Zen mythology is filled with stories where the disciple asks a pivotal question and the master’s response causes him to see things clearly. Frequently, such insights are triggered by the student being slapped with a stick or wooden slipper.
I was reminded of this when a friend told me that things are fine at work, that she feels competent and liked, but that her boss doesn’t “approve” of her. Try as she might — and regardless of her coworkers’ and customers’ accolades — the one in authority causes her unhappiness. Have you asked your boss for feedback? I asked. When I ask “how am I doing?” he tells me that since nothing negative has come to his attention I must be doing a good job. End of conversation.
In behavioral modification (which began with pigeons in B.F. Skinner‘s laboratory and continues to influence the practice of counselling, education, and management) such a response is called negative feedback: punishment is withheld as long as a desired behaviour is exhibited. In order to be rewarded, the subject has to figure out, by trial and error, which behaviour is acceptable. Positive feedback, on the other hand, involves reward for desired behaviour and no punishment for mistakes.
It’s important that your boss likes you, I mused. Yes, but why this need for approval? My coworkers assure me that I do good work and, in my heart of hearts, I know that to be true. So, I pushed, what is it? A moment’s pause and her eyes teared up: I’m longing to be loved, yet discount my own truth: all because someone in authority won’t say “you’re a good person.” Bingo!
image (top): Bodhidharma, early 5th century Buddhist monk credited with bringing Zen (Chinese: ch’an) from India to China.