The Widdershins

How’s your bucket…

Posted on: May 24, 2013

There’s a line in Steel Magnolias, one of my favorite movies, where Olympia Dukakis (Clairee) is imparting some fashion Dipper and Bucketwisdom to Daryl Hannah (Annelle) during the Christmas Party scene. Clairee tells Annelle, “The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.” There is one other thing I would add to Clairee’s wisdom — the ability of humans to say thank you.

Giving recognition and expressing appreciation is vitally important to happiness and success — there is even a positive correlation to overall health and well-being from receiving recognition. Over 65% of workers report they have had no expression of recognition or appreciation in their workplace within the last year. According to the Department of Labor, the number-one reason people leave their jobs is because they don’t feel appreciated.

A few years ago I was working with a national group of leaders. There were about 35 people in the room. During the first 30 minutes I would lay out the framework for the next three days. This particular session was based around Positive Psychology — concentrating on what is right with people in terms of their natural talents instead of traditionally trying to “fix” what’s wrong.

The room was set up in a large horseshoe configuration where I could walk and be able to look directly into the eyes of the participants as we talked. As I was telling these folks each of them had unique talents and strengths, a professionally dressed lady of a certain age just started bawling — I’m not talking whimpering here, she was loudly sobbing. I was taken aback. What had I done? Someone crying after just thirty short minutes with me was a new land speed record.

As any good teacher should, I went directly to her, bent down to look at her face to face, and said, “What can I do right now to make this better?“ And what she said to me in that instant will remain with me the rest of my life.

She said, “You don’t understand — these are not tears of sorrow, these are tears of joy — no one — in my life — has ever told me — there was anything good about me.”

No one in her abusive early family structure, no one in her adult family structure, no one at work, no one in her community — no one had ever told this wonderfully successful lady, this human being, that she mattered. Tragic — just utterly tragic!

Thank youSince that time I have shared the theory of The Dipper and the Bucket with as many people as possible. Simply put, each of us has an invisible bucket. It is constantly emptied or filled depending on what others say or do to us. When our bucket is full, we feel great. When it’s empty, we feel dejected and hollowed out.

Each of us also has an invisible dipper. When we use that dipper to fill other people’s buckets — by saying or doing things to increase their positive emotions — we also fill our own bucket with positive experiences. But when we use that dipper to dip from others’ buckets — by saying or doing things that decrease their positive emotions or self-worth — we diminish ourselves.

Every drop in our personal bucket makes us stronger and more optimistic with a positive outlook and renewed energy. An empty bucket poisons our outlook, saps our energy, and undermines our will. That’s why every time someone dips from our bucket, it hurts us just as every time we dip into someone else’s bucket it diminishes us. In short, keep your bucket full and keep your dipper out of other people’s buckets.

Physiologically, our brains don’t record our lives as one long, uninterrupted movie. It is a series of snapshots or “moments” each day. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist estimates everyday we have about 20,000 moments lasting a few seconds each. We should strive to have as many of these moments be as positive as we can.

One way to fill our own buckets, those of others, and increase our daily positive “moments” is to recognize others by simply saying thank you. Not the mechanical, expected, social contract “thank you” we are taught as children, but recognizing those who have done their jobs perfectly. For servers, clerks, sales people and just about anyone who  treats me courteously and effectively, I use these dozen simple words, “In case no one tells you today, you do your job perfectly.”Restaurant table

One time I happened to tell a young restaurant server he had done his job perfectly. By coincidence it happened to be his birthday and he proceeded to tell me his life story of dropping out of school, being abandoned, drugs, etc., but he had turned his life around, was employed, was in school, and most importantly, was drug free. I got his phone number and assured him he was worthy and on the right course.

A year later I called him on his birthday — he was still in school, employed, and drug free, but he said, “You are the last person who told me I was important and that I counted — you must have meant it. Thank you.”

It is I who was grateful since my bucket and my eyes were overflowing.

This is an open thread.


7 Responses to "How’s your bucket…"

This is a beautiful post Prolix. We so often forget how much work validation effects us, and raises, or sadly, often diminishes our sense of self-worth in our busy- work, corporatized, phony thank-you culture. I’m thinking of all the retail and food workers I see during a week as I travel around, who’ve apparently been told by their corporate bosses to conclude their transaction with me by telling me to “have a good one>>”. A good what, I always wonder. It obviously means have a nice day, but when did passé teenager slang become the corporate norm? I think I’ll just start responding, “thank you for doing your job so very well”. Imagine working in a place where you are forced to demean the customer’s very day to a generic nothing? Imagine the corporate overlords thinking this is ok.

Apparently none of us are being thanked or acknowledged because our corporate overlords have either forgotten the meaning of a simple, sincere recognition of another person, or are deliberately choosing to demean us all into non-persons with non-days. That way, we’re sure to be so emotionally empty we’ll buy and eat more stuff.

Mary Luke, first thank you. You’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head about corporate spiels — somewhere in a cubical someone has mined data and seen that a perfunctory coda to a meal transaction is some sort of epilogue without having enough trust in their employee to know what the right thing is to say.

There’s quite a bit of science around recognition in the workplace — it is never, ever, one-size fits all. Recognition needs to be tailored to the individual — some people are motivated by money, some by time with their families, some by vacations, some by being trotted across the stage at the annual Christmas party, but the secret is having a manager who is in tune with their employee enough to know what kind of recognition is important.

What an impressive and inspiring post Prolix!

I have a question though: I’ll assume these people were in managerial/leader positions, so did any of them share how they treated their subordinates?

I have had managers/supervisors who not only dipped into my bucket, they stole the whole damned thing. That’s one of the reasons I loved my dawg. She made my bucket overflow.

Oh and if you want to see another bucket stealer check out this jerk:

@3, Fredster, yes, most of the people with whom I worked were C-level executives and managers. Fortunately, most were there to get better at their jobs and so they were open to “how to do it better.”

Occasionally, I would get someone who would say, I just don’t know how to give recognition to someone? Or my recognition hasn’t really been appreciated? My reply to them would be simple, “Why is it that you don’t know your employee well enough to craft recognition that is significant?” Of course, the answer was almost always that they were deficient in their abilities as a manager.

To be truly significant recognition, it has to be tailored to the individual being recognized — recognition is not one-size fits all. It has to be timely. It has to be specific — nothing like I want to recognize you for being a good human. It most likely should be written — if you write it you’ll think about it. Recognition doesn’t have to be public, some people hate the idea of public recognition — some people thrive upon it. You’ll find the higher the level of competition, the more public the recognition is that they crave.

If a manager is a bucket dipper (and there are tons of them out there, in fact, on balance there are more bad ones than good ones) he/she is ill-suited for his/her role. That is a whole other aspect of this mosaic — a fun fact that is telling — people never leave companies or organizations, they leave bad managers.

“Why is it that you don’t know your employee well enough to craft recognition that is significant?”

Heh, there’s a lot of that out there.

I also think the written aspect of it is important. That gives the employee something tangible to hold on to. The Navy was always good about awarding “attaboy” recognition to the military and civilians.

Wow. That was beautiful, Prolix! That illustration will stay in my head.

Thank you Annie — here’s hoping your weekend in SoCallie is a great one!

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