Monday, March 16, 2009

Who Is In Control?

"The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech." Edwin H. Friedman  
Excluding those not incapacitated or with severe disabilities, people have it within their power to adopt attitudes that gives them a sense of control and mastery over their life's situations. Attitudes are beliefs and feelings that predispose a person to respond in some preferential manner. A person's attitude has within it the power to change traditions, and attitudes can direct people to value objects and situations that help them reach their goals.
Who is in control? Attitudes are the only real freedom a person has. Too often we view our situation as a confinement, a feeling that our life is controlled by others or by the situations in which we find ourselves. "What can I do about it," we ask, "so and so holds all the cards." Control is one of those dynamics in life that is ever present. Realistically, no one is in total control of their situation or circumstances, but to give up total control to others is like sitting down to a chess match and knocking over your own king, in effect giving the game to the other person, before the first move is made. In most situations, people can choose an attitude that gives them even a small amount of control over their own destiny. Exerting that attitude is a belief in oneself that I hold some of the cards in this game.
Let me give you an example: my very first job out of college, with a brand new bachelors degree, was working for a department store as manager of the Men's Department. For me, it was a job-in-waiting until my security clearance came through for a government job, a real job. One of the tasks we had to perform, on a fairly regular basis, was straightening out and re-folding the garments that customers would handle and leave in a mess on the counters. Unattended, the counters would not only look unattractive but would make it difficult for other customers to find what they wanted.
One of my employees, Mrs. Soper, was there long before I came and would be there long after I left. I mean after all, she had to have this job. Little education, single mother with two teenage children, who themselves had dropped out of school, struggling to make ends meet. After one of those busy sales periods, several counters were in total disarray. My attitude was to let my night person come in and do the straightening. I looked around the area and found Mrs. Soper working at one of the counters. I thought that the least I could do was to work with her and get at least one of the counters of merchandise in order.
As I began the task of straightening and re-folding the garments, I noticed how Mrs. Soper went about her work: she took each garment and laid it out so that she could more easily find the original folding creases in the garment. Folding the garment along those lines, she would complete the fold and put it in a pile according to size. My approach was to take each garment and hold it in front of me and with a twist of the wrists fold the garment and stack it on the counter. She obviously saw how I was doing things but didn't say a word other than the polite small talk between us.
We finished the counter and Mrs. Soper told me it was time for her break. As she gathered herself together to leave for the break room, I asked her if she would mind if I asked her a question. She said she didn't and I asked her this: "Why do you take so much care, with so much concern and detail, to the folding and straightening of the garments when you know that it will have to be done tomorrow and the next day?" She replied to me without hesitation: "I like to think that if I put a little more careful effort into making the counters look attractive, where the choices of the garments are easier to find and select, more sales will result and I will be able to keep my job. I know this isn't the greatest job in the world and that the customers will always mess these counters up, but what I do will make them neat again and the customers will come back." I never looked at Mrs. Soper in the same way again. With that attitude, she brought some control into her 8-hour day in one of the most humdrum of jobs in the retail industry. She wasn't the victim of customer's sloppy behaviors. With her attitude she took control of her work and gave it a purpose.