At Thanksgiving, you and I can and should be grateful for our colleagues, writ large – everyone with whom we work. What follows is mostly personal, but the larger takeaway message, up-front, is simply this. Thanksgiving and its brief respite from work provide opportunity to experience gratitude for the fuller context – the entirety – of our lives. But that includes the occasion to reflect on what a great debt we owe our coworkers in particular – extending to our bosses and others who might work for us – and how deeply grateful we are for them. The way work plays into your life story will necessarily be different from its role in mine, so please make it personal. As you reflect, you’ll find that even with respect to work’s darkest moments, there was and remains room for gratitude.
The personal part: We’re dealing with thanksgiving the act, and with Thanksgiving the event, in the context of work. You may be forgiven for failing to notice the fine print in the previous two LOTRW posts on this topic. Part 1 spoke to scientists as a “community of scholars engaged in common search for knowledge,” and how that phrase held magic for me and was a lodestone from junior-high on. But Part 2 mentioned that some thirty years later, my NOAA work was “all physical science and engineering, all the time.”
(Hmm. “community” vs. “all-physics… all the time;” putting it kindly, isn’t that at best a contradiction, Bill?)
Yes – a contradiction, and perhaps worse. Looking through life’s rearview mirror, I recognize this with painful clarity. For the first three decades of my life, I knew about the importance of people largely as an abstraction. I saw treating others as if they mattered more as a superficial skill to be learned and plastered-onto the way I did life, rather than the essence of life – of living (as in living on the real world) itself.
(What changed, Bill?)
Curiously enough – and this goes back to being grateful for work as well as other spheres of life on Thanksgiving – one triggering event was making the transition in 1973 from bench scientist at a NOAA lab to a manager of a group. That same year I took a five-day R&D-management course at a Denver hotel…
…One particularly memorable module was taught by the Director of Personnel at Texas Instruments. He entitled his talk “People and their value systems.” He told us
that the people who worked for us were individuals and therefore motivated in different (individual) ways. (I know what you’re thinking, but remember, we were scientists and engineers, and this was 1973, and we were not a particularly diverse or enlightened group – virtually all young to middle-aged white males. We needed to hear this!)
Here were his categories.
- Reactive. Remembers his phone number but not why it’s important.
- Tribalistic. Doesn’t care whether working conditions are good or bad so long as they’re the same for everybody.
- Egocentric. Works only because he has to.
- Conformist. Cares most about following organizational policy and procedure.
- Manipulative. Work is all about finding clever ways to get things done even if that means – or especially if that means – bending the rules.
- Socio-centric. Forget the goal of the work per se – it’s all about relationships (remember – “flower children” were very much with us back then).
- Existential. Work’s all about big-picture, inherent meaning, self-actualization.
(In addition to taglines, he had vignettes for each of these, which is why I remember this catechism with clarity even to this day.) He then went on to say that “seven-categories” was of course arbitrary as well as an idealization, and also that we and our workers were blends of these. Lastly, he said that each of us tended to blend primarily the even-numbered or the odd-numbered values.
A small light went on. I was one of his odd-numbered guys!
A second light went on. A lot of other people weren’t!
I realized that if I was going to be an effective manager, I’d have to get a lot better at understanding what motivated people (both up the chain and down – not just the people who worked for me but also my bosses), listening to them, understanding their vision for what our group should be doing and why, reconciling their differences, seeking win-win, etc. At first, I still saw this more as an additional superficial “skill to be learned and plastered-onto the way I [already] did life, rather than life’s essence,” but as time when on, and I practiced this skill more and more, it became an ingrained habit more than a tactic, and it ultimately morphed into an integral part of who I was.
I became a new person.
Two other events factored into this. In 1989, Steven Covey published his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. To say this book was popular is to understate. It sold 25 million copies! But it was not any single Habit so much as Mr. Covey’s global motivation for writing the book that made the biggest impression. He said that a century earlier, success literature had focused on the importance of values (integrity, industry, fairness, etc.). But the years just prior to 1989 had seen a shift from emphasis on values to manipulative techniques. He decried this, and wrote his book to bring the conversation back to fundamentals.
And, thirteen years prior, in 1976, I met my wife. Appropriately, given this context, I met her at work – to be more precise, attending another course, this one on time management.
That had implications that are the subject of the next post.
In closing, on this Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for each and every person I’ve ever worked with or for, and for each and every person who ever worked for me. You know who you are! You’ve shown me what it means to be human, first by example, but also by word – whether encouragement or rebuke or a blend of the two, I’ve needed and benefited from it all. I’m thankful not just for what you’ve done for me, but what you’ve done and continue to do for every other person in your circle of influence. You alone would be reason enough for me, and others, to celebrate Thanksgiving.
 In the years since I’ve tended to fix blame for this in the way I was treated socially in high school – I was a “nerdy” science kid before nerdy became a thing, but if I’m honest, the basic truth is I was and am a slow learner—whether the issue is science, or policy, or life. As a kid and a young man I’d read a lot of great literature, and accumulated years of social relationships with family, friends, and then co-workers, but there had always been this blind spot. In today’s vernacular, when it came to people I would never really get it. All this had consequences – not just for me but everyone around me, at home and at work.