If you travel, we have all had the experience of walking up to your gate at the airport and seeing a long line of tired and unhappy people. Our hearts sink a bit as we realize we might not be in our own beds that night.
I once read that the gate area as one of the most stressful part of a person’s travel day. On one of my trips home I saw that firsthand. People were tired, frustrated and angry. They complained to each other; they called people at home to complain and when they got to the head of the line they loudly complained to the airline representative.
As I waited on the line I could see and feel the frustration sweep through the line gaining momentum and force the longer they had to wait. The line inched forward as each person vented their feelings on the lone representative. Sometimes the interaction was loud and angry and sometimes it was passive and resigned—it was never positive. The trained smile of the representative started to wilt as traveler after traveler demanded for her to do something and get them home.
The gentleman before me began to lace into her.
“I need to be some place and I need to be there tonight and if I am not going to be there, YOU need to get me a room and a ticket first thing in the morning.” The representative repeated her litany: “This was a problem with the weather at the other airport and the airline was not responsible.” The exchange went back and forth, both parties repeating the same position, neither side seemingly listening to the other.
Finally, I was standing in front of the rep, a forced and embattled smile pasted on her face. She looked at me approach the desk as she prepared herself for the next attack. I know I have been in her position before and getting yelled at for something that was out of my control did nothing to make me feel any better or to prompt me to try and do anything about the situation.
A Spoonful of Sugar
I tried a different approach. I smiled at her—a real smile—and said, “This has to be a tough situation for you. We are all angry about not getting on our flight and even though you had nothing to do with creating this situation, people are yelling at you. You are doing such a great job of dealing with all of this anger and not losing your patience. I really admire you.”
Her eyes re-focused and a real smile began to sneak out: “Thank you. I really hate when this happens and I do feel personally responsible to try and fix things. I like my job and really enjoy making people happy by resolving problems, but tonight it just doesn’t look like it is going to happen.”
We spoke a little more, the conversation being drawn out a little as she savored this respite from anger. I never asked her for anything, but the discussion ended with Linda, that was her name, telling me quietly that she could not get me on a plane that night but would arrange for a hotel room. I wasn’t going home, but I would be sleeping in a bed and not on an airport bench.
I quietly commented again on her display of patience, congratulated her on her professionalism and very quietly thanked her for the room. As I left the next passenger was already kicking off a new tirade, but I like to think Linda faced it with a renewed sense of energy.
How does this apply to leadership?
First, building relationships is an important skill. Empathy and just plain old fashion honest communication can be a powerful tool to build a relationship. The newly built relationship resulted in Linda doing her best to help me.
What else was Linda offered? Recognition. Linda received affirmation that her job was difficult; much of what she was dealing with was beyond her control, and she was doing as well as you could—she was trying. When someone recognized that she felt valued. The job didn’t get easier, but someone recognized what she was going through.
The relationship building and recognition also provide Linda with opportunity–the opportunity to meet the expectations of a customer. Relationship building and recognition can have the same powerful impact in your school or organization.
Finally, there was gratitude. Linda was grateful someone had shown her some consideration and I was grateful for her hard work and the resulting bed for the night.
Relationship building, empathy, honest communication, recognition and gratitude—all are powerful tools for the effective leader.