Canyon Snapshots: Hollow Praise

Posted by jlubans on November 19, 2013

20131119-growth unexpected.jpeg
Caption: In the least likely places, new growth breaks out. All it takes is a little rain.

(This is the first of several vignettes from my 8-day Rio Grande canoe trip in early November on what I learned about leading and following?)
After our rendezvous meeting where the 12 of us went over the trip and its requirements, we went out for dinner. The two neighboring towns, Midland and Odessa are in an oil boom economy. Mobs of people eat out and low paying service jobs go begging. Our server was a nice young man, probably just out of high school. It was obvious to me that the server was new to this job, had not been well trained nor did he have anyone mentoring and helping. While energetic, he’d forget or mix up orders.
The manager did show up once or twice and stated (this was not a question) that we were having a great time, right! And, then, like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, disappeared.
While I felt sorry for the young man – I could see myself doing worse - I was content to grin and bear the mess-ups. It’s what happens in boomtowns; and, I was there to eat not to train the waiter.
However one of our company decided, for unclear reasons, to praise the waiter.
We do live in an era of pumped up self-esteem; each of us, we are told, is special, indeed exceptional. Praise is so plentiful many people now take their greatness for granted. Yes, we are that good!
The false praise from our table raised (in my mind) the difficulty of giving honest constructive feedback to help workers. A worker who has grown up being told how wonderful she is may be deaf to suggestions for improvement. And there are consequences for lying to ourselves: I have too often seen the disastrous effects of giving unearned praise for mediocre work.
Towards the end of the meal, the waiter again recited for all to hear what they had ordered - in full detail - and what was going to be on each check. This elicited more verbal applause from our praise-giver: “You’re doing a great job and I know how hard it is; it’s not easy work.” The waiter - perhaps feeling some obligation to take a bow - pretty much summed up the evening by putting his foot in it. Basking in the praise, he “aw shucked” and then offered up: “At the risk of offending some of you, I owe it all to God!” The “it” was implicit for his great performance.
Hearing this - I was not offended, only amused - reminded me of an accomplished pianist’s response to my asking her to what she ascribed her brilliance. She simply pointed heavenwards. It was her way of acknowledging an inexplicable gift.
Later, I found myself on the river giving praise to my partners in the stern; I paddled in the bow. I did not prevaricate when the boat drifted into the spider-infested cane – the “car wash” - along the shore, or when we spun around in whitewater and somehow survived the rapids backwards. I’d ask what I could do differently to help – the bow can help the stern but it takes coordination.
I did praise the stern paddler for a nice job of guiding the canoe through a series of rock-strewn rapids. My partners responded likewise when I managed to plant an "eddy draw" or, with a few strokes, avoid banging into a rock “pillow”. Our mutual praise was based on good work, not faking it. And, when either one of us made a mistake, we’d fess up and try to improve.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

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