One crisp October day as I walked home from school with Rick Eherenfield (my grade-school best friend), he asked me a rather naïve question: “Would you like to go trick-or-treating with me next week?” What a rube! Didn’t he know anything about the finer art of extracting candy from strangers? First of all, it’s a huge mistake to go door-to-door with friends. When you travel with friends, you slow down as you talk.
Trick-or-treat rule number one: Don’t slow down for anything. During the precious few hours of the one night of the year when candy is free for the asking, chatting with a friend could cost you a chocolate candy bar—which, by the way, just happens to be your only reason for going out in the first place. (It’s all about the chocolate.) One Halloween, I sprinted by a house that was on fire and didn’t break stride. You think I’m going to go trick-or-treating with a friend?
Here’s another time-related hint. Today’s kids typically tote plastic pumpkins and similar store-bought containers for holding their goodies. I carried, and I’m not making this up, a burlap bag that had once contained a hundred pounds of potatoes. I didn’t have time to be swapping out tiny totes in the middle of the evening—ergo, the massive potato sack. Of course, the bag came at a cost. By the end of the evening it weighed just as much as I did and looked positively gluttonous. “Look at that thing!” adults would shout as I held open a bag large enough to schlep a yak. “It’s disgusting!”
Rule number two: Run from door to door. When you only have a four-hour window to get free candy, you run between houses. You don’t walk, you don’t jog, and you don’t even trot. You run. You also need to take advantage of the entire evening. I was always the first and last kid on the street. Every year my Halloween adventure started with someone shouting: “It’s not time yet you moron! I’m still doing the lunch dishes!” and ended with: “You woke me out of a dead sleep!”
Rule number three: Put the trick back in trick-or-treat. The candy companies of the fifties didn’t produce the pathetic miniature bars they now make in such abundance, so when someone gave you a candy bar back in my day (and I firmly believe this qualified them for sainthood), you got a full-sized one. This didn’t happen very often, but when it did, you scored big.
So, here was the trick. I’d carry several masks. I didn’t normally don a mask because it would limit my vision and slow me down. But if someone gave me, say, a Hershey bar (most people gave out penny candy) I’d hit a couple of nearby doors, put on one of my masks, and return to the place that was giving out the mother lode. I would repeat this stunt with a different mask until I got caught. “Say, haven’t you been here before?” Using the mask trick, you could score as many as a half dozen full-sized candy bars at a single house.
Rule number four: Beware of baked goods. I was raised at a time when a handful of elderly homemakers still made pumpkin-shaped cupcakes frosted with an inch of gooey chocolate icing. They’d beam with pride when they opened their front door. “Here you go, sonny,” they’d say as they held out a tray full of their sticky creations while eyeing my burlap bag suspiciously. Now, what was I supposed to do with a gooey cupcake? Consuming it was out of the question. That violated the fifth rule of trick-or-treating: Never eat on the job.
One year, I made the grievous error of letting a well-intended grandmother drop a cupcake into the center of my burlap bag. I swear the chocolate-covered treat had its own gravitational field—sucking every decent piece of candy into its icing atmosphere until, by the end of the evening, it had grown to the size of a basketball. I learned to take cupcakes gingerly in my hand and then use them to mulch the neighbors’ flower beds.
Now for today’s broader (and less Halloween-y) lesson. Before chronicling my trick-or-treating habits for this column, I had never shared my Halloween techniques with my own children. As helpful as the information might have been for them, I kept my goofy methods a secret for fear of revealing that at one time I was greedy, weird, and (dare I say it) a bit of a nerd. I wanted my kids to think I was cool. Is that asking so much? This reluctance to share an unflattering side of our personality comes at a tremendous cost. When we eagerly share our accomplishments but not our embarrassing moments, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, we’re less human. We’re hard to connect to. We’re not particularly interesting to hang out with.
This desire to keep up an impeccable image also plays a big role at work. I’m confident in assuming that almost everyone in corporate America has a file full of stories similar to my Halloween tale that they’d rather keep locked away rather than air them in front of their friends and coworkers. To ensure our rosy reputations and bolster our own self-esteem, we primarily share lists of accomplishments, notable experiences, and tales that make us out to be a hero.
Ironically, sharing a steady stream of accomplishments can create more fragmentation than unity. Perfection is tiring. It feeds jealousy. It’s hard to relate to. At a time when organizations expect employees to coalesce into high-performance teams, it becomes just that much more difficult for employees to bond with others when all that coworkers know about each other is what can be found on their hyperbolic, sanitized resumes.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Unity finds a foothold in any environment where individuals willingly share a more balanced picture of themselves than is currently the rage. By occasionally sharing fears, missteps, and trick-or-treating oddities we become unthreatening, relatable, and likable. We become someone who makes a good friend or teammate.
So, let’s strip away our masks this Halloween season and dare to be the normal (quirky) people that we are. Consider sharing a more complete image of yourself, not one that’s hidden behind masks of solemnity, perfection, and accomplishments; rather, share with friends, family, and coworkers glimpses of the more interesting you—the childlike you—the oddball you. For instance, did you dunk for apples as a teenager until you choked and spit up on your date? Did you make your own costume for a neighborhood competition only to have critical parts of it fall off during the awards ceremony? Or, as related earlier, did you aggressively knock doors on Halloween night until someone finally shouted: “Hey kid, it’s time for you to haul your potato sack home!”
Sharing stuff like that binds people together.
Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.
During the month of July, we publish “best of” content. The following article was first published on July 20, 2011.
When I was a young boy and our extended family gathered to celebrate holidays, it was common for the adults to congregate in the dining room and play pinochle while we kids romped around the yard or (when it was raining) watched The Hopalong Cassidy Show on our 19” DuMont TV console.
But not always. Sometimes my uncle Vic would break away from the adults and teach me a trick or two. It was Vic who showed me how to press two fingers to my lower lip to create a wolf whistle. It was Uncle Vic who taught me how to tie a cat’s cradle, how to spin a button on a string, how to make a coin disappear, and dozens of other childhood tricks and games.
