were met with, “I don’t know.” After several minutes of getting nowhere, we sent him to his room – a different environment – to calm down.
As he settled a little bit, I went up to his room, sat next to him on the bed, and began calmly asking questions. I sought to isolate the moment he began to feel sad. “Have you felt sad all morning?” “No,” he said. Incidentally, I would have been surprised; he always treasures a bit of time with just mom and dad. “Was it when mommy said something about the spelling mistake?” Again, “No.” Believing that we are often too quick to criticize him, I was expecting him to say yes to this one. “Was it when I asked you to read your story to mommy?” “Yes,” he replied. I began seeing that the problem was bigger than I had expected. “Are you proud of your story?” “I’m not sure,” he said. “Is that because you’re not sure if you should be proud of it?” “Yes.”
What we discovered was that he had become so sensitized to criticism that he had begun to anticipate it. So, even when I suggested he share the story with his mom, he was imagining us telling him that it wasn’t good enough – and he just couldn’t take it (perhaps especially on this day when he was supposed to feel special with mom and dad). To him, incidentally, the comment about the spelling mistake was merely a confirmation. As we talked, in my mind’s eye, I could see this sensitivity expressed in his slumped shoulders when he begrudgingly practiced piano, or in his lack of interest in practicing sports; actually, in a general lack of enthusiasm. So, as we continued talking about it, I asked him how he feels when he is criticized, and I’ll never forget his answer – “Small.”
From there, we had a good conversation that included me telling him that I also feel small when I’m criticized. I told him that I never want to make him feel small, but rather so big that he can dream and reach his dreams. Implicit and explicit in our talk was an apology for allowing him to feel that way. And so we struck a deal: I’ll be careful not to criticize; he’ll work not to receive things as criticism; and he’ll work to not criticize others (something I had noticed him doing a lot more).
I’m happy to say that a lot has changed since that day – in both of us. I’m very conscious of talking about the many good things he does instead of taking them for granted, and I’m also working hard to call attention to the one time he does something right instead of the nine other times he might do it wrong. “Thanks for hanging up your towel after your shower. Did you notice how it dries so much faster and the bathroom looks nicer?” “I appreciate it when you take your plate to the sink after dinner; it helps me to get done faster.”
He has responded to our talk and the change in my behavior amazingly quickly. His demeanor has returned to the happy, fun, kind eight year old that was too often being hidden. The thing I’ve enjoyed the most, though, perhaps because of its subtlety, is this: he’s playing piano without being asked, and his back is straight as he does!
As I told this story to a group of close friends, one shared another in return. It was about a couple that parented and coached three Olympic athletes (sorry, I can’t remember the sport). Their approach to coaching was simple: every time one of their children came off of the field, they isolated one thing that he/she did well and talked about it. By focusing on the positive, the parents enabled the kids to replay – and reinforce – what was right rather than causing them to replay the mistakes. I think that’s a smart approach. And who among us likes being criticized anyway?
Seth Godin, in his book, Tribes, states that people fear criticism far more than they fear failure. In my experience, he’s right. Have you ever felt crippled by criticism or the prospect of criticism? God help me that I not do that to anyone ever again!
Does your organization’s purpose light people up?
In the course of a presentation recently, I examined the mission statements of several companies. The presentation itself was, generally, about doing business from a relational standpoint instead of from a transactional standpoint. More specifically, it was about “missionalizing” one’s business/organization. The idea is this: organizations that establish a high-level purpose and integrate that purpose into every aspect of operations have the opportunity to connect with people – inside and outside – in such a way that brings out their best. When this happens, everybody benefits.
So, I did a fun exercise with the group. I put on the screen, one at a time, about 10 mission statements of well- known companies (samples below). As each one appeared on the screen, I invited the group to guess which company the statement belonged to and respond about whether or not the statement engaged them as a consumer or would engage them if they were an employee. The exercise was fun and the results were informative.
The first half of the statements – the ones I presented to illustrate poor mission statements – failed to garner any accurate responses about the organizational “owner” and nobody felt particularly engaged by them. The second half of the statements were met very differently: every single one was identified quickly within the group (generally by several people) and most found the statements inspiring.
As we broke down the statements together, one thing stood out: the first half did not represent mission at all, but rather ambition. Going deeper, we found the following:
- The first half are about the organizations themselves; the second half are about the people the organizations serve.
- The second half practically invite consumer participation in the mission.
- The second half have the capacity to provide direction to employees about what they do each day.
- The companies represented in the first half are struggling mightily and/or spend a great deal to maintain their market position.
In an age where distribution and/or advertising strength are no longer harbingers of certain success, engagement at the highest levels of humanity – where inspiration exists – is critical. I think we’re finding that people aren’t so interested in engaging others’ ambitions, but they may very well be interested in engaging others’ mission. Have you defined your mission? Is it integrated into everything you do? If so, people may just find it worth joining and spreading.
“To become the world’s leading consumer company for automotive products and services.”
“To be the most essential global Internet service for consumers and businesses.”
“_______ is a multinational corporation engaged in socially responsible operations, worldwide. It is dedicated to provide products and services of such quality that our customers will receive superior value while our employees and business partners will share in our success and our stock-holders will receive a sustained superior return on their investment.”
“We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere.”
“To build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online”
“To bring inspiration and innovation to every athlete* in the world??* If you have a body, you are an athlete.”
“To make the world’s information universally accessible and useful”