These days we talk a lot about ‘Team’. Indeed, we have come to appreciate the value of teamwork, collaboration and engagement much more since, through technology, the World became small.
I’ve been thinking about this…and also about Edith.
Edith was a clerk among a myriad of others working in the International Department of the very large bank that employed us both.
Back then, I was a Personnel Officer, although it was a role much more akin to Police Officer than anything else. And Edith was a pain in the neck.
She was notorious for not showing up for work on Fridays. Long weekends seemed to suit her, much to the chagrin of her manager. Her excuses were priceless.
Once when asked about a Friday absence she remarked,
“ Well, on Thursday I went to the cafeteria for lunch and they were serving fish. They only ever serve fish on Friday. Naturally, I thought Thursday was Friday, so the next day, thinking it was Saturday, I didn’t come in”
All the time I worked with Edith, I thought her to be an often cantankerous, rather silly woman. In my youth and to my shame, I looked down on her. Her job performance was not particularly remarkable and her eccentricities, of which there were many, were a source of both amusement and great irritation.
Edith retired at the mandatory age of sixty-five. She went happily into the sunset without my, or her manager, ever really understanding who she was or what we might have learned from her. That kind of thing happens when you’re arrogant, when you look at people, not as people, but as employees…bums on chairs.
Recently, I happened upon Edith’s obituary. She died in her 97th year. This is what I discovered about her.
She was a woman who had endured hardship all her life. When she was very young, she suffered a complete memory loss, something that even the strongest among us might have difficulty coping with.
In her middle age, while also working for the bank, she was caring for an “erratic” mother and living in a farmhouse with no electricity, heating or indoor plumbing.
Later, she married a man who was a refugee, someone who had lost his entire family in Europe during WWII.
Together, they worked to acquire property, without incurring debt. They did this through, what was described in the obituary, as a shared philosophy of “mend and make do”. In the end, this approach helped them amass a winter home in Florida, a family home in Toronto and some acres in Muskoka.
So what is my point? It is this.
A team is made up of people. It is the leader’s job to learn as much as possible about what those people are capable of bringing to it and to encourage their willingness to do so.
Had I, or her manager, stopped for just a little while to look deeper, beyond Edith’s dowdy appearance and eccentric ways we might have seen a creative woman with great business sense and a steely determination to achieve her goals. We might also have seen someone capable of fierce loyalty and resilience…. all skills that any team would be glad of. But we didn’t. And our opportunity to capture Edith’s attention and draw from her experience was lost. Instead, the performance she gave at the bank can only be described as sufficient unto the day, a means to an end. She didn’t care because we didn’t care.
So if you think that seeking depth as well as breadth in the relationships you build at work is just a warm and fuzzy thing to do, I invite you to think again. There is gold beneath the surface to be mined. What you find could be more than useful in helping you build a focused team bent on achieving its business goals.
As for Edith, she may or may not have responded differently had we behaved differently toward her. But we’ll never know will we?
That’s what I think anyway. What do you think?