November 15, 2023 at 12:15 a.m.
Editor’s note: This column is being reprinted from Nov. 17, 2004. Jack would still be happy with the personalization of The CR office. Looking around today I see posters of Hannah Williams and Tyler Rigby that have been above my desk for pushing two decades, an anime print over Bailey Cline’s desk and a whiteboard list of basketball games leaning on the desk of the college hoops-crazed Andrew Balko.
Something was missing.
As I sat down for a haircut, I knew something was wrong.
Instead of the usual pictures propped up against the mirror — pictures of little girls whose progress through school I’d been following for a couple of years — there was nothing.
The hair stylist’s work station was as bare and sterile as an operating room. And just about as inviting.
“Let me guess,” I said, “someone at the corporate level sent down an order.”
All of the hair stylists nodded.
“How stupid can you get?” I asked. “Doesn’t Management 101 teach these people to keep their employees happy? And that the cheapest way possible is to allow a bit of personality in the workplace?”
Somewhere along the line, Frank Burns was put in charge.
You remember Frank Burns, don’t you? He was the supercilious officer on M*A*S*H on TV who would issue ridiculous orders like having a bunch of rocks painted white. Why should they be painted white? Because he said so.
Logic had nothing to do with it. Authority had everything to do with it.
Now, here I was, getting a haircut and running into that same know-it-all, don’t-confuse-me-with-the-facts sort of nonsense.
As scissors clipped around my ears, I tried to put myself into the shoes of the person who had issued the “no personalization of the workstation” order.
My assumption was that the person was new to authority and insecure, someone who had seldom been in the position to give orders and thought that real power came from bossing people around.
In other words, I gave them the benefit of the doubt. They didn’t realize they were behaving foolishly because it was their first time down this path.
How, I wondered, could I change their minds?
I could start by pointing out that getting one’s hair cut is about as intimate and personal a commercial transaction as is allowed by law.
I could then point out that when a customer is in that sort of transaction it helps to develop a sense of connection with the other party involved in the deal. In other words, you’d like to know who’s cutting your hair.
So, I might argue if trying to change the mind of someone at the corporate level, rather than being a negative, the little personal touches at an employee’s workstation are actually positives. When I look out and see pictures of kids gathered around a Christmas tree, I want to ask about the kids. I want to take my relationship with the person cutting my hair half a step further.
Maybe that’s self-serving on my part. (If she thinks I care about her kids, she’s less likely to cut my ear.) But mostly it’s a human transaction, person to person.
And at a time when commercial relationships are often all too formal and all too sterile, human contact is important.
Would that convince the corporate authority who sent down the silly order?
I wasn’t sure, so I wandered through my own company on a day when we were closed to business, wondering how much personal “branding” of the workplace mattered.
What did I see?
Family pictures, keepsakes, mementos, personalized screen savers for favorite NFL teams, holiday decorations.
Phrased another way, I also saw clutter and junk, targets for a “Frank Burns” character to remove and eradicate.
But did I see one thing that reduced productivity? No.
Did I see one thing that compromised worker performance? No.
Did I see anything that got in the way of our relationship with the customer? No.
Did I see things that made the long workday easier, more fulfilling, and more comfortable for the people who work for me?
You bet I did.
Now if I can only get that message across to the bosses of the great people who cut my hair.
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