The virtue of pride


I know, you’ve heard it before, pride is one of the seven deadly sins, pride goeth before a fall. But let’s take a look at the first dictionary definition:

pride |prīd| noun1 a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements, the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired: the team was bursting with pride after recording a sensational victory | a woman who takes great pride in her appearance.

And that is the first definition! It’s only when we go down to the third definition that we get to:

the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s importance: the sin of pride.

During my career as a manager and as a leader of startup ventures I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what motivated people. I felt if I could understand those drivers I could then try to nurture them, as a motivated team is a productive and winning team. From observing software engineers, writers, graphic designers, and other creative people it appeared to me that pride in their work was a major driver. If you divide the world of motivation between extrinsic and intrinsic, as many people do, then pride seems to be an intrinsic motivator. What can you do in building a startup culture to nurture an intrinsic motivator? From what I observed it appeared to me that recognition was one way to nurture pride in one’s self an pride in one’s work. And at least in the technology and publishing fields, peer recognition seems more powerful than other types. Pride can take as it’s object things other than the self: pride in one’s team, pride in one’s profession, and pride in one’s company. All forms need to be recognized and supported.

I was reminded about the subject of pride in Saturday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal. For those not familiar with it, I highly recommend the Review section, which tends to be chockablock in well-researched and well-written articles about not just business but the arts as well. One intersection of the arts and business that fascinates me is architecture. And one of the architects I admire is Renzo Piano. Thus I found the article For Architect Renzo Piano, a Career Devoted to Making Elite Institutions Accessible of deep interest. Renzo Piano sees his work as a funny mix of dreams and aspirations’ but also ‘very pragmatic. But it was the concluding paragraph of the article that most resonated with me:

No matter the project or country, he says, the creation of a building requires one crucial thing: pride. “Of course you also need competence and talent,” he adds. “But pride is the most important.”

I wish that the author had delved into that comment rather than leaving it hanging. Pride is more important than competence and talent? It sounds outrageous at first glance. But once I thought about it I realized that competence and talent are necessary, but not sufficient. Without pride in one’s work, one’s team, one’s company, and one’s profession talent will go unexpressed. As a manager you can attempt to hire for talent, but it’s a natural aptitude and hard to measure. There are of course traditional ways to measure talent: resume accomplishments, portfolios, references. But I found that one good interview question was, “What are you most proud of?” I wasn’t so much concerned about the what, but that the candidate was energized by the question and reacted to it positively. Whether they were product of a product they had a hand in shipping or an athletic award didn’t matter. What did matter was that pride was at the surface, not something they had to dig for, or worse yet, were ashamed of exhibiting, pride as a sin versus pride of accomplishment.

As a manager, especially in startups where we were inventing things on the fly, I often found I had to deliver feedback to someone that they might consider as negative. As a perfectionist, without innate people skills, it took me a long time to learn how to deliver what could be construed as criticism without demotivated the recipient. I knew that criticism was not generally an extrinsic motivator; people seemed more motivated by praise and recognition. So there were two techniques I found useful. One was that old dependable, the Socratic Method. Rather than making a bold statement that there was something wrong with a team mate’s work, such as, “How did you miss that horrendous bug in the latest release?” as delivered to the manager of our quality assurance department, a question was more effective. Elliot, we it looks like a serious bug slipped through the latest round of testing. Is that right? How can we insure that doesn’t happen again? What’s the best way to do that – revising our testing procedures? What do you think?

Rather than criticizing someone for a mistake I found it more productive to enlist them in finding a correction, solution to the problem. I always tried to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, minimize assumptions. Verify that a problem is indeed a problem. I appealed to their pride of workmanship and their pride in their team to fix whatever problem was called to their attention, to be energized by recognition that they were talented, they were a problem-solver, and whatever glitch had appeared wasn’t going to be fatal to the company – far from it.  I wanted them to know I could count on them to correct the problem, whether it was a flaw in a QA testing procedure or a miss targeted marketing campaign.

Building a culture of recognition, where pride is seen as not a sin, but a virtue, can help enable the talented to bloom. Accomplishment and recognition are self-reinforcing. Rather than criticizing someone by saying, “Is that the best you  can do?” try appealing to their pride, “I know you can do better. How can I help you?” I believe everyone wants to be proud of themselves. Appeal to that pride and you will get people going above and beyond, and that’s part of the secret sauce that helps tiny startups defeat the leviathan incumbents, where extrinsic rewards like salary, bonus, title, office space, number of direct reports etc. tend to dwarf harnessing the intrinsic drivers of talent, curiosity, and pride.


Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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