I often wondered why my uncle so readily slipped away from the rest of the adults—just to spend time with a kid. One day, long after he had passed away, I asked my mother why Uncle Vic was as likely to spend time with me as he was to mingle with his peers. Vic’s actions were particularly curious given that his wife, my aunt Mickey, was such a vibrant, vocal personality. I couldn’t imagine how she ever ended up with such a quiet man.
“Don’t you know what happened to your uncle?” my mother asked. “When my sister first met Vic, he had been the life of the party, oozed confidence, and looked the part of a movie star. Why, when he and Mickey walked into a restaurant, the crowd would hush and stare at them. It was as if celebrities had entered the room.”
“And then what happened?” I asked.
“World War II.” She explained. “It happened to all of us—only more so to Vic. You see,” Mom reluctantly continued, “your uncle joined the Army and was immediately sent to the Philippines where he was put in charge of a platoon. It was the job of Sergeant Victor Veloni and his platoon to clear the remote islands.”
“Clear them of what?” I asked.
“Of enemy soldiers who stayed behind to cause havoc with the American troops and Philippine civilians. Surely you’ve heard about them. You know, the soldiers who perched in palm trees—some for years—waiting for a chance to shoot anyone who came into view. Your uncle Vic and his team would land on an island and then do whatever was required to remove the tree-dwelling snipers.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.
I could tell that Mom didn’t want to talk about the details.
“Vic and his team would police the island until someone would shoot at them, and then they’d deal with the sniper.”
“They walked around until someone shot at them!” I exclaimed.
“Mostly,” Mom replied. “It was the best way to draw the enemy into the open.”
I could hardly imagine trudging around a steamy, tropical island in full military gear, while waiting for a bullet to pierce my helmet. It’s beyond comprehension.
“Wasn’t that dangerous?” I asked.
“Dangerous?” Mom continued, “Vic ended up losing every single man in his platoon and half of the replacements. One by one, he lost his dear friends and comrades as they fell prey to sniper fire. Our prayers were answered when Vic came home alive, but he never forgave himself for doing so.”
“And that’s what changed him?”
“When the war ended and your uncle returned to Seattle, I hardly knew him. He was the same handsome man who had gone off to war, but the vibrant, fun-loving Vic that used to live behind that chiseled face was no longer there. The horror of watching his friends die, the tension of waiting for the next bullet, the self-imposed guilt for not taking one of his own—it killed the Vic we knew and left behind the quiet, withdrawn man you grew up with. Not everyone who survived the war actually survived the war. Vic went off to battle, but somebody else came home.”
I had no idea about any of this. I was just glad my uncle Vic had spent time with me. I just wanted to know why he had always been so kind, gentle, and attentive.
Earlier this month, as teenagers from the local Boy Scout troop posted a flag in our front yard to help celebrate the Fourth of July, my thoughts turned to the scores of people—like Vic—who have sacrificed in so many different ways, so that you and I can enjoy our many freedoms. As the scouts unfurled the flag, my mind turned to an earlier day with a different group of scouts I had taken to a military cemetery. As these young men and I gathered on a grassy hillside just outside San Francisco, we stood by the graves of decorated soldiers and read aloud the detailed stories of the selfless acts that had earned each fallen soldier both his medal and his grave.
Today my thoughts turn to not only these young men and others who have fallen in the field, but also to those who have returned home—many injured, all affected, and some, like my uncle Vic, transformed into a completely different person. When TV news commentators talk of the number of wounded and killed in current battles, or when statistics pop up on the screen to summarize what’s happening overseas—I don’t see the numbers. I don’t think of the statistics. Instead, I see an image of my uncle Vic. It’s not the image you might imagine. It’s not of a crowd gathered to pay homage to his sacrifice. It isn’t of a general draping a medal around his neck. Nor is it of a band trumpeting his glory. It’s far more humble—and more important—than any of that. It’s the image of a little boy holding a cat’s cradle string, and sitting on the lap of a true American hero.
On December first, 1969, my wife and I sat glued to the radio. What event had us so interested? The reading of calendar dates. The radio announcer who had our attention was drawing pill-shaped capsules from a large, glass vessel. Each of the 366 capsules contained a piece of paper inscribed with a day of the year. Men, aged 19 to 25, who were born on the date contained in the first capsule drawn would be the first to be drafted into the US military. Those born on the second date drawn would be the next to be drafted, and so forth. Being drafted meant that, after a brief period of training, you had a good chance of being sent to fight (and possibly die) in Vietnam. That’s why Louise and I were so anxious. It was as if the country was playing roulette—for keeps—with my life.
Pundits speculated that military leaders would call to active duty the first 200 dates announced over the radio. Those holding one of the remaining 166 draft numbers would be allowed to continue on with their lives without having to get used to the practice of toting an M16. Louise and I prayed that the capsule containing my birth date would be the last one selected. Unlike our fathers, who had eagerly rushed into war after Pearl Harbor was savagely attacked, those of us waiting on the Vietnam lottery of 1969 were praying for peace and a high draft number. I certainly was.
“March 30th,” the announcer flatly announced. Those born on that day (my birthday) would be the 217th group to be drafted (if needed). This rather high number sounded safe to me, but was it really? When I telephoned my local draft board, the director told me she anticipated that Bellingham, Washington would draft to number (drum roll please) 216. If this turned out to be correct, one lousy number stood between me and a trip to Vietnam. I was not comforted.
As my senior year of college hurried along, the country’s need for soldiers increased, and the number 217 started to look increasingly shaky. It appeared as if I might graduate from college and be forced straight into harm’s way. Then, one day while walking through the student union building, I spotted a Coast Guard officer sitting at a table smiling at anyone who glanced his way.
“Are you about to graduate?” the fellow asked me. “Because if you are, and you want to serve your country for three years, you might qualify for Coast Guard officer training. And, by the way, did I mention the Coast Guard has a very small presence in Vietnam? Very small.”
I had never considered joining the Coast Guard, and becoming an officer was far from a sure thing. Under normal circumstances, I would have smiled politely and moved along. However, still hanging over me like a death threat were the words: “We’re expecting to draft to number 216.”
After discussing the pros and cons of joining the Coast Guard, my wife and I made our decision; I signed a contract with Uncle Sam. Then, a few weeks after graduating from college, I flew to Yorktown, Virginia where, for four months, I studied navigation, port security, piloting, and other things aquatic.
