Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Blind Sided

I was going to tell Jenny how disappointed I was in her. I've always pride myself in being the kind of supervisor who was fair-minded, flexible, and shows genuine care for the welfare of my staff. Whenever one of them wants to take extra time off, arrive a little late to work, or was forgetful to follow up on something I had requested, I try not to be too harsh or critical on them. Although they occasionally make mistakes, I know that my success would not be possible without their hard work and loyalty to me. I look for opportunities to show my appreciation, whether it is taking them on an impromptu trip to the local Dairy Queen from some ice-cream or thanking them for putting in the extra effort. That's the reason I was a bit irritated when I got back from lunch today and saw Jenny chatting on the cell phone. I didn't make a big deal about it. We all take personal calls from time to time. But I became more annoyed when she got up, continued to carry on her conversation, and disappeared for more than ten minutes. All the while she was gone, I was running thoughts in my head on how I would reproach her... "Look Jenny, I don't mind it if you've got all your work done. But I've left numbers for you to call for the past two days, and you still haven't done it."

But before I was able to verbalize it to her when she finally returned, she immediately apologized for what had happened. "I'm sorry... I was on the phone with the mother of my friend," she paused. "She told me that my friend got into a car accident and passed away." Jenny began to cry softly. "My friend called me at four in the morning to ask me to pick her up. She had been out drinking with some friends. I told her that I can't pick her up.... I've picked her up many times before, but this was four in the morning." In Jenny's mind, she felt partly responsible for this tragedy. Hearing this feels like getting punched in the stomach. All the air was let out of me along with the words of criticism I was ready to deliver. Now, I sat frozen at my chair, not quite knowing what to say or do. I made a feeble attempt to ease her guilt. "It's not your fault... It's not your responsibility," I reasoned. "It was your friend's choice to get behind the wheel. She could have called someone from her family or got a cab." I shouldn't have said that, I remember thinking. I shouldn't have said anything. Better to have just said 'I'm sorry' and be there for her, I thought. "I know...," Jenny wondered. But what if? I asked Jenny if she would like to take the rest of the day off, but she declined. Perhaps it was better this way. Work may keep her mind off her grief, even if it were temporary.

I thought about what happened today. How many times have I made assumptions about another person's behavior without knowing all the facts? You think that you know of their motives, their feelings, their inner thoughts, their fears, their opinions about you and you of them and so forth, but you really don't know unless you ASK and dig deeper. Maybe you're too afraid to find out the truth, so you avoid asking. Maybe you have too much pride. Too lazy to ask. Or maybe you're just too concerned with your own needs to hear above the noise. I am reminded of a story I read long ago in which passengers on a train became increasingly irate at a father who allowed his young children to played wildly on the train. When an angry passenger confronted him, the man apologized for his children's behavior. He explained that they are usually well-behaved. However, they have just come from the hospital that morning where the children said their last goodbye to their mother who lost her battle with a terminal illness.

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