My wife and I enjoyed a long conversation today with a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, a barber’s son from the Bronx, an expert in communications equipment, and an enthusiastic electric bed salesman. It was all just one person, who shared a slew of stories with us as we weighed the pros and cons of buying a new bed that cost as much as a decent used car. He gave us almost three hours of his time, during which he remained entertaining, informative, persistent, and attentive. In short, he was almost a stereotype of a good salesman — except for one moment about halfway through our visit. He had left us alone briefly to attend to a customer near the front. When he returned, he was visibly agitated.
“That woman was the rudest person I’ve ever met!” he exclaimed as he rejoined us. Shaking his head, he said, “Some people . . . they see a clerk in a store and they just assume, ‘Oh, you must be dumb, this is the only job you could get.’ She has no idea about my 20 years of service, the people I used to lead . . . ” His spontaneous complaint elicited sympathy from my wife and me. Sure, it could just have been part of his salesmanship, but even if it was, we recognized that it reflected a common human grievance: the conflict between our desire to be seen by others as we feel we truly are, and the roles we take on in our work.
People judge each other by their professions and their titles. Often this judgment is based on what might be considered rational expectations. We expect that a doctor will be knowledgeable and intelligent, because we know that doctors must attend college and highly-competitive graduate schools. We expect that a Manager will have better judgment and skills than an Assistant Manager, because the Manager’s higher rank usually represents experience or reward for performance. But most people recognize that, while such generalizations are often correct, they are not always correct. There are some dopey doctors, and some exceptional underlings, who benefit or suffer, respectively, by being lumped in with their cohorts in the minds of others.
More insidious are the judgments people make based upon what might be termed “the assumption of minimal qualifications”. In Western culture, at least, it is often assumed that people will try to get the “best” job they can get, given their abilities. When this assumption is combined with narrow-minded definitions of “best” (e.g., highest in pay or status) and naive or willful ignorance of the oversupply of highly-qualified candidates in certain fields, it leads to the wrongheaded conclusion that everyone doing a certain job is only as capable as the least capable person doing that job. You work at McDonald’s, with high-school dropouts who can’t read? You must be no brighter than them. You work at a bed store? You are not even worth being polite to.
There is a good reason for people to refer reflexively to other folks’ workplace roles in judging what they have to offer. Efficiency in commerce depends in part on efficient information transfer, and being able to assume that people who hold a certain job also have the qualities it takes to get that job done is certainly more efficient than having to determine ourselves the qualifications of every employee we meet. When we think in those terms about the discord between what we know about ourselves and what the people we encounter at work think they know about us, the solution becomes clear. If you want people to understand what you are capable of, then speak up! Don’t hide your light under a bushel. You are not just a title; you are a book of stories that ought to be told. Part of the reason my wife and I were sympathetic to our bed salesman’s complaint is because he had already shared with us some of his personal and employment history, so that where the rude customer saw an unskilled peon, we saw a well-rounded, accomplished human being. Someone, in fact, we were more inclined to make a purchase from.
Correspondingly, if you want to better understand what the people you work with or purchase from have to offer, then don’t just equate them to their roles. Ask them their stories, and try to perceive what else they are besides their professions and their positions. You may find that you have unexpected resources within your grasp, just by opening your mind and taking the time to listen. And when people come to recognize that you do listen, that you are broad-minded enough to want to see who they really are, they may even offer you resources that they would not share with other people.
The best moment I had as a manager came when I was one of the leader of a very large and lengthy document review project, one that employed 60 temporary contract attorneys. Document review is the KP duty of the legal world, potentially as mindless and menial as peeling potatoes (although in truth it should not be treated that way). Thus, due to “the assumption of minimal qualifications”, contract attorneys doing document review are often considered dim and untalented by salaried attorneys. Given that hostile attitude, and, frankly, the unimpressive hourly rates paid, many contract attorneys respond in kind, simply doing the minimum work required of them without sharing much else about themselves.
One day, however, shortly after I had worked with other leaders of this project to institute a fresh set of protocols for the review of a gigantic new batch of documents, two of the contract attorneys approached me with some information. One of them explained to me that she had received her M.B.A. before going to law school, and had studied process management, and it was clear to her that the review protocols we had recently instituted were not as efficient as they could be. It was a busy day, and I had the authority to wave her away like a gnat, and for a moment I thought about how much easier it would be not to rock any boats. But at the same time, there was something ineffably thrilling about this unexpected presentation, like stumbling across a gold nugget or, better yet, like being handed a gold nugget as a gift. So I asked her to explain. With a few simple diagrams, she showed me a better set of procedures that would get us through the same number of documents — a number that eventually was in the millions — in about 20% less time.
This woman was clearly nervous about bringing her suggestion to me — I think, in fact, that that was why she brought a friend with her. And she had good reason to be nervous, given the customary view of contract attorneys as legal cattle, even among their employers. But I had always tried to treat the members of my team respectfully and attentively, and so this woman felt she could share her light with me. And although it was a surprise for me to discover that she had her M.B.A., I tried to remain open to her ideas, and in the end their strength and simplicity won me over. I brought her suggestion to the rest of the leadership team — with attribution, of course, as she deserved the credit — and, despite some resistance, convinced everyone to institute the new review procedures. They worked as expected. The client saved weeks of time and hundreds of thousands of dollars; the clients’ attorneys and the temporary agency they had hired looked good and could line up more business in the future; and I, the rest of the team leadership, and the M.B.A./attorney all received strong recommendations from our employer. A slew of good results, all of which were tied to that moment I can still recall, with the clarity of a sunny winter day, when that young woman had the courage to tell me her story, and I had the good sense to listen.