At the end of the fourteenth week of training, while my fellow officer candidates and I gathered in the mess hall for dinner, a senior official read aloud the duty station to which each candidate would soon be assigned. The lottery continued. Some were ordered to sea, others to land, and yes, a few started down a path that would eventually put them in charge of a vessel in Vietnam.
After working his way down the alphabet, the Coast Guard assignment herald kicked my heart into a full gallop when he announced my name, paused for effect, and then shouted: “TRASUPCEN, Alameda.” I couldn’t believe my good fortune! I was being assigned to serve at the Coast Guard’s West Coast supply center located across the bay from San Francisco. This was a highly coveted, three-year shore station. It was located thousands of miles from the perilous waters of Vietnam and only a short trip across the Bay Bridge to one of the most magical cities in the world.
For the next three years, I worked with a mix of career Coast Guard professionals and short-time folks such as myself. We did our best to provide support for both normal and wartime operations. Nevertheless, the war we supported was enormously unpopular (thus, the need for a draft). Most of the enlisted men who reported to me made a habit of ridiculing the government for forcing them to take an unwanted hiatus from their promising civilian careers. They complained endlessly.
Despite the unrelenting harangue, the individuals I worked with faithfully fulfilled their assignments. They had made a promise and they kept it. And they did so in the face of a hostile civilian population. Each morning, we “Coasties” arrived at work dressed in civilian clothes, switched into our uniforms, and did our jobs. We generally chose not to wear our uniforms to and from the base to avoid being ridiculed. The country had called and we had responded—but when we were spotted, we were often mocked. After all, we were willing participants in what many people believed was an unjustified conflict.
One day, while dashing to the nearby Berkley library to secure a book I needed for a night course I was taking, I didn’t think to switch out of my uniform. As I walked up Telegraph Avenue, people glared at me as if I were—well, a “killer”—as they so freely called me. One guy, clearly disgusted by my involvement in what he must have deemed an illegal war, spit on me. It was mortifying.
During the decades that followed, I viewed the three years I served in Alameda with uncertainty. (By the way, the 1969 draft only extended to lottery number 195. Had I not volunteered, I wouldn’t have been drafted.) I admired the people I served with and, to this day, I’m proud of the work we did supporting our fellow guardians—some commanding boats in harm’s way, some battling the seas, and some working in offices miles from danger. But to be truthful, as the Vietnam conflict wound down, nobody was chomping at the bit to make heroes out of the veterans of the “unpopular war.” And while it’s true that my mates and I didn’t exactly strike back at enemies who had viciously bombed our sacred shores—we did accept the call to serve and faithfully performed our assignments.
Nowadays, I watch uniformed soldiers return home to the roar of cheering civilians, and I cheer right along with them. I’m glad today’s soldiers don’t feel the need to travel incognito. And thanks to a recent event, I have ceased to question my own participation in what had been such an unpopular conflict. After forty-five years of wondering about my choice, the uncertainty of taking part in a controversial war finally came to an end in a decisive and unexpected way. My teenage granddaughter, Kylee, of her own accord, texted me the following message: “Happy Veteran’s Day, Grandpa. I love you. Thank you for serving our country!”
That’s all I needed to hear. It turns out that gratitude from a single grandchild trumps the ridicule of any number of critics. With this in mind, I now pass on my granddaughter’s (and my own) thanks to today’s guardians—from front-line leathernecks, to keyboard warriors—who all deserve kudos. All play an important role in keeping us safe. So, thanks to all of you heroes out there who, when the call to serve came, eagerly answered, “You can count on me!”
We do, every single day.
It was a Saturday morning in the summer of 1980, the front doorbell chimed, and my seven-year-old daughter Rebecca ran to see who was there. It turned out to be her best friend, Candy, who smiled and asked, “Can you come out and play?” Rebecca took a quick look at her pal, curled her lip, said “No,” and then slammed the door.
I watched this exchange and thought to myself, ‘Who slams the door in a friend’s face?’ Apparently my daughter. So, I asked her what had just taken place. She explained that her mom had told her to clean her room before she went anywhere.
“So you wanted to play, but you had to clean your room first,” I carefully paraphrased. “Yes,” she responded. “The sooner I do my chores, the sooner I can play.”
“How do you think Candy felt about your slamming the door in her face?” I asked. “She looks sad,” Rebecca explained as we peered out the window and watched Candy trudge back to her house. “I guess I hurt her feelings.”
“Can you think of something you could have said that would have been kinder?” I inquired.
Rebecca had no answer. That’s because she’s human and we humans aren’t born with much knowledge. We certainly aren’t born with the complicated, and often subtle, skills that make up social awareness and charm.
Unlike some guppies Rebecca and I had watched being born a few days earlier, humans don’t arrive with knowledge about anything. Guppies shoot out of their moms like a mini-torpedo, take a quick look around, swim to the nearest plant, hide in the foliage, and then swim in sync with the moving vegetation. They’re born with first-class hiding skills. That’s because the fish around them (including daddy and uncle guppy) eat baby guppies. To maintain the species, guppies are taught most of what they’ll need to survive—not in schools (pun intended), but in-utero. They’re born teenagers. Most of what they’ll ever know, they know at birth.
Humans, in contrast, are born with a blank slate. Infants know nothing nor are they pre-programmed to do anything. The good news: humans don’t get jerked around by instincts. (Hey, let’s swim up an Alaskan stream until we beat ourselves to death on the rocks!) The bad news: humans have to learn how to survive—skill by skill, situation by situation. Social scripts are no exception. By age seven, Rebecca hadn’t learned the door script and was having a hard time inventing one of her own.
So I continued the instruction. “What if you said, ‘I’d love to come out and play, but I have to clean my room first. When I finish I’ll come over and get you.’?”
Then I stepped outside and knocked on the door. Rebecca answered and I asked her to come out and play. When I share this story, I typically ask audiences what they think Rebecca did at this point. They respond: “She slammed the door in your face!” But they’re wrong. Rebecca politely said, “I’d love to come out and play, but I have to clean my room first. When I’m done I’ll come get you.” In less than three minutes, I had taught Rebecca a social script.
