Recently, a store manager made a mistake on my order. Though important, my order was not time sensitive. I happened to be in the store to inquire about my order, and he discovered the mistake. It was an oversight, but with little consequence, so I shrugged it off. However, the manager apologized profusely, was embarrassed, and truly felt bad. I probably would feel the same way if I were in his shoes. I kept reassuring him that it was no big deal, and his follow-up action was quite adequate. Could I have responded differently? Acting indignant, throwing my displeasure around, or chewing him out? None of this would help one iota for what I needed and it certainly would not have helped him. Besides, I genuinely felt upbeat about the situation, once identified and addressed.
This was a very small incident. To paraphrase Bill Cosby: I mention this story in order to tell you the following story, which took place in mainland China in 1985.
PRC China in 1985 had just barely opened to the “market economy;” by western standards their idea of “customer service” was still in an embryonic stage. Everywhere I went, the bigger the entity (stores or organizations) the thicker the bureaucratic hide. I was checking in with a receptionist/desk clerk at a hotel in Shanghai; my reservation was through the Academy of Sciences (their equivalent NSF, National Science Foundation). The clerk could not find my reservation at all, and was unpleasant about being inconvenienced to work on my behalf. My temper and her irritation were rising and our voices became louder. All of a sudden, there was an internal shift in my perspective and I vividly remember thinking, “This poor clerk, in the Communist system, has no clue whatsoever what ‘customer’ means and how to ‘take care of’ a customer.”
In a split second, I dropped my voice, and said, continuing in my perfect standard Chinese, “I am sure you are getting tired of being told what to do. I really need your help. Can you think of ways in which we can work together to resolve my dilemma?” (There is such a thing, “perfect spoken Chinese.”) I still recall her facial expression, first shocked, then befuddled, resigned, and finally softened. She called the Academy of Sciences and in less than five minutes, I was able to fill out all necessary paperwork and check in.
This is not the telling of a self-congratulatory story. In my younger days, I was definitely a much shorter-tempered person, and had had my moments of indignant, self-righteous, and “bitchy” customer-is-always-right behavior. However, my mother’s insistence on civility has saved me from time to time. And a little empathy helps too. I have been trying to glean lessons from this profound (to me) episode. I am afraid I have to repeat my mantra: There are no 12-step programs when it comes to educating people to deal with social issues, especially in a situation that calls for thinking on one’s feet. I think possessing basic civil manners is important.
Another attribute that can help is raised awareness. I generally eschew awareness-raising programs and workshops, either as a participant or as a facilitator, for a simple and important reason. We can never tell, with certainty, how effective a program may be; the long-term causal effect is too tenuous to measure. Besides, this type of program always exudes a make-believe atmosphere. However, I will say this: being keenly aware of social issues (such as, diversity, thinking in others’ shoes, or sensing the emotional temperature in the room) will come in handy when situation arises. Precisely because we cannot predict when a situation will occur that taxes our skill set, preparation is important to thinking on our feet and responding quickly. Raising awareness makes sense. I just wish I could envision different educational programs with that goal in mind while not driving people, including myself, batty.
What can a manager do, catching a direct report dressing down a colleague from a support unit? She cannot undermine her own direct report’s authority nor can she take sides against the colleague whose support she (or, her organization unit) needs from time to time. She has to intervene quickly, dissipating the tension without raised voices. How about, “Hey, friends don’t bite.” Something like this once did take place, and the outcome was a noticeable drop in the tension. What worked? Civility, multifaceted awareness (of group dynamics, personality, delicate balance, future cooperation, to name a few), and a sense of humor.
I don’t know what specifics I can offer, or what programs I can recommend for this type of thinking-on-the feet solution. Yet, such dealings are what we all have to learn in our everyday lives, at work, at the grocery store, at school, etc. I can only think of sharing stories as a way to “raise awareness.” So, please share some of your stories. Till next time,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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