Do You See the Invisible People?

During my flight home yesterday evening, I made an effort to acknowledge the work of an amazing flight attendant. “You’re incredibly good at your job,” I said, “and I simply wanted to say thank you.”

She replied with a genuine smile, sharing that she is a 37-year veteran of the skies and will retire in two weeks. She added, “In over three decades of flying, only 15 passengers have expressed their gratitude so overtly.” That shocked me, so I asked how she stayed motivated year after year. Her answer? “I can’t control the emotions of others, so I decided to simply be the best I can be every single day.” What a lesson….

This was from a note my friend Mark Stelzner posted on Facebook the other day.

As I read through it I focused on the 37 years, 15 acknowledgements, the number of interactions etc. Unbelievable, I thought.

How have we fallen so low?

As children, one of the first lessons we were taught was to say “Thank you.” Over and over again, I can hear my mother say to me: “Now what do you say?” Then I would turn to that person and say, THANK YOU!

What has happened with that lesson that we were taught? Somewhere along the line we forgot the basics.

Like Mark, I travel a lot; about 3 weeks out of the month. I have even been lucky that I have met some of the same attendants numerous times, as I tend to fly the same routes each month or so. My thought has always been to interact with people, especially since we are in the same space for 7 or 8 hours, as my travel is all international.

I remember their names; they know mine from the manifest. As the flight is nearing its end, I will either walk to the galley and thank everyone or I will speak specifically to the attendant that worked my space.

How much time does it take to acknowledge someone?

What and how much does it take to say two of the best word combinations in the English language? I have added my own flavor to that adding, “I really appreciate your effort.” The sincere smile that I get in return is immeasurable, and we all walk away feeling better about ourselves.

We can really have an impact on the lives of people by using these same techniques; just being empathetic. This is what true leadership is about. And this goes not just for your attendant in business class, but for the cashier at your local market.

As I read Mark’s post I thought of how the “thirst for appreciation” is universal, especially in jobs that are service oriented. From the hotel personnel, taxi drivers, doorman in your building, etc.

Everyday affords numerous opportunities

I live in an apartment tower in Dubai, U.A.E. A security guy mans the front desk. As I leave in the morning and return in the afternoon, I watch to see how many people acknowledge him. It just amazes me how many people just walk in and head straight ahead to the elevator without even a hello. We are in their space, yet they have become invisible to us.

Walt Bettinger, CEO of Charles Schwab Corp tells the story of the most important lesson he learned in business. One day, while pursuing his MBA, he stayed up late studying to be prepared for his business strategy class final exam. He spent many hours studying and memorizing formulas to do calculations for the case studies, he recalled.

“The teacher handed out the final exam, and it was on one piece of paper, which really surprised me because I figured it would be longer than that. Once everyone had their paper, he said, ‘Go ahead and turn it over.’ Both sides were blank.”

Next, the professor said: “I’ve taught you everything I can teach you about business in the last 10 weeks, but the most important message, the most important question, is this: What’s the name of the lady who cleans this building?”

“It was the only test I ever failed, and I got the B I deserved. Her name was Dottie, and I didn’t know Dottie. I’d seen her, but I’d never taken the time to ask her name. Since that most important lesson, I’ve tried to know every Dottie I’ve worked with ever since.”

My personal learning point

In my career, I worked at Martha Stewart Living for close to 10 years. Because I arrived early at my office every day, I would always cross paths with the cleaning lady who would work on our floor.

I would always engage in conversation with her, and initially, she was hesitant to engage in conversation because she may have thought that I was a “big shot.” But over time, we would talk about a lot of different things. I told her all about my weekends, and she would ask about pictures in my office of my kids. In other words, I got to know “Dottie.”

When I decided to leave this company and the word got around, on my last day I walk in and there she was sitting outside my door. I greeted her and asked jokingly, “Were you waiting on me?” Her reply was, “Yes I am.”

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That stopped me in my tracks. She then proceeded to tell me how much she enjoyed our conversations over the years. She told me about how she was hesitant in talking to me when we first met, and as we came to know each other more, she was surprised that I even wanted to talk to her since I was one of the executives at this company.

You know, she said:

“I work here and people walk in and it is like I am invisible to them. They would look through me and not even say hello. I did not even register as a human being. You never treated me that way.”

By that point, tears were running down my face, and she in turn began to tear up. When she finished, I looked her in the face and tried to regain my exposure as I said to her:

“You know, your story is my story. My mother used to be a maid and she told me your story and how she was treated and ignored as a worker for these wealthy people. That was at the beginning of her working life. As my father became successful, she eventually became a housewife and never worked again, but those stories stayed with me.”

Make the deposits daily

I work on the principle of making deposits into an imaginary account. Each day my mission is to say thank you, offer a heart-warming smile, words of encouragement ,etc. My account stays full and when I need a withdrawal, I am never overdrawn in life.

Ron Thomas

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.