While working as a professor a few months later, I decided to test whether I could apply what I had done with a seven-year-old to grown adults by teaching them a social script. And unlike Rebecca, whom I taught openly and to her knowledge, I wanted to see if I could teach adults a social script without them even noticing.
To find out, I asked a group of graduate students to cut into movie theater lines. Our goal was to count how many people would typically say something to the line cutter. In the laid-back Mountain West where we conducted the experiment, no matter the gender, size, or demeanor of the line cutter, nobody spoke up. Better to stay mum, the subjects concluded, and avoid any potential conflicts.
Next, I asked the students to cut in front of—not a stranger—but a fellow student whom we’d secretly placed in line. The student was instructed to become upset. “Hey, quit cutting in line!” the student would brusquely say to the cutter who would then go to the end of the queue. Next, we waited a minute and cut in front of the person standing behind the student who had just chewed out the line cutter. Would experimental subjects be informed and emboldened from the demonstration they had just witnessed and now speak their minds? Since we hadn’t exhibited a very healthy script, we hypothesized that most people would remain silent. And they did. Not one person spoke harshly after watching someone else do the same.
For our third trial, we cut in front of a student who was instructed to be diplomatic. The student was to smile and say, “Excuse me. Perhaps you’re unaware. We’ve been waiting in line for over fifteen minutes.” The cutter would then apologize and go to the end of the line.
Now for the big question. Similar to Rebecca learning the door script, would onlookers learn and use their new and smart sounding line-cutting script? We waited a minute, cut in front of the subject standing behind the positive role model and watched what took place—in fifty different lines. The results were startling. Over 80% of people who observed the effective interaction, spoke up. In fact, they said the exact same words they heard modeled. We did it! By using a positive role model, we taught strangers a social script that they immediately put into action. And we did it without them even knowing.
The implications of this research are obvious. Humans, despite the fact that they’re born without a scrap of useful knowledge, can observe, learn, and put into play, a whole host of skills—including social scripts. For example, you watch an employee argue for his idea in a meeting with far too much force, causing others to resist. You note that the tactic didn’t work. Then you watch someone tentatively present the same idea and ask others what they think—this approach is met with acceptance. “That nonaggressive approach worked!” you think to yourself and, just like Rebecca, you’ve learned a new social tactic.
And yet, most of us spend little time observing, learning, and teaching social scripts. We exert more effort learning French (or even Klingon) than studying human interaction. But this can change simply by watching people in tough social interactions, spotting what works and what doesn’t, and then practicing the skills yourself. Eventually, you can teach the skills to others.
Don’t rely on chance—certainly not with your children, friends, and coworkers. Expecting people to invent tactics for working through complex social issues is akin to handing a child a pencil and paper and expecting him to invent calculus. Instead, take what you’ve learned through observing others, break it into component skills, and teach these social snippets to those around you. Teaching others social skills is one of the best gifts you can give them. Plus, if you get really good at handling high-stakes conversations, you no longer have to put up with line cutters.
Somewhere in deepest rural America, a man driving along a dark, lonely stretch of country road blew his right front tire. After pulling over and scrambling out of his BMW, he walked to the trunk, opened it, and noted with disgust that his jack was missing.
After ten minutes of nothing but frog and cricket noises, our traveler concluded that he was on his own. It was then that he noticed that off to the west, across a long stretch of open ground, was a lone farmhouse. It was late, but there was a light on in the front window and surely the farmer had a jack.
After squeezing through a break in a barbed-wire fence and nearly tearing his silk suit coat, the fellow started his trek across the field. “People in this part of the country need to pull together just to survive the elements,” he imagined. “The farmer will be glad to lend me a hand.” (more…)
Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
“Call on me!” I quietly implored as I used my left arm to hold my right arm high above my desk. Miss McCloud, my first-grade teacher (and the most wonderful woman to ever walk the earth) had just asked the class to identify the color of the flower in her hand. I waved my arm wildly because I was confident in my answer. To be honest, I saw myself as a bit of a color savant. Plus, I really wanted Miss McCloud to admire me for knowing the correct answer so I could bask in the glow of her approving smile. Did I mention she was the most wonderful woman to ever walk the earth?
At that time in my academic career, I had been in school long enough to have figured out the three axioms of education: (1) questions have right and wrong answers and it’s good to give the right answer, (2) it’s even more satisfying to give the right answer after someone else has given the wrong answer, and (3) it’s pure bliss to give the right answer after everyone else has given the wrong answer. Then Miss McCloud really piled on the praise.
As the years passed, the axioms didn’t change much, but the nature of the questions did. By the time I was in college, the average query was far too complicated to be satisfied with a simple answer. I still raised my hand every chance I got in hopes of gaining attention, but rare was the day when others gave a flat-out wrong answer that I could easily correct in order to earn the professor’s special approval.
So I had to learn a new skill. I had to learn how to spot flaws in others’ arguments. Sure, my classmates would offer answers that were mostly correct (or at least correct in principle), but if I applied myself to the task, I could always find a flaw, point it out, and grab the spotlight.
When I moved on to grad school, I discovered that finding flaws in what others had to say wasn’t merely a rewarding hobby; it was academia’s prime directive. My classmates and I would sit in our Colosseum-shaped classrooms, listen to each other’s comments, eagerly spot a mistake, and then in gladiator fashion, swoop in and strike down the egregious logical lapse or factual faux pas. We were nit-picky, we were brutal, and we loved it.
Later, when I became a team leader, I used my growing talent for detecting mistakes by practicing what is known as “management-by-exception.” I wouldn’t say much to my direct reports when they were doing well—that would be disruptive. However, if they took a misstep, I’d speak up immediately so the problem wouldn’t escalate.
Raising children was no different. My eyes were drawn to mistakes far more often than they were to success. Nobody walks by two children playing quietly and praises them for playing quietly. It’s inconceivable. If kids are playing quietly, you don’t even see them, let alone praise them.
Once when I was working in Brazil, my “spot the error” routine was challenged. Dale Carnegie, in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, suggested that in order to be a decent human being, I ought to look feverishly for things done well and then offer up hearty approbation and lavish praise—not just once in a while, but all the time.
