A Reflection on Teambuilding… and the Story of Edith

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?


Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leading Teams, Teambuilding, Uncategorized

25 responses to “A Reflection on Teambuilding… and the Story of Edith

  1. Wow wonderful article a good food for thought for the weekend review. Thank you for posting. It is not only our team members but also with the people that we interact on daily basis can help us to learn something new.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Rajeev ~ Yes, if we were to take a deeper interest in all of the people around us, regardless of their place in our lives, we might learn some surprising things. It’s something I’m working on anyway. Thank you for that and for taking the time to comment.

  2. I’m fully with you. Every team is made up of complex human beings with gifts, struggles and life concerns. Most of us want to be “known” a bit more at work. Many leaders shy I away from this. I have never regretted spending the time to go deeper.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Karin ~ I like the way you put it. “most of us want to be ‘known’ a bit more at work”. It makes me think that although going deeper is important, the amount and type of information we mine for will depend on the individual. While some will see our interest in them as engaging, others could find it intrusive. So, like everything else, the extent to which we attempt to ‘know’ someone has to be determined by their willingness to be known. Thanks for that!

  3. This is a touching and important post. I’d add that not only do we really know the people whom we spend so much time with at work; we often don’t allow their gifts to shine when we do. I’m reminded of a “community organizer” my organization hired in an attempt to improve inclusion. She was very frustrated when trying to use the same skills that made her such an attractive candidate. Thanks for the reminder to use everyone’s gifts.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Susan ~ Here’s what comes to mind for me when I read your comment. Sometimes we want to be seen in a certain light without actually having to make the changes necessary to really carry it off. I would hazard to say there are innumerable people who have been hired for a particular purpose only to find that the organizational ‘system’ gets in the way of their fulfilling it. So, as with everything else, realizing the benefits of ‘going deeper’ in our relationships at work depends on the degree of sincerity we bring to it. Thank you for bringing more thought to the conversation!

  4. sparktheaction

    Gwyn, very heartfelt story – I think most of us have our ‘Ediths’, people who we look past as we charge after our goals – occasionally we are fortunate enough to get to know them and hear their story. Thank you for the reminder –
    Appreciative of your work

  5. This post speaks to the very heart of “value”. I discovered early on that every human being is first and foremost, a human being. This humanness is what bonds each of us and provides us with an even playing field for our value and worth.
    When we put our successes, achievements and accomplishments ahead of our humanity and see ourselves as more valuable than another, I believe we loose more than perspective. By alienating ourselves from our humanity, we loose the opportunity to connect, marvel and grow more deeply from the amazing lessons the human spirit has to offer, just like Edith.
    Thank you for this post!

  6. “She didn’t care because we didn’t care.” That’s the line that jumped out at me. Some might argue that we should do a good job just for the sake of doing a good job, but it’s so much easier to go above and beyond when the people you work with take notice, both of your work, and of you as a human being.

    It seems simple and obvious, but judging from experience to many it’s not!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Leslie ~ Yes, doing a good job for the sake of doing a good job (and perhaps our personal pride) is valiant but very isolating. It’s also exhausting and unsustainable over time. It’s remarkable how the simple and obvious can be so elusive isn’t it? Perhaps, as Irene suggests if we were to put humanity first, the simple and obvious would be more accessible.
      Thanks for adding to the conversation! I’m always glad to see you here 🙂

  7. Ouch–this post reinforces why we should NEVER jump to conclusions.

  8. Rajiv Juneja

    Interesting true to life.
    We can’t see what is possible with little extra effort. Stars on earth !!

  9. Sara Grace

    After reading this article this morning, one of our top staff people whom I’ve just started to get to know came into my office. She is a single parent with three children living in an apartment that has serious mold issues. As a single parent myself, I understand her struggle and want to support her by caring and listening because I too have needed people to listen through my years of single parenthood too. This morning her lower lip trembled as she told me her mother is having surgery tomorrow who has been battling cancer for the past 13 years. If it is cancer, they now face the inevitable. The Executive Director of our organization knows her only as someone holding a low paying job in our organization and she recently told this woman that she sends too much stuff home with parents. Personally, I want to see everything my 13 year old does and I cherish many of the things he has made during the 13 years he has delighted my life. The point is, our ED sees us only as payroll expenses, line items on her budget sheets. There is not one engaged employee in our facility that employees over 50 women because she knows none of us but her dear friend the bookkeeper yet she complains daily that none of us care. Well your article says it all only she will read it and think it pertains to someone else. She often forwards your weekly blog to us hoping maybe it will make us rise up to the occasion. What it does do is show to us there are good people out there and that our time here is a lesson in how not to be as we search for new employment with people that care. Thank you. I love your blog and it helps me immensely.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Sara ~ I read your story with great interest, and some sadness too. It suggests there are more “Ediths” out there than any of us would like. Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, the signs that tell us we are missing something elude us. From your story, it appears your ED may be in this particular boat. I hope that collectively, you can find a way to develop a conversation that will allow you and your ED a way forward. Regardless, no matter what you choose to do next, I wish you well.
      Thank you very much for sharing your story and for your kind words.

  10. Hi Gwyn – this is a post with lots of salutary lessons – but the most obvious one being that the immediate supervisor seemed not to know much about someone who worked for him/her. Perhaps they were not the hiring manager and inherited Edith. She obviously worked many years in the organisation so must have made a valuable contribution in some way or other despite the loss of multiple Fridays. It’s all about scratching below the surface. Thanks for the good reminder.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Dorothy ~ in those days, the practice was for an isolated body of recruiters to hire people for vacancies in a variety of departments throughout the organization. It did nothing to develop either commitment or accountability from the various department heads or supervisors. They simply got who they got and were expected to work with them, almost sight unseen. Thank goodness organizations don’t do that any more ( at least I sincerely hope they don’t).
      When the hiring decisions are well-placed, I expect hiring managers would want to ensure the investment they make in people reaps a good return for the organization and the people in it. Although, judging from Sara’s comment, this is not always the case.
      Thanks for adding your thoughts here, Dorothy. You’re right of course. “It’s all about scratching below the surface”.

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  12. Beautifully told story, and so profound. I wish that everyone could read and “get” the opportunities that lay in front of us if only we would take the time to look.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Carol ~ Thank you! Yes,sometimes I think it would be wonderful if we had greater capacity to “reflect forward” so to speak.

  13. Pingback: A Reflection on Teambuilding… and the Story of Edith | You're Not ... | Offsite Events | Scoop.it

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