“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.”
It was a repeat of an exchange that had been going on for over an hour between the airline ticket agent and a long line of travelers--each traveler emphasizing THEIR needs and wants. Sentences filled with the pronoun “I.”
The representative repeated her litany: “There is a problem with the weather at the other airport and the airline is not responsible.” The exchange went back and forth, both parties repeating the same position, neither side seemingly listening to the other.
You could feel and see the frustration sweep through the line gaining momentum and force as time passed. 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 that she do something and get them home.
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. We all have been in her position before and getting yelled at for something that was out of our control does nothing to make us feel any better or to prompt us to try and do anything about the situation.
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.
Five Lessons Learned
First: Keep the focus on the issue
When dealing with a problem, don’t make it about you or the other person— focus on the issue. When people only focus on what THEY want, the gap between problem and solution can grow. You tend to forget the problem you are trying to solve and concentrate on winning what you want.
Second: Build relationships
Empathy and just plain old fashion honest communication can be powerful tools to build a relationship. Related to the above point, don’t confuse the problem with the person. Even when there is disagreement, there is opportunity to build a relationship. The newly built relationship resulted in Linda doing her best to help me.
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 her efforts were recognized, she felt valued. Regularly, recognizing people’s efforts and accomplishments builds a positive culture.
Relationship building and recognition also provided Linda with opportunity--the opportunity to meet the expectations of a customer. Providing people with opportunities to excel sends a message of trust and confidence. It contributes to building a culture in which people try their best. They are willing to take calculated risks because they know mistakes are not punished, but examined for what can be learned.
Linda was grateful someone had shown her some consideration and I was grateful for her hard work. The result was she felt a little better and I got a bed for the night. We both were winners. Gratitude creates winners. It is a powerful motivator—it generates satisfaction and loyalty.
Focus, relationship building, recognition, opportunity, and gratitude separately are effective tools for any leader. Used together on a consistent basis they contribute to a strong culture where people feel valued and respected. This breeds success!