If this wasn’t radical enough, Carnegie challenged me to praise a total stranger, just to see what it was like. Of course, to follow his advice, I would have to spot something praiseworthy. And if anything should be clear by now it’s that I hadn’t been trained to see “things gone right.” For several days I looked for a praiseworthy accomplishment, but to no avail.
Then I finally struck gold. I was riding a bus through the streets of a small town near Rio de Janeiro. Inside my head Dale Carnegie was screaming, “Look for something good!” It was really annoying. Suddenly, the young man taking money for the bus fare caught my eye. He had a dreadful job. He sold bus tickets by winding his way through a crowded, speeding bus. People crabbed at him, the driver ridiculed him, chickens pecked him, and then there was the ghastly smell of a crowd of passengers who believed that bathing was for sissies. In spite of all this, the young man was the picture of professionalism.
I told him just that. I pointed out how well and quickly he made change. I mentioned that I admired his ability to keep his balance and remain polite and pleasant. And I meant it.
Bingo. I had done it. I had followed Carnegie’s admonition about approbation. Now what? First came a pause. The guy was thinking about what I had just said. Finally the young fellow smiled widely and gave me a big hug. Tears were running down his cheeks.
The bus employee introduced himself as Carlo Pereira. He explained that he had dropped out of school at age fifteen and worked as a ticket taker to help support his mother. I was the first person who had ever praised him, despite the fact that every single day for three years he had tried to do his best. Carlo then introduced me to everyone on the bus as his “American friend,” and from that day forward wouldn’t accept my money if I happened to board his vehicle.
Carlo’s devotion only grew. As I was walking down the street one day, he had the driver pull over and pick me up. Then Carlo told the driver to change routes so he could deliver me to the door of my next appointment—which, as you might guess, didn’t go down well with the other passengers. They were about to be transported blocks away from where they were originally hoping to go and were now threatening to cause Carlo bodily harm. Carlo didn’t care. I was the only customer he was concerned about. I was the only person who had ever complimented him.
Naturally, I was stunned by Carlo’s reaction to the heartfelt but simple praise I had expressed. But I later made sense of Carlo’s response. I learned that in annual corporate surveys, the number-one complaint of employees is always the same. Their leaders don’t recognize them for doing a good job. Since most bosses go through the spot-the-error educational system I went through and observe their own leaders routinely model management-by-exception, they also focus on problems, not success. In fact, generous praise isn’t even a small part of most leaders’ influence repertoire. Employees hate this lopsided treatment. They do their best work and look around to see if anyone notices, but nobody does. It turns out everyone is Carlo. Everyone is waiting for a heartfelt compliment.
And now for the punch line. You can be the stranger on the bus. Maybe you already are. But if you aren’t, or aren’t as often as you’d like to be, now is your chance. Supplement your talent for spotting problems with the ability to see things going right. Then break years of tradition and say something. Remember, be hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise. Not because you want a free ride for the rest of your life, but because Carlo is doing a wonderful job every single day—and he deserves to hear from you.
Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
On a generosity scale from one to ten—one meaning “painfully cheap” and ten meaning “delightfully generous”—my kids think I’m a one. For years I thought all the “You’re Number One” cards, trophies, and plaques my children gave me on Father’s Day celebrated my best-ness. It turns out it was code. They were mocking my cheapness. In fact, they think my entire generation is cheap.
Now, before you Gen Xers, Millennials, and other Post-Boomers join forces with my children in condemning my generation for being inordinately thrifty, take a walk in our slippers. See what life was like growing up as a teenager in the 60s. One look at a typical school day and you might replace your contempt for my generation’s penny-pinching with an appreciation for our financial conservatism. Stranger things have happened.
When I was in high school, I would get up every weekday morning and face the same question: Should I pack a lunch? My parents were unwilling to give me money to “throw away on fast food,” so if I wanted a noon meal I would have to make my own lunch—and it had to be sandwiches. This would have been fine, were it not for the fact that in order to save money, Mom generally purchased tongue, heart, liver, and other internal organs to be used as lunchmeats.
So here was my typical school day. I would peer into the fridge and immediately reject tongue. Whenever I ate tongue, I couldn’t figure out who was tasting whom. Heart and liver were also out of the question because the mere sight of them freaked out my lunch mates. If I went so far as to take a bite of, say, boiled heart on raisin bread, it caused an epidemic of shiver-gags. I don’t even want to talk about the scene a tripe sandwich could cause.
Later on as lunchtime rolled around, I’d be famished and, for reasons you now understand, without a sandwich. This presented me with the second question of the day. Should I take the quarter my parents had given me to ride the bus home and use it to purchase fast food? Or should I save my quarter for the bus and avert the hike home? If I sprang for fast food, my quarter would buy either a see-through milkshake or a tiny, pretend hamburger that contained no actual organic materials.
Given these options, I typically skipped lunch, but to no advantage. At the end of the school day, I would again face the “eat vs. ride” decision. Only now, a bakery that sat next to the city bus stop made the choice even more difficult. It sold (and this was just plain cruel) twenty-five-cent cream puffs.
While waiting for the bus I’d stare longingly through the bakery window at the delectable treats—fiercely gripping my quarter as if it were the key to Donald Trump’s safe deposit box. Eventually I would step out from under the bakery’s awning to see how hard it was raining. If it wasn’t raining too hard, and if the cream puffs looked particularly scrumptious, I would surrender my quarter, wolf down a cream puff, and walk home.
Oh yes, one more detail. I didn’t merely walk home. I walked home while lugging a stack of textbooks. I completed this feat (as did all teenage boys in the 60s) by cocking my right arm unnaturally high and tucking my books into my armpit as if to say, “Look at me and my many muscles that can easily hold aloft these heavy books.” This ridiculous balancing act was extremely difficult to maintain and made me think twice about walking anywhere.
So, if it was raining hard and I had a lot of books to carry, I’d have to be a nitwit to give up my bus fare—which, I’m ashamed to admit I did regularly because I adored cream puffs and possessed not a trace of willpower.
But not without consequences.
