September 2021

The Little Things We Do

Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services

If you’ve ever watched a science fiction show or movie or read a science fiction book, you know that time travelers must take extra special care with the timeline. Any action, however minor, could completely change the world as we know it. Writers use this plot device to ponder a plethora of “What if’s.” Some send their time travelers back with good intentions — to right a perceived wrong, such as a premature death or a natural disaster. Others explore a malevolent motivation, where the time traveler hopes to profit in some way by the change. Many others simply imagine the effects of unintentional influence — accidentally preventing your own parents from meeting, for example.

While the premise of time travel may seem far-fetched, the idea that our actions, no matter how small, shape the future is not. I recently saw a Facebook post to that effect — pondering that people readily accept that small changes in the past timeline could greatly impact present situations, but fail to see the corollary that small actions today must therefore have a great impact on the future. While clearly a politically motivated post about the actions the worldwide community has been asked to take in pandemic times, it nevertheless rang true with me in the grander scheme of things.

On a small scale, I often curse “past me” for a current situation that I find myself in, and in the same day or even the same hour, will make questionable decisions with the thought that “future me” will figure the rest out. On a larger scale, I think we can all look back on our lives and identify key pivotal points that shaped us — if I’d made another choice, if an event hadn’t happened, if an outcome had been different, my life would not be the same. We may have regrets, or we may be thankful for the way things turned out, but we recognize that those choices and events made us who we are today.

I recently had the occasion to ponder these pivotal points in my own life as I attended the retirement celebration of my former youth pastor. As a teenager, I certainly wasn’t the most popular person in school. I was teased. I didn’t fit in. Nevertheless, this man saw my potential, and despite the apparent strikes against me, he gave me the opportunity to be a leader within my youth group, putting me in charge of various events and assigning me to the care of a subset of others in the group. Because of his simple act of trust, I grew in confidence and learned that I could still have an influence and make a difference, even if I wasn’t “perfect.” I truly believe my success today as a businesswoman and industry leader has its roots in these important lessons.

It wasn’t a big leap to then contemplate what have I, in turn, done to similarly encourage and influence others. Are there people who would identify my influence as pivotal in their lives? Carl Sagan once asked,

“Who are we if not measured by our impact on others? That’s who we are. We’re not who we say we are, we’re not who we want to be — we are the sum of the influences and impact that we have, in our lives, on others.”

I would venture to say that although his point applies to all humans, it is even more profound for leaders and, in fact, an important characteristic of great leadership:

“Leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence and making sure that impact lasts in your absence.” Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook

We, as managers, have a great responsibility to recognize and bring out the potential of the people we’ve been entrusted to lead. A kind word can help confidence blossom; a thoughtless comment can tear it down. We know that, and yet it seems inherent in human nature to find fault more easily than to offer praise. Of course, our job as managers includes correction and guidance to help our staff grow, but constant correction without encouragement wears on an individual, to the point that the top reasons people give for leaving a position are often less about compensation and more about not feeling valued, not being recognized, or not being trusted.

Perhaps in information development management, this human tendency is even more pronounced. Consider a critical part of our everyday workflow — the editing process. At its heart, its purpose is to identify weaknesses, to call out things that are incorrect, don’t meet our standards, or are difficult to understand. I find I always can point out ways to improve someone’s work, but typically fail to take the time to praise what was done well, perhaps thinking that it is clear that if I didn’t make a comment, the work was well done. But the absence of criticism is not praise; it’s a silent void of uncertainty, where self-doubt can fester and grow.

To have a true impact on those we lead, our voices must fill that void with explicit affirmation. Beyond the casual “good job” or smiley face emoji, we must be both specific and sincere; for example:

  • You have a really good understanding of the needs of our audience.
  • It’s evident that you’ve taken the time to internalize our writing guidelines.
  • You’ve built a fantastic relationship with your SME.
  • I appreciate that you always contribute your ideas in staff meetings.

It’s also important to quell the tendency to add a “but” to the end of these affirmations. When praise is followed by criticism, it counteracts the intended outcome. Compare the approaches that my youth pastor might have taken:

  • Dawn, you have great organizational skills, but you need to work at how you present those skills so you aren’t perceived as being a know-it-all.
  • Dawn, you have great organizational skills. Let’s give you a chance to really shine in that area by having you plan our Sunday night activities for the next month.

We are not Mary Poppins, and if the spoonful of sugar is simply to help the medicine go down, our recipients will soon learn to loathe sugar. Let praise stand on its own, or even better reinforce it with trust and autonomy. While words can be impactful, actions magnify the impact. I doubt I would credit my youth pastor for profoundly influencing my future had he simply told me I had the potential for leadership without also being given the opportunity to experience it. It was the words paired with commensurate trust and responsibility that demonstrated the compliment was more than simple lip-service and that helped me recognize those skills in myself so I could not only accept them as true but also learn to exercise and grow them.

Simple, sincere praise freely given inspires loyalty and continued excellence, and ultimately, builds a culture of praise, where team members feel not only valued by you as manager, but by their peers who have learned from you to “pay it forward” and express their own appreciation to their colleagues. It starts with you. How will you change someone’s future with your actions today?

About the Author: Dawn Stevens, is CIDM’s Director and President of Comtech Services. She has 30 years of practical experience in virtually every role within a documentation and training department, including project management, instructional design, writing, editing, and multimedia programming.