the need for constant praise

A humorous exchange from Slate's advice columnist, Prudence:
Dear Prudence,
I'm an ambitious recent college graduate. Six months ago, I moved to Washington, D.C., and was lucky enough to land a well-paying job with great career prospects as an assistant at a law firm. The problem is that one of the partners I assist is particularly challenging. She's intelligent and distinguished, but she is also a perfectionist. She's an extremely daunting supervisor—especially for a legal neophyte and nonperfectionist like me. I'm functioning in high gear all day long, but I struggle to keep up. What's worse is that she is heavy on the criticism and light on the positive reinforcement. A simple mistake like forgetting to put the "Northwest" at the end of a Washington, D.C., address in her appointment schedule will set off a string of negative interactions, while a perfectly orchestrated event will maybe muster an e-mail saying "Tks." Our exchanges often leave me fuming yet stuck without a venue for venting. At what point can I turn to my boss and say, "Hey, I need things to be different around here" without sounding like an ingrate for the great opportunity that I have.

—Deterred in the District

Dear Deterred,
At any point, you can turn to her and say, "I need things to be different around here." She will likely agree and respond, "Let's start by having you clear out your desk by noon." Sure, your job's daunting, but you have chosen to work in a high-pressure field in which every detail counts. (And if she has an appointment, she doesn't want to get in a cab without knowing what quadrant of the city she's headed to.) You may have picked up by now that people don't get to be top partners at law firms because of their "Don't worry, that's close enough" and "Let's put it off until maƱana" attitudes. But it turns out your frustration with your boss is part of common generational miscommunication. Jeffrey Zaslow had a column in the Wall Street Journal describing young workers' need for and expectation of constant praise, and how some employers are realizing that they'd better be generous with the stroking if they want to retain them. But the essential problem for you is that given your boss' personality and demands, she doesn't think "I'm a nonperfectionist" excuses you from doing things perfectly for her. You've only been out of school for a few months, so why don't you think of working for this partner as legal boot camp? It's going to be tough and sometimes unpleasant, but if you stick with it, you will come away with a set of skills no amount of flattery will provide. And when you get one of her "Tks" messages, realize it's the equivalent of getting a smile out of a drill sergeant.


1 comment:

Catherine! said...

hah! the inevitable result of a school system that improves self-esteem through compliments rather than accomplishments.