Once I had given into the allure of French pastry, I’d grudgingly hoist my books to their unnaturally high position in my armpit and trudge a mile and a half up the hill to my house. Within a few minutes a city bus would mockingly cruise by while the kids inside pointed and laughed at the self-indulgent sap lugging books up the hill in the rain. All of this took place because I couldn’t stand tasting a sandwich only to have it return the favor.
Now, keep in mind, this drama was about a quarter. Two bits. Twenty-five cents. You can only imagine what it took for me to spend a lot of money. I did earn money through various jobs, but every cent of that went to buying clothes. When it came to the frills, I had to skip lunch and walk home—sans the high-octane fuel of French pastry—often for days on end. For instance, during my senior year when I elected to go to the prom, for over six months I hungrily walked home in the rain, lugging my books like a stevedore. And while I did, here’s what I’d be thinking:
“Let’s see, my date wants a purple orchid to match her dress—five bucks (or 20 quarters). The prom tickets cost four dollars (16 quarters). Photos are another four. Dinner—please don’t let her order steak!—fifteen bucks (a whopping 60 quarters). Plus there’s the tuxedo and. . .”
I hadn’t thought about that prom until one day over thirty years later when my mother produced a piece of paper she had set aside the day after the dance. It was an itemized list I’d made of what I had spent. At the bottom of the list I had calculated the total dollar figure and divided it by the number of hours the date had lasted—revealing that the prom had cost me six dollars an hour.
I know, I know. The fact that I calculated how much the prom cost per hour brands me a hopeless cheapskate. Nevertheless, having just walked in my slippers, I hope you now understand my cautious ways. You know that as a young man I rarely had any money or a chance to get any. That is, unless I walked a mile and a half uphill in the rain carrying a stack of books jammed under my armpit.
So, dear friends, forgive me my frugality. Show patience as I—and others from my generation—ask the restaurant cashier for change for a quarter and then return to the table to leave an exact 15 percent tip. Smile knowingly when we refuse to turn on the air conditioning, buy discounted label-less cans, and wash and reuse the plasticware that comes with fast food. Take pity on us old codgers who, on occasion, can appear to be a tad cheap.
We have our reasons.
In January 1965, after living their entire lives in soggy Western Washington, my mom and dad packed up their belongings and moved to sunny Arizona. After enjoying the dry climate for several months, Mom wrote a letter to her father inviting him to close up the “mom and pop” store that he operated thirteen hours a day, seven days a week and come live with them in Tempe.
“We have a room set aside for you,” Mom explained. “And there’s a beautiful park nearby filled with men playing checkers and chess. I’m sure you’d love it here. Please come live with us.”
“It sounds wonderful,” Grandpa replied in a return letter. “It’s tempting to move to a place where it doesn’t rain most of the time, but I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. You know how hard it is for a man of my age to find work.”
Grandpa was eighty-five years old when he penned that response and he meant every word of it. He couldn’t conceive of not having a job and he certainly couldn’t imagine relying on others. He’d always been self-reliant. Orphaned at a young age, Grandpa was taken in by a relative who didn’t like him very much and, to remove any doubt on the matter, beat him regularly.
One day when Grandpa was ten, his schoolteacher began brutally spanking a small child in his class—there was a lot of that going on. This continued until Grandpa could take it no longer—he pummeled the teacher until the fellow fled the classroom. Needless to say, Grandpa was expelled for his efforts. While his caretakers brooded over what to do next, he packed his belongings into an old flour sack and set out from Dyersville, Iowa to live with his nine-year-old second cousin, May, and her parents—the relatives who had been kind to him when he had met them at a family gathering a few years earlier.
For several days, Grandpa trudged westward. For sustenance he drank from creeks, ate fruit from trees, and stole eggs from chicken coops.
“When we laid eyes on Billy [my grandpa],” May explained to me when I first met her many years later, “my mom and I were sitting on the porch drinking lemonade. At first, I thought it was a stray dog coming down the dirt road that passed in front of our house. I could barely make out a speck in the distance, but then I could see it was a person: it was a boy! The poor thing looked like he was going to collapse from the heat. As he drew close enough to see his face, we realized it was Billy. Mother and I ran to greet him, took him in our arms, and smothered him with kisses.”
After days of lonely effort—ten-year-old Billy had walked across the state of Iowa. Reaching cousin May’s house in Sioux City, he realized he was finally home. For the next eight years, Billy was loved and cared for by his cousins. When he graduated from high school, he left to make a life for himself.
For almost two decades, my grandfather worked at everything from trapping in Minnesota to playing cards on a Mississippi river boat—until he finally met my grandmother. He fell in love, settled down, and raised my mother and her sister.
Grandpa taught my mom to be as independent as he had learned to be throughout his twenty years of bachelorhood. He had learned to cook and sew, and do all things domestic—not as a point of pride, but from sheer necessity. So, along with housekeeping skills, he taught Mom how to swing a hammer and repair the plumbing.
By the time I was twelve, both my mom and granddad had passed the tradition to me. I’d come home from school to find Mom tearing out part of a wall with a crowbar in an effort to get a remodeling project on its feet. I’d then either help her with the project or make dinner before Dad came home to help complete the job.
This independence has served me well. I love the freedom that comes from being able to do things on my own. However, sometimes my desire for self-sufficiency morphs from autonomy to pride and pig-headedness—and that’s when it gets me into trouble. Strengths, taken to the extreme, become weaknesses.
For instance, for our 40th anniversary, my wife and I traveled to Paris where we signed up for a nighttime Segway tour of the city. From the very start, I could see that my wife’s night vision wasn’t up to the challenge of speeding along the Champs-Élysées on what was little more than an electric stick. Every few minutes, she’d zoom perilously close to a pillar or wall and I’d shout out a warning. But I didn’t dare ask to stop and return to home base because it would have ended the tour for everyone. So we continued on despite my nagging fear that something bad was about to happen.
And then it happened. Louise careened off a pillar, flew through the air, crashed to the cobblestone, and cracked her pelvis. For the next three days, I fretted and fumed over how to get her home safely. She could travel without it causing harm, but it hurt so much . . . well, I just didn’t know what to do.
After two days of fruitless worrying, and out of utter desperation, I finally approached our hotel manager and said something I almost never say.
“I need your help,” I nervously whispered. Then I explained our predicament.
