Photo by Scott Ableman via Flickr
In the movie '12 Years A Slave,' a woman is sold to one slaveowner while the trader rips each child away to separate masters.
The woman goes to the same plantation as Solomon Northup, the main character in the movie, who was drugged and kidnapped, beaten and stripped and sold like cattle.
One scene shows the woman sitting on the steps of her shack. She is bent over, one arm wrapped around a wooden pole, and she is crying heaving endless sobs.
Northup is determined to survive and her broken heart is catching. He cannot eat his food and he yells at her to stop.
She says to him, do you think that you are better than me?
He is startled by her response.
She says to him, do you think that because you are talented and smart and build things for the master that he will do well by you?
Northup insists that he will survive. That he is doing what it takes.
She says to him, you do not get it. He presents himself as a caring man, a liberated thinker. But he is taking your work and I don't see him giving you equity in your achievements. Much less getting you the free papers he obviously knows you deserve.
It gives you a different perspective on praise.
For one thing it's not enough to tell people they are doing a good job.
Performance awards and certificates are nice, but the real thank-you is an opportunity to do what they love more often, and to advance into areas where they contribute the most to the organization.
It goes without saying that people who take the credit are disgusting.
Another is, you can't heap praise on people but keep them in terrible working conditions. It's easy to see what those are when you're talking about a plantation or a factory. But in the modern workplace there are lots of things that cause people stress.
Even the sound of someone's grating voice, day in and day out, can literally drive a person nuts. There are reasons why so many people live their entire working week in headphones, especially in today's open cubicle world.
Let them tell you what is wrong so that you can do your best to fix it. The conditions have to facilitate good work.
Finally, if you're allowing cruel or incompetent people to proliferate throughout the organization, it's not fair to say to someone, "You're a great employee...can you cover this?"
No, they cannot cover it. They can cover what they are supposed to do.
In the end productivity comes down to a simple formula: purpose (what are we doing here), process (how are we doing it), and people (the mind that drives the body to do the work). If we really want to support amazing performance, we should make sure that our people are supported - not exploited, not abused, not treated like inanimate things.
* All opinions my own.