Let's build each other up (quietly)

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

Dear Hannah, I hope this note finds you well. I am writing with no big purpose in mind, just to be supportive of the amazing work that you are doing. If you have anything in my realm that you would like to share, I would be deeply interested. I am done with a busy couple of months and have space to encourage and support young scholars in our field who I think are doing such important work. So just sending encouragement and cheers from a distance. My best to you, Joan.


A friend of mind, Hannah (a pseudonym), was feeling discouraged about how difficult it was to get a job in her field and by the nasty behavior she observed among some of the people she knew who scored top jobs. She’s didn’t talk about it to many people, only close friends. She is ingenious, hard-working, and thick-skinned. She is also thoughtful, kind, and fun – the kind of person you would want to have around as a colleague. But a series of negative interactions with a few colleagues had been causing her to doubt herself and feel pessimistic about a career in which it seemed as though you needed to be ruthless to get a job and make a name for yourself in the field.


One day an email arrived with the note above, signed by a senior colleague in the field. Unsurprisingly, it buoyed her spirits immensely. Was the senior scholar clairvoyant? How did she know Hannah was feeling discouraged? Maybe she heard about Hannah from a friend of Hannah’s in the field who was concerned. Maybe she learned of Hannah’s great work and just wanted to make sure she knew it was noticed by others. Either way, this behind-the-scenes gesture of appreciation and admiration was important to her, more important even than public displays of appreciation, which can sometimes be tarnished by self-presentation motives, impression management, or the need to belong.


Quiet gestures like this are one way in which we can go "above and beyond" to make life better at work. The positive impact it may have can last for years. Some people believe “culture is how you act when no one is looking;” while I don’t agree (culture can be manifested both privately and publicly), behavior such as the one described above is particularly noteworthy because it can facilitate a closer connection between two people, one that is intimate and potentially more authentic.


We all have days when the negative aspects of our work seem to dominate. Even people who seem successful and happy on the outside may be harboring hurt and doubts underneath. (Indeed, these may be the people who need it the most; everyone assumes they must already know how awesome they are but they, like most people, probably rarely receive positive feedback.)


A coauthor of mine, former University of British Columbia professor, the late Peter Frost, noted, “There is always pain in the room.” Who in our work life could benefit from a note or email like the one transcribed above? If we assume everybody hurts sometimes and everyone could use a boost every now and then, surely there is someone whose life we can brighten a bit today.