Seeing Ourselves

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us! / It wad frae mony a blunder free us, / An’ foolish notion!”  -Robert Burns

Burns’ famous quote is far better known than its source. It comes from a poem entitled “To a Louse,” in which he pillories a self-satisfied society lady with a head louse strolling across the back of her bonnet. Art often imitates life and almost certainly provides commentary on human foibles, so there is much to be appreciated in the poem.

Though not as poetic, The Reaper, a short-lived TV series, features a main character who had been released from Hell to collect escaped souls and return them to their uncomfortable quarters. (It was better than it sounds.) Captured souls were returned to Satan at a specific counter in the local DMV, all with proper documentation , of course. Fairly or not, “The DMV” has entered our vocabulary to symbolize procedural roadblocking: choose the wrong line or bring the wrong paperwork, and you go back down the slide–a kind of organizational Chutes and Ladders exercise.

The DMV certainly has no monopoly on the practice. Several years ago, I had the unfortunate experience of trying to file for damages to a handcrafted canoe. Since the problem had occurred during shipping, the adjuster almost gleefully peppered his conversation with “tare weight” and “bill of lading,” and other terms that are obvious to people in the industry and nearly incomprehensible to others, while seizing on misunderstandings as proof of his company’s total innocence. The claim was never honored.

Most readers can no doubt provide some other examples from the workplace. It is, after all, a universal challenge of cross-organization collaboration. Central administrative staff tend to view operations staff as not caring about their need for timely data in usable formats. Operations staff, on the other hand, may wonder aloud if the central employees care at all about the real mission of the organization. Both parties tend to throw up procedural and linguistic roadblocks. Both may have some basis for doing so, but both are looking at the wrong thing.

Defusing these situations depends on a mutual understanding that the focus of most of our work life is likely only a small percentage of the wrokload of the person on the other side of the equation. Accounting staff may have to come to terms with the fact that submitting prompt and accurate cost reports is a very small part of a sales person’s set of priorities. The sales person, on the other hand, can’t count on the account technician recognizing what to him/her are significant data when the data have mnimal daily impact in that department.

There are abundant techniques–from job trades to simple meet-and-greet events–that can help people to take a broader view. Regardless of how it’s done, it’s critical that, rather than playing a blame game, we all understand that if our–or someone else’s work–is worth doing at all, it is worthy of respect. A degree of empathy for the position of the other party will go a long way toward resolving issues.

Evidently, leadership is, in many ways, the opportunity to see ourselves as others see us. Robert Burns understood that part quite clearly.


Fast Foreword: 
by Steve Baker