“Yes,” the manager responded, “I can see your problem. I’m not sure how to solve it, but don’t worry Mr. Patterson, we will figure it out.”
And he did.
In my case, the independence I learned from my grandfather occasionally transmutes into “indepen-dunce” and keeps me from asking others for their assistance, even when I need it. Had I stopped our tour group and explained—”My wife and I need to return, but I also don’t want to disrupt the tour. Do you have any ideas on how to achieve that?”—I’m sure the guide and other tourists would have come up with five different solutions.
I know I’m not alone in my misunderstanding of self-reliance. At work, employees routinely avoid asking for help because they fear it might make them look weak. Perhaps you’ve seen a newly promoted boss refuse to say “I don’t know” because she’s a supervisor and believes that means she’s supposed to know everything.
For over sixty years, I’ve honed my abilities to stand on my own—as if that’s life’s one true measure of success. Since I learned independence at my grandfather’s knee, it’s not something I’m going to simply let go of—nor could I. Fortunately, that’s not required. I simply need to couple independence with an equal desire to both seek and give assistance. Stopping and asking others for help is not a sign of weakness or a character flaw. It’s a sign that we need each other. And that’s a good thing.
So, here’s to taking the dunce out of independence.
Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything.
It didn’t take long for a heated argument to break out. Dozens of us had just arrived in Yorktown, Virginia to undergo officer training for the Coast Guard—each of us armed with his own story of the ghastly treatment that was rumored to lay ahead. According to scuttlebutt, we were soon to be marched until we dropped, cursed at, threatened, and mentally taxed to the point where many of us would wash out.
And now for the bad part. If we did wash out, we would be denied the chance to become an officer, forced to sign a four-year enlistment contract, paid one-third of what we’d expected, and sent to Vietnam to die. Or so went the stories.
But then again, you couldn’t deny the pleasant experience we had just enjoyed. After we climbed out of cabs that transported us from the airport, we were politely ushered to the mess hall, where the officers on duty greeted us warmly and with dignity. One lieutenant invited a group of us to his dining table where he regaled us with inspiring Coast Guard stories.
Why, the silly rumors were wrong. This was going to be fun! Training was going to be like scout camp, only with gunboats and howitzers.
Or was it? We were actually given several clues as to what lie ahead. The beds we retired to that evening didn’t have a chocolate on the pillow. That couldn’t be good. A note on the table said we would be awakened at zero six hundred the next morning at which point we were to gather at the “grinder.” True, the term “grinder” sounded suspicious, but perhaps it referred to a coffee house where we’d toss back espressos while singing “Yo-ho, yo-ho, a Coast Guard life for me!” One could only hope.
The next morning, after awakening to a version of Reveille that could have easily drawn blood, we donned our civilian clothes for the last time and wandered out to the blacktop patch behind the barracks—the actual grinder—where we continued debating what was in store for us.
And then we heard it. A curious noise in the distance that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. At first I thought it was a pack of wolves. Emanating from the darkness came a feral roar accompanied by the sound of feet beating on the blacktop.
And then we saw them—those charming fellows who had greeted us the evening before—the kindly officers from dinner. Only this time, their faces were twisted into grotesque masks of hatred and instead of greeting us with a warm handshake, they charged at us at full speed while screaming orders that none of us could understand and all of us desperately wanted to obey.
It wasn’t long until we were all doing pushups, running with rifles held above our heads, lying on our backs doing an impression of a dying cockroach, and otherwise being pushed to the edge of sanity. Finally, at our first break (standing in line to receive inoculations), Jim Propopolis, the officer candidate from New York City who stood behind me, uttered four memorable words.
The evening before Jim had sided with the optimists in the debate by insisting that the training we were about to undergo was going to be pleasant, not dreadful. Now, appearing as defeated as is humanly possible, and with a Brooklyn accent you could cut with a knife, Jim exclaimed: “Da Jamboree is ova!”
Indeed it was. And so was the debate. The scuttlebutt had been right. We were about to descend into the seventh circle of training hell.
Now, I’ve told this story before—usually ending with a warning of how things are about to grow more difficult—you know, the jamboree or good-old days are behind us whereas the future is going to be more challenging. However, today I’d like to approach the incident from a different angle.
I eventually graduated from Dante’s training school, served three years in the Coast Guard, exited into the civilian world, and never looked back. That is, until one day over forty years later, when the Commandant of the Coast Guard asked me to speak to the top 1,000 leaders at a conference. At the end of my speech, I was presented with a yearbook from the class of 1971—my OCS class. I opened it and there staring back at me was a photo of my platoon. The rather haunting picture had been taken during the heat of that dreadful first day. We looked horrible.
As my eyes worked their way across the photo they eventually settled on the fellow in the bottom right-hand corner—Jim Propopolis. He looked worse than everyone else. He looked defeated. Four decades of consulting experience coupled with the entire cannon of organizational theory rushed through my head in a single flash of insight. With Jim’s image fresh in my mind, I wanted to go back to 1971 and attend OCS again; only this time, I wanted to get it right.
The first time through officer training, my colleagues and I botched it. With the threat of being sent to the front hanging over us, we turned into a group of selfish louts. When someone struggled with, say, celestial navigation, nobody formed a study group or offered tutoring. When someone had trouble squaring away their quarters, nobody taught them best practices. When a candidate washed out and was spirited off in the middle of the night, no one spoke of the fallen comrade. We studied alone, suffered alone, and occasionally washed out alone.
And when I say “we,” I mean “I.” I watched Jim Propopolis struggle and did nothing to help him. He was the only guy in our platoon who was willing to appear vulnerable and as you can probably tell from his “jamboree” remark, he had a much-needed sense of humor. He was also a bit of a train wreck. No matter how hard Jim tried to look spiffy, he always looked like a sack full of doorknobs that had been dragged through a swamp.
I worried about Jim. I even encouraged him, but I never actually helped him. It just wasn’t done. And when Jim eventually was whisked off in the middle of the night, nobody ever spoke of him again. The same was true for my other four platoon mates who disappeared to points unknown. Nobody said a word.
And so Mr. Propopolis, I apologize. You were right about the jamboree being over. We were about to face hard times and that should have been a call for us to pull together, not fall apart. I know I needed your help and I suspect you needed mine. But I didn’t know I could help. I didn’t know I should help.
