The day before yesterday I needed a very specific service at the local branch of my bank. This task typically takes an experienced German banker with a good working knowledge of English 5 minutes, but with it being December 30th, few employees were in and they sent me a young trainee. After she made two major exchange rate mistakes in the first minute, I noticed that I was on the verge of becoming the customer from hell. I watched her every move, silently, but notably double-checking every number and word. Two typos later, I inhaled, looked at her and said “I appreciate you haven’t done anything like this before. It must be really hard to do this under the scrutiny of a customer. Let’s work together. I know the English words that need to go into this form and you know your systems. That way, we both learn”. She visibly relaxed and made no more mistakes. Actually, she did not need my help after all. Just my tangible belief that she could do it. Looking at what she typed in support of her, not to find fault. The transaction completed, we both laughed and genuinely wished each other all the best for the New Year. People will always live up or down to your expectations. George Bernhard Shaw’s Eliza Doolitte famously concludes: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not in how she behaves, but in how she is treated”. If we signal that we believe others to be capable, the so-called ‘Pygmalion effect’ sets in. They positively surprise us. My own New Year’s resolution is to treat more people around me even more consciously as if I knew that they are capable of doing it just right. To go around aiming to actively catch people doing the right things right and to contribute to an atmosphere in which they can demonstrate just how competent they are. It was a humbling experience for me. It is so easy to be dismissive or to take over to a degree where the other feels humiliated. “Let me help” can be said with contempt, haughtiness or with genuine desire to support. I was so focused on my need to get it all done quickly, that I ignored the impact of my impatience on her. Retrospectively, I could have put her at ease a lot quicker. I could have used a technique that I often use in coaching. When people tell me that they were just ‘too daft’ to do something exactly the way they would have liked to: building the right kind of network, handling a really difficult colleague when he flies off the handle, forming a genuine team out of people who have historically been at each other’s throats. I get them to list the mistakes they could have made, but didn’t. This often leads to laughter, as I keep asking, “What else could you have done to make this worse – but didn’t do?” All of a sudden, what they did do doesn’t feel so ‘daft’ any more. It often had a really good, sound reason. It just wasn’t leading to the expected outcome. Yet. They are back in control. We all heard the Henry Ford quote: “Whether you think you can, or that you can’t, you’re usually right” so often that we fail to really listen and thereby miss its profound truth and the responsibility that comes with it.
Happy New Year – you can.