My son and I were having a conversation the other night about being self-aware. Not being a jerk. How it’s sometimes difficult to assess your own perception of yourself. Is what you think about yourself correct or are you guilty of the less flattering view held by others? It’s only natural to pick your own more flattering view. After all, we know ourselves better than anyone else, right? Maybe, maybe not.
If my assessment is one thing and ten other people say it isn’t so, it’s unlikely they’re wrong. There’s almost no question it’s me who’s wrong. I told him my extra years of life experience have taught me this, again and again. “Yeah”, he sighed, “I can see that.”
I have a tendency to move through our building with my head down. Our space is a few offices but mostly cubicles or open workspaces. People don’t need to hear from me or make eye contact or whatever every time I walk past. I’m somewhere inside my head. I’m focused on my own work and not getting in the way of anyone else doing theirs.
People have made “jokes” occasionally about it. “Yeah, I’m fine. How are you?” when I walked by not having spoken to them at all. I would sort of laugh it off and think “oh, c’mon, nobody wants me to talk to them every time I walk by”.
I’m sure it’s true that no one expects me to speak every time I walk down the hall, but it has become my trademark. Not necessarily in a good way. Two things happened to get my attention. The first was when a long time employee, who isn’t in the office very often, stopped by my office one day asking if I was mad at him.
“What??? Of course not! Why would you ask? You know I think you’re amazing.”
“Because the last time I was in the office a few weeks ago you walked by me twice and didn’t speak.”
Thought bubble over my head. “Oh shit.”
This happened over a year ago. Since then I’ve been trying to be more mindful of my interactions in these frequent treks down the hall. I’m more social and approachable than I used to be but it turns out not as much progress has been made as I thought.
The second thing: I recently came into the office one morning with a very deliberate round of “good morning!” to all. Our office manager gave me the “what got into you?” look. I explained I was still working on being a little more aware, a little warmer in my interactions in our common spaces.
She barely covered a small smile and almost eye roll and said I shouldn’t worry about it. She told me she explains to people not to take it personally when I sweep by. It’s just how I am. OUCH.
This seems like such a small thing. But it isn’t. What I intend as not interrupting or not calling attention to myself is perceived as indifference or worse, arrogance. I can explain all day long that at a fundamental level, I have fairly crappy social skills. Talk about how the small, informal courtesies don’t come to me naturally. Who cares? What people experience is that I walk by them and don’t speak or glance their way. It seems indifferent or arrogant. As a result, I become less approachable.
In truth, I am approachable. My door is open. I’m a good listener. I’m responsive. But since I’ve communicated by my behavior, day after day, how I don’t even see you, well…I don’t seem very approachable. Sometimes there will be an opportunity to chat with an employee who doesn’t know me very well. They’ll end up surprised at how easy it is to talk to me. This is not a good thing.
- Indifference or arrogance isn’t pretty on even the best leader.
It doesn’t matter if I’m not indifferent or arrogant. If it walks like indifference and talks (or doesn’t) like indifference, it’s essentially indifference. Or arrogance. Neither one builds bridges.
It doesn’t take a lot of work to change others’ perceptions. I’ve learned to slow down, make eye contact, smile, say good morning, nod my head at someone if they’re on the phone. Small gestures speak volumes.
2. You’ll never uncover all the wisdom of those around you and your work won’t be as good as it can be.
When I have occasion to work on a problem with someone I don’t typically work with, I realize how much I’m missing.
We have an employee who I knew to be very competent, based on what I’d heard her direct supervisor said. I’d seen her in the office dozens of times, but had never stopped long enough to talk with her. She was the primary person involved in the care of a man receiving hospice services. In the midst of his decline, a significant miscommunication occurred. She was the one who had to pick up the pieces. While trying to sort everything out, I had several conversations with her.
We needed to develop a protocol so the next time we work with hospice, we’ll all be on the same page. I had some ideas about what it needed to include but hadn’t started writing it. I ended up asking her about it. She quickly outlined everything that needed to happen in the future. Several of those things would not have occurred to me.
Even though she was the one involved with the problem, I only asked her because we had a relationship by then. If I hadn’t gotten to know her, I would’ve written the protocol alone. It would’ve been fine, but it wouldn’t have been comprehensive.
How much other un-asked for wisdom is out there?
3. You won’t be as good a person as you can be.
As humans, we’re better when we’re connected. Whether it’s as life partners, friends, acquaintances or colleagues, we’re better — happier, healthier, wiser — when we’re connected. We build and grow through our relationships. We tell stories about ourselves and learn each others’ stories. We weave them into our own defining narrative.
A professional network is more dispassionate than a social network, where the connections are more emotional. That doesn’t mean the emerging stories contribute with any less meaning to the richness of life.
I think about what I’ve gained from the people who were my leaders over the years. If they’d walked on by, I would be less than I am now.
Be present with everyone in your workplace. Make them better. Make you better.