I was young and frightened.
Imagine that. We were supposed to be learning how to be leaders who would eventually lead teams, and we couldn’t have acted more selfishly. Worse still, this gross misconduct wasn’t merely a military anomaly. A few years later, when I took MBA classes, students were purposely pitted against one another. Collaboration was actually punished. As a result, classroom combatants verbally accosted one another while secretly hoping for each other’s demise.
A few years later, when I was hired to consult with executives who had come through one of those MBA programs, what did I find? Silos. Leaders frequently worked against one another, spoke of others as “them,” and failed to support each other under times of stress. They were a mess.
Fortunately, over the ensuing decades most of us have come to realize that interdependent specialists need to collaborate—meaning we need to act like healthy teammates not combatants. And some of us do. For instance, that MBA program that used to encourage unhealthy competition has actually changed. A recent graduate informed me that students now share their notes, create study groups, tutor one another, and feel and act as if their teammates’ problems are their own problems.
This should be true of all workgroups. Everyone deserves to work with colleagues who have their back. And if that’s not your current reality, it should at least become your aspiration. Organizations should be havens, not gladiator arenas. We should learn together, grow together, and help one another. Challenges should unite us not yank us apart. And most of all, when the chips are down, we should be able to count on each other for help.
The following article was first published on December 15, 2010.
Thirty years ago, after landing my first consulting job, I could hardly wait to get started. For years, I had studied how to change the world and now it was my turn to roll up my sleeves and actually do something. The goal of this particular project was to take an adversarial, punitive, and authoritarian corporate culture and turn it into a productive, team-oriented place. At least, that’s what the plant manager requested.
“And I want it soon!” the agitated manager told me over the phone. “Or heads are going to roll.”
As I drove to the airport on my way to the anxious manager’s factory, I couldn’t help but notice a bumper sticker sported by several of my neighbors. The popular sticker stated rather immodestly, “Irvine: Another Day in Paradise.” Several hours later, as I exited the Wayne County Airport on my way to visit the client, I noticed Detroit’s version of the home-town promotional slogan on a sweatshirt: “Detroit: Where the Weak Are Killed . . . and Eaten.”
Later that day, as I interviewed hourly employees, I got my first glimpse into the rather un-paradise-like nature of the company I was supposed to help fashion into a paragon of cooperation. When I asked the question “If you ran this place, what changes would you make?” the employees immediately started ridiculing their leaders. At one point, they told of a supervisor throwing a heavy ashtray through a plate-glass window and then chopping up a breaker box with a fire ax—you know, to get his team’s attention. Later, during that same interview, a rather animated employee explained that the ashtray-hurling supervisor’s direct reports eventually grew tired of his shenanigans and one Friday afternoon chased him out to his car. When he climbed on top of it for safety, they lit the car on fire!
Then things turned from scary to complicated. As I interviewed a group of supervisors from whence this ashtray thrower came, they (much to my surprise) seemed reasonable and rational—nothing like the slavering maniacs their direct reports had just described. In fact, they appeared rather pleasant. The supervisors did share one thing in common with their direct reports. They had a bone to pick with their own bosses, the superintendents who, in their words, were authoritarian monsters. Of course, when I met the superintendents, they seemed quite professional, and—you guessed it—they pretty much loathed their bosses, the managers.
As it turns out, everyone at this rather frightening factory blamed everyone else for their problems and everyone—based upon the unprofessional actions of their bosses—felt justified in their own counterproductive behaviors. Why? Because everyone deserved whatever you gave them. And this wasn’t a problem unique to this particular factory, city, or region. As my career has unfolded, I’ve run into similarly violent and reactive places all around the country.
Not everyone lights cars on fire, of course, but the idea of dealing back what you’ve been dealt is still widely shared. It seems one of the values reflected in today’s video games, TV shows, and movies has left its mark. All encourage revenge. For instance, the longest running TV show of my generation, started with the “bad guy” riding into town, getting off his horse, spitting on a nun, and pistol-whipping a schoolmarm. Then, for a full 55 minutes, the good guys sought revenge on that pistol-toting bad guy, who, as we all knew, deserved whatever he got. And to this day, this same troublesome theme continues on the screen.
I recently mentioned our seemingly insatiable thirst for revenge to my next-door neighbor and he chuckled softly and stated, “I have the same problem with my own children. They’ll be in the middle of a squabble, I’ll ask one of them what’s going on, and my oldest son will invariably come back with, ‘It all started when he hit me back!'”
“It all started when he hit me back!” What a clever encapsulation of a contemporary malaise. As long as others mistreat us, we can mistreat them right back. Because, well, they deserve it.
I’ve thought about this issue for quite some time, and as many of you know, it permeates our writing. For example, the principle of working on ourselves first from Crucial Conversations suggests we need to think less about exacting revenge on others and more about our own style under stress. Equally true, maybe we shouldn’t mirror the very behavior we loathe. Transforming others into villains and viewing ourselves as heroes also fuels the fires of getting even. In short, in both our training and books we teach that responding to violence with violence is a bad thing, and I believe we’ve made some progress. In fact, in that first factory where a supervisor wielded an ax, leaders learned to effectively handle high-stakes, emotional conversations, and over the next two years violence decreased significantly.
Today, I hope to take this message to a new audience: children. Actually, I’m hoping you’ll pass the message along for me. I know, asking a favor deviates quite a bit from your standard business newsletter, and writing something for children—why that’s virtually unheard of. But it’s my hope that if we can set kids on the right path while they’re still young, they’ll be better prepared for the unrelenting stream of invitations to violence that will most assuredly assault them as they turn on their TVs, play their video games, go to movies, and eventually show up at work.
So, with the children in mind, and in the spirit of the holiday season, I’ve written a rather Seussian children’s tale that I hope you’ll share with the young ones in your world. It’s not about mistletoe, snowmen, and the like, but apropos to the season of love and tranquility, it shares a message of peace—the kind of peace one creates through a healthy and loving response to how others treat us, even when they’re being naughty, not nice. For this holiday, I plan on reading it aloud to my grandchildren. You might consider doing the same.