Ladders reaching to clouds one tall red ladder rising to the occasion

Rising to the Occasion

“If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.” ~Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

We are all a product of our environment to some degree. What people believe of us and how we are treated affects whom we become. I was very fortunate early in my career to experience this principle first hand.

I was less than a year out of university – a new engineer eager to learn as much as I could about my company’s product. Although there was a significant manufacturing operation at my site, it was difficult to get hands-on exposure to the hardware as a result of a tense labor environment. Rumors were rampant about the young foolish engineers who curiously picked up a piece of hardware only to find out later that a union grievance had been filed against them.

Just months after joining the company, over 6000 hourly workers walked out on strike and many young engineers like me were recruited to work on the shop floor. We worked 12-hour shifts, 7 days a week.

I learned a lot from the experience: the measurement and assembly techniques for the module that I worked on, the proper use of a torque wrench, and how to apply an anti-rotational protection referred to as “lock-wire” to a B-nut. Within a week or so I had earned the title “Lock-wire Queen;” apparently my small hands positioned me well for this task.

If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.

However, as beneficial as this type of hardware experience was for a young engineer, it was actually the least impactful part of my learning.

During our time in the shop, a curious thing began to happen to my professional-turned-hourly co-workers and me. It started in the first week with the frustration of trying to understand some of the methods and processes we were supposed to follow. “Who wrote this stuff?” we would ask. “Have they ever tried to do this?” “Have they ever even talked to someone who has?”

The work was very interesting at first. Of course, we were all learning new skills and were inspired to become more familiar with our product. But as we learned, lock-wire becomes a pretty repetitive process after a while. Assembling the same module day after day, the work soon became drudgery.

After a couple of weeks, we found ourselves at a work stoppage. We were too efficient – we had completed all of the work that had come to us and there was nothing else we could do until the process before us caught up. We tried to find things to do to remain productive – to fill in the space. However, at some point we looked at each other with a painful recognition – we had become those guys in the coveralls sitting around reading newspapers!

By the end of the third week a more noticeable shift in our attitude had occurred. Because of the easier than normal access to the hardware, many other professionals and managers took the opportunity to walk through the shop to get a close-up look. Initially we would attempt to share all that we had learned about our module and how the methods could be improved. Unfortunately, many of these professionals weren’t terribly interested in our input.

Was it the fact that we were wearing dirty coveralls and our hands were covered in grease? Did swapping our desks and computer terminals for toolboxes and wrenches make us somehow seem less capable? Why were these professionals treating us with so little respect?

We had become disgruntled hourly workers. We had sunk to the occasion.

Over time these questions evolved into: Why did they think it was OK to interrupt our work? Why didn’t they think it was necessary to say hello? And why on earth weren’t they interested in our input on how they could improve this hardware? It was at the end of that third week when I noticed that we started muttering “suit,” or “skirt,” under our breath to each other when one of our professional colleagues walked through.

In just 3 short weeks we had completed the transformation – we had become disgruntled hourly workers. We had risen (or sunk as the case may be) to the occasion.

My experience working on the shop floor as a young engineer provided me with something far more important than hardware experience. It taught me the importance of empathy and valuing others. It taught me that we are all a product of our environment.

Every interaction that we have with others makes an impact. To make a positive impact we must begin with a fundamental belief in, and value for others. When we believe in the best that others have to offer we treat them accordingly — we naturally seek their input and support their development. In return they will work hard to meet those expectations, and will truly rise to the occasion.

What you choose to believe about others can either inspire them to grow and contribute, or impose a wall of low expectations triggering resentment and disengagement.

Be mindful of your choice.

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Passionate believer in people, systems thinking and conscious business. Curious explorer of ideas and connections. Recovering corporate executive helping leaders align and engage their employees… awakening organizational excellence.

  • Lisa, I really enjoyed the piece, thank you. I would like that add that “… to believe in the best that others have to offer…” we need to first believe in the best that we ourselves have to offer. Because when they look in our eyes, searching for that reason to really buy into what we’re talking about, we must already believe in ourselves that same way, with that same conviction and with that same intensity. Otherwise, they’ll be able to tell and could lose them at that point.

    • Lisa Shelley

      Hi Elton, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. You raise a good point. A genuine belief in others comes as a part of an overall optimistic perspective on life, including our sense of self. It’s not something that can be faked.

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