Once upon a time when I was young, ambitious and determined to make the world a better place (unlike now when I am old, mildly less ambitious, yet still determined to make the world a better place) I set about an exercise of enlightenment with my team at work. Embracing the tenets of continuous quality improvement with every fiber of my being, I asked each of the 30-plus team members to schedule 30 minutes to meet with me over the course of 3 weeks. In those 30 minute individual sessions, I wanted each team member to answer three questions for me:
1) What do you think is going well in our work place?
2) What do you think the opportunities for improvement are in our workplace?
3) What can I do to help you achieve a professional goal of yours in the next year?
One by one, team members came in to tell me what they thought. Some were bashful and didn’t have much to say at all. Some had put tremendous thought into the questions, and gave me new directions to consider. Still others amazed me with the most trivial concerns that they’d been holding in for the longest time – things like a malfunctioning key on their keyboard or static in their phone. You know, things I could actually fix.
As I was nearing the end of this project – laborious, time-consuming, but fruitful and worthy nonetheless, along came an employee who had been there long before I started. I didn’t know a whole lot about her, but I knew she always had a pained expression on her face. Like it actually hurt to be occupying her chair each and every day. So in my usual way, I pretended I didn’t notice her pained expression and welcomed her into my office. I gleefully started in with my “spiel” about my sincere desire to hear what was one everyone’s minds and make our work space the best it could possibly be. No surprise to me, my spiel fell flat and was met with any icy stare.
With no choice but to trudge bravely forward, that is exactly what I did. “All right,” I said. “Let’s dig right in. First things first, let’s start with the positives. That’s where I like to start. Tell me what you think is going well in our workplace.”
The employee didn’t hesitate, didn’t pause for even a nanosecond. She looked me squarely in the eye, and answered me as coldly and crisply as she possibly could. “Direct deposit,” she said, and it was as if she said it in slow motion. I swear as I replayed the story in my head I could see the mist of spittle spring from her lips as she enunciated the hard “p” in “deposit.” She didn’t smirk, she didn’t shrug. Her answer was so precise, so searing, that I pictured her getting ready for work that morning, leaning against the basin in her bathroom and practicing her intonation and expression in the mirror until she got it just right. “Direct deposit. Direct deposit. No, no, no, that’s all wrong. One more time. Direct deposit.”
Flustered but determined to press on, I noted that while yes, we could all agree that direct deposit is a very handy tool for all of us, it is something that is surely available in virtually every workplace the days. “Anything you want to add that you think is going well?” I bravely asked. “Nope. That’s it.” She punctuated her point, and although she didn’t pound her first on the desk as she said it, she might as well have.
I carried on with the interview and listened to her very long and comprehensive list of opportunities for improvement in our workplace (no surprise there). When asked what professional goals of hers I might support in the next year, she quipped she didn’t have any, and that all she hoped to accomplish was to not get so pissed off that he just up and quit one day without notice.
And lo and behold, about six months later that is exactly what she did.
I’ve thought about this person over the years and I’ve gotten a good many laughs from telling the story. How on earth could someone stay in a job that has only one redeeming quality, and that one quality is direct deposit? Or perhaps the more telling question is, how could anyone be so miserable that they can only find one thing to like about any situation, least of all a situation that pays their bills?
I’ll never be that person, I’ve told myself over and over again. And to date, I’ve never been. I’ve learned – by watching others, by watching me – that my professional success doesn’t bring me happiness. Quite the contrary, my friends. My personal happiness brings me success. And that time that I save every other week by not having to go to the bank because I have direct deposit? I use it to list my gratitudes.