Ok, it has been a tough week for me, but I need to get back into things. I recently was catching up on listening to some of my older webcasts. One in particular from back in early 2009 caught my ear and I thought I would share some of the insights I got with you. The specific webcast was part of the TED Talks series and was presented by Barry Schwartz. It was a very passionate presentation because Barry really believes in the importance of his topic. However, I know people who would call him angry and mad, unable to control his emotions, and danger to have around ‘real’ people. Unfortunately, these people don’t understand the difference between passion and anger. That is too bad, because passion is often what drives progress. Well, let’s see what Barry says.
Barry began by talking about the typical job description. Most jobs simply list the things that the individual should or sometimes should not do. They rarely if ever go into interpreting the way the person in that job should interact with others. Oh sure there are simple comments like the employee should work well with others, but what does ‘work well with others’ really mean? Does it mean that the employee should simply follow the rules given to them by their boss and walk lock-step like an android with never any additional thought about why the rules are there or whether there should ever be a reason to disobey a rule.
Barry tells several stories such as the janitor who stopped mopping a floor at a hospital even though he was told to get it done now because he saw a patient trying to walk up and down the hall with a walker after an operation. Another hospital employee refused to vacuum the carpet in the waiting room because there were some people in the waiting room who had been up all night with a sick relative and were trying to catch a little nap before going back into their family member’s room. While these were hospital related examples, I remembered them because I related to how nurses would come into a darkened room in the middle of night and turn on the bright lights just to take a patient’s vitals. Can’t they have a lower wattage night-light rather than waking up the patient every 2 hours? I thought sleep was suppose to be healing? Can’t the vitals be obtained remotely? Or how about the buzzers and alarms on the electronic equipment at night? Do they really have to be that loud? Isn’t it possible in this day and age to have them automatically signal the nurse’s station or send a text message directly to the nurse’s cell phone so they can get the message no matter where they are?
Where is the kindness, caring, and empathy in today’s world? Where is the moral will to do what is right rather than simply what some procedure says to do or what will cost the least amount of money? Having to make many phone calls to various people lately I can tell you that I am sick and tired of answering machines that pick for people that are either not at their desk, on another call, or simply do not want to answer that say, “Your call is important to us. Please leave a message and we will get back to you as soon as possible.” Four hours later you might get a call back. Sometimes it is the next day. In either case, I have to ask how important was my call to them really?
A wise person knows when to ignore the rules and when to improvise for the greater good of the customer, patient, or client. They treat rules as guidelines, but not absolutes, not as limitations. They depend on their experience to choose the better path.
Barry then goes on to tell the story about a father and son at a baseball game. I actually remember seeing this in the news. The son was thirsty and wanted a lemonade. The father went to the concession stand and bought a Mike’s Hard Lemonade which was a relatively new product at the time. He really did not know this product had alcohol in it. (I see you snickering.) Anyway, he brought it back for his son and an employee of the stadium saw the boy with the lemonade and called the police. The father was arrested and they tried to move the boy to foster care. It took two weeks for things to be straightened out and the father reunited with his son. The point is that a simple conversation could have solved the issue without all of the expense of an ambulance, police, courts, foster homes, judges, and more. Wisdom would have solved the problem in minutes while procedures cost everyone time and money for what was a simple mistake.
Brilliance is nothing without wisdom. Even the most brilliant person can look stupid if they don’t apply their brilliance to know when and how to apply rules. Take away a person’s ability to think and just blindly follow rules and you take away the growth of their moral skills. Furthermore, too many rules can lead to stagnation. Providing incentives on top of those rules takes away a person’s understanding of doing what is right unless they are paid for doing it.
Barry also maintains that we all need to build character starting with students in our schools. We need to teach them how to respect themselves, how to respect their school mates, respect their teachers and staff, and respect learning. Everything, he maintains, follows from that.
Is Barry right? Perhaps. At the very least, it should make us pause to consider. All I can say is that it is all about what you do and how you do it. Practical wisdom, not blind obedience to rules, will help you make a positive contribution. That type of wisdom does not require brilliance, but it does require practice building your moral skill and moral will. If your organization does not support you building those skills, then even the best employee forced to constantly swim upstream will give up and never really soar with the eagles.
Thanks Barry for a very insightful presentation.
C’ya next time.