Sarah the director, the boss of my boss, said to me, “We need to meet some time today.” At the end of the day, after most people had left, we finally had time for me to go into her office. The nice thing about me being a long-term employee is I don’t get scared at the dreaded “come into my office” call. I scooted up a chair. She gazed at me and said simply, “The staff is not working as a team. What can you do about it?”
After a beat I said, “I don’t believe in team building exercises… because, as we say in the rehabilitation field, the learning is not generalized” (into the workaday life) Sarah agreed, reminding me about her own dreadful experience in team building. We laughed. Then we put our heads together.
She shared some recent observations. Some was trivial, like people passing by a growing stack of garbage, but some was serious indeed. As we swapped opinions, thoughts and old work stories, what was coming out of my mouth, I noticed, were mostly stories.
Sarah said, “ At the staff meeting I could give you 15 or 20 minutes.”
I said, “I think I could tell the staff stories…if done properly, it should only be ten minutes.”
“What ever you want to do.”
I smiled to see Sarah using Management 101: Tell the man what results you want, and by when, then let him decide how to do it. Still, I was pleased she felt safe in confiding and assigning this project to me.
So, after an introductory proverb, I told the staff stories from my life, then bridged with Stevey’s job candidate interviewing story, then applied the stories, still using “ ‘I’ statements” to some disguised not-so-hypothetical “what if?” scenarios at work. I tied up the package of stories by repeating the proverb. It all went well. I won’t relate, here in this essay, my job-specific stories of what I expect from a strong team, but here are some life stories about planned responsibility.
Long before cellular phones or GPS I was a young man in Germany. One day I wondered: What to do? Someone said I could go to Stuttgart. He said the city has a big beautiful zoo. “You could get there through a big beautiful park, just follow the signs with the elephant.” So I went.
I found the park and it was beautiful. I walked along a broad sidewalk with a wide flowerbed all along the side. However, I never made it to the zoo. The people of Stuttgart were not beautiful. I watched them streaming along the sidewalk ahead of me while in the distance, lying in the flowers, was what appeared to be a body. As I drew nearer I wondered: Could that really be a person I see? A person that everyone is passing by? Drawing still nearer, as part of the flow of people, I wondered: What will I do when I catch up? Will I pass on by too? As it happens, I went on past for ten feet, then made a U-turn. It was an old man in grey.
The fellow spoke English. “Give me hand, laddie.” Only one person stopped to help: he was a white haired old man. I suppose this says something about the modern generation.
The reason I stopped to help, without any tense horrible wondering "should I or shouldn’t I “get involved?”" was that I had made my decision in advance, years ago, that if ever I saw a body, or had a chance to help a stranger, then I would accept responsibility.
Another story. There still aren’t very many audible walk signals in our city; everyone knows the signal at city hall. The very first one was at the crossing between the university campus and the Vocational and Rehabilitation Research Institute. (VRRI) At the time the VRRI (now called Vecova) had several sheltered workshops for persons with developmental disabilities. Incidentally, It was during my first contract working there that some of the handicapped clients showed me how to get from the bus loop, in the south of the campus, to the crossing, by going around from building to building to avoid the fierce prairie cold. Every day hundreds of healthy students would have seen the clients using the audible crossing to get to “the V.”
And then one morning, as I walked to work, unaccompanied by any clients, the audible signal was not working. In fact, the entire set of traffic lights was out. Of course the healthy students could pause, and then run across the road, but what were the clients to do?
So I walked over to “the V,” told the receptionist, and went straight to a telephone. I phoned city hall, got patched through to the relevant department, and told the news.
“Thank you Sir.”
“Has anybody else phoned it in?”
“No sir, you are the first.” ...So much for healthy students and other VRRI employees.
The reason I stopped to telephone was that I had made a decision in advance, years ago, that I would not assume that somebody else had taken responsibility.
Another story. One day my grade nine science teacher starting telling us about blood. Although blood was not even on our curriculum, he told us how the human body had six quarts of blood. This was before metric. He reminded us that if you pour a teacup full of milk on the floor it would spread out and seem like such a lot. Yet a teacup is only a fraction of six quarts. So if ever you come across what seems like a lot of blood… don’t panic.
One day he was walking with his wife down the sidewalk and they found a little crowd gathered around an unconscious woman. Her blood, a little more than a teacup’s worth, was running along the gutter and down the storm drain. This was before cell phones, or 911, or fire station paramedics. He and his wife walked on by to a nearby payphone, figured out which hospital was nearest, and phoned in the news.
“Did you know that there is a woman down…?”
“No! We didn’t! ... … Thank you, sir. God bless.”
My teacher changed my life the day he told us that story of accepting responsibility, of not assuming that everybody else would take action.
Today I avoid any twisted up tension, any will I/won’t I... any should I/yes but… as my decision is already made in advance. Call it planned responsibility. It’s healthy. I feel more like a grown up… less like a victim and more like a citizen.
And I get to talk with Sarah.
November of 2010
~ Stevey’s story of job candidates wishing to be cogs in a machine is quoted as part of my essay The Borg Want Jobs January 27, 2012
~ David Gerrold’s Chtorr War series, about an ecological infestation, is an extended meditation on individuals, teams and whole nations accepting ever increasing responsibility. My native Canada, for example, accepts the challenge to subordinate itself to the North American Operations Authority.
~As I write this our US cousins are squawking about their airport “pat downs” and their Transportation Security Administration. As far as I can tell, they aren’t accepting responsibility. Unlike adult citizens, they are resorting to a stunt, as would minors in a boarding school, namely the stunt of having a "nobody fly day." Rather than accept ownership of their government, rather than imposing calm corrective oversight through their congressmen, they are squawking like chickens. I call this a “victim mentality.”