December 29, 2004 in Business

The choices: complain or get to work

Tim Mcguire United Feature Syndicate
 
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I heard this parable the other day: Three women walked into a public restroom to find the water running. They complained loudly and continuously about the horrible people who left that faucet on. They kvetched about the insensitivity of the horrid perpetrators. On and on they griped. What, indeed, was the world coming to?

A fourth woman walked into the restroom, looked at the running faucet, and turned it off.

There are complainers in this world, and there are doers.

Some people are happiest when they can belittle, gripe and wring their hands. They seem to revel in misery and fault-finding. They could run every enterprise and every life better than they’re being run. Just ask them. Their own lives are often a mess, but that fact usually escapes them.

Then there are people who get things done. They don’t call attention to themselves or the problems. They simply act and accomplish.

Most of us admire the doers. We know they are crucial to our workplaces and to our social and family structures. Sometimes our evil twin entertains a little resentment, but for the most part we value them and respect them. That value and respect, however, often results only in admiration. We stop short of copying their admirable, action-oriented behavior.

Recently, a friend of mine told me a story about Mike, who went to Seattle to visit a friend. Mike encountered an old priest who got up early every morning, made peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, and walked downtown and gave them to the homeless.

Mike was moved by the old priest’s good works. So, when he got home, Mike wrote the priest a check and sent it to him saying it was to help his ministry. A few weeks later, Mike got the check back in the mail with a note written on the check – “Make your own damn sandwiches.”

Few of us really want to make our own sandwiches. We want other people to get their hands dirty with the tough, hard details of life and work. We stand around and watch the water run from the faucet and it never dawns on us that we have to take the responsibility to turn it off.

Last year, my wife, Jean, was in a large hotel with a busy coffee shop. The line was long. Chaos reigned. In the middle of the crisis a “man in a suit” stepped in, and to my wife’s eyes, made the entire situation worse. He issued irrelevant orders and made inane observations. An employee tried to steer him toward a useful, working role, but he insisted on playing “boss.”

He obviously believed that his title made him smarter and more insightful than anyone else, which to an observer such as my wife was folly. It’s almost certain that the employees deeply resented the man’s actions. They knew he didn’t know their job better than they did. When he acts as he did, it inevitably angers and frustrates them.

The man would have accomplished so much more for customers, and for his employees, if he would have found a coffee-making function that contributed to the overall efficiency of the operation. Instead, he had to play what he perceived to be his “management role.” When managers and leaders separate themselves from the work of the rank-and-file, rather than making their contributions a part of the overall work product, they are failing as leaders.

Leaders and employees need to recognize that “doing” work is a key part of creating fulfilling work. Kibitzing and complaining destroys. Turning off the faucet and making the sandwiches can lead to a productive and contented workplace.

Tip for your search

Make a scorecard for next week. Make two columns. One is for every time you take an affirmative action and actually accomplish something. In the other column, keep track of all the times you complain out loud or even kvetch silently about how “rotten everything is around here.” If you keep an honest scorecard it will become obvious whether you need to make changes in your attitude and approach.

Resource for your search

“First Things First,” by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill, Rebecca R. Merrill (Free Press, 1996).


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