Praise is a vitamin

I was thinking about how happy I am when I get the kind of praise I need. It doesn’t make me feel smug or complacent, it makes me feel strong and empowered and like what I’m doing matters and is seen. Which is kind of the opposite of burnout. I don’t think you can entirely stave off burnout with praise – it’s systemic and situational, but I think you can certainly help.

I mostly get enough vitamins in my daily diet, so I don’t take a multivitamin. I will take specific stuff if it seems called for – folic acid while pregnant, vitamin D in the dark northern winters, salts when I’m doing a lot of sweating. (Pro-tip: If Gatorade actually tastes good to you, keep drinking it until it returns to its normal grossness).

You would think that most work would also give us what we need to feel rewarded, but some people are just better at metabolizing vitamins from food than other people. Some people can eat all the right stuff and still be desperately short of magnesium, or whatever. Our jobs continue to pay us, our boss is not yelling at us, our coworkers speak to us, surely that’s enough? For some of us, yes. For others, not so much.

For some of us, it’s hard to store praise, just like it’s difficult to store some vitamins. You can take a massive dose, but the body will take what it needs and dump the rest, and you’ll be short again in a couple weeks. Some of us can store praise for a long time, but it’s difficult to replenish, or we can use it all up in a burst.

Some of us walk into work with a chronic deficiency and we’re just going to need the same type of reassurance and praise over and over again, and we can’t help it. We do believe you when you tell us nice things, but it wears out, and we can’t generate it ourselves, anymore than we can generate our own Vitamin C.

Lots of managers realize that we all need praise and attempt to address this with the compliment equivalent of multivitamins. They’ll pat us on the back and say “Good job, I like your work.”, and hope that suffices. It does, for lots of people. But those of us, like me, with specific deficiencies, need more than that. We need something targeted and specific, like a B12 shot, something that can’t be brushed off as lip service or a generality. I like praise about actions that I have taken, especially if they are tied to a goal. So, for example, “Hey, your talk on data privacy really affected people – I heard some guys walking out talking about what they could do to be better.” That’s going to keep me happy about writing talks and giving them for weeks! It’s one of my goals to change people’s thinking and behaviors. On the other hand, “We’re getting a lot of leads from conferences you go to,” is… sales leads are not really my goal? I mean, I’m happy about that, but I don’t know if they’re valuable leads, and I can’t see them, so I’m glad that the company is getting worth from that, but it’s not going to feed me when I sit down to write the next new talk.

As a manager, you’re going to deal with people who have scars from nutritional deficiencies. They may nervously expect that praise always has a dark side, or they may be praise-insecure and never sure that they are going to get it again so they guard it from others. It’s not really your job to diagnose what’s going on, just to figure out what it is that your report is lacking and supply it as best you can, honestly, realistically, and sustainably.I’m working on a new theory where I admit I am anxious and that in the absence of positive feedback, I start getting more and more nervous that there is nothing good to say, and my immanent firing will come soon. People who think they are about to get fired are terrible employees – no creativity, no joy, limited teamwork – for good reason. Rather than end up in that spot, I’d rather say directly, “I need this kind of praise to stay healthy.” Better for me, better for my manager and company.

What kind of praise feeds you? Have you asked for it?PS – Due to my odd childhood, I have a strangely inclusive knowledge of nutritional deficiency diseases. Because I am kind, though, I have not included any of those pictures.

PPS – Did you know that because we use Vitamin C to build collagen, people with severe scurvy can have old healed wounds reopen as the scars dissolve? There’s a metaphor to be had there.