By Troy Headrick
In “What I’ve Learned about Life while Watching My Father Age,” a blog I wrote several weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d been reading On Death and Dying, a wonderfully insightful book written by Elisabeth Kϋbler-Ross. Throughout that tome, the author argues that doctors need to take a more “human” approach while treating dying patients. She also points out that the field of medicine stresses the technical aspects of doctoring while underemphasizing the human component. In “Attitudes toward Death and Dying,” one of the earliest chapters in the book, Kϋbler-Ross makes this perfectly clear when she writes “If we could teach our [medical] students the value of science and technology with the art and science of inter-human relationships, of human and total patient-care, it would be real progress.” In other words, she thinks that doctors and other healthcare providers are better at thinking of sick people as patients than they are at remembering that the ill are human beings.
The above quote is terribly apropos to the argument I’m going to make here. One of the things I’ve noticed since returning to America to work after a long absence, is that many Americans are very good at what Kϋbler-Ross would call the “technical” aspects of work and less adroit at the “human element.” American workers, especially those at the managerial level, prize, above all else in the workplace, something called “professionalism.” In fact, it could be argued that professionalism is the characteristic most closely associated with the “perfect employee.” I’m not saying that Americans are, by nature, less human in their approach. It’s the culture of the workplace in America that inculcates this value in those who work.
Don’t misunderstand me. Professionalism is certainly needed in the workplace. All competent and conscientious workers, whether they wear blue collars or white, need to understand that there are workplace procedures and standards and that they have to be followed and lived up to. But professionalism is not all that’s needed. I feel that the drive to turn all American employees into “professionals” has created an unfortunate byproduct. The workplace has become less human and humane as a result. Thus, in this blog, I’d like to assert that being a good worker doesn’t just mean one is a good “professional,” a term that feels cold, in my opinion. Being a good worker also means that one should be willing to be a touch “unprofessional” too, as a way of infusing a little warmth into places of work.
I feel very strongly about all this because several years ago I decided to change the way I interacted with others in the workplace. Coming up through the ranks of academia, I had noted that many university instructors prided themselves on being tough on their students and on not allowing their emotions to “interfere” with how they did their work. For years, I did the same. Then, quite a few years ago, perhaps about the time I joined the Peace Corps and went abroad for the first time, I realized that I could stop seeing the people in the classroom as students and start thinking of them, first and foremost, as human beings.
Several interesting things happened after I made this adjustment in my thinking and behavior. I felt more relaxed while teaching because I had stepped off the pedestal and was no longer the snooty and aloof intellectual. The students responded by warming up to me and by opening up more when talking about their classroom work. I shared some of my own life story with them and they started telling me about their lives. We felt comfortable enough with one another to let our respective guards down. The way we interacted was no longer awkwardly inauthentic.
Perhaps I was behaving more “unprofessionally” with them, but I was also enjoying my job more and really connecting with those people who’d put their faith in me by registering for my classes. I started seeing them as teachers too, and I told them that I was learning as much from them as I hoped they were learning from me. As a young teacher, I’d often dreaded going to the classroom, but as someone who had become more of a guide and mentor, as someone who cared about them and wanted to know who they were, I began to really cherish the interaction that took place during lessons.
If you’re feeling as if work has become a drag, maybe it’s because you need to relax and look at work as an opportunity to really connect with your co-workers at a more human level. Maybe the way you become more productive and “successful” is by focusing less on productivity and success and more on showing people who you really are. They will warm to you and respond in a similar fashion. Before you know it, you’ll see each other more as humans and less as cogs in a machine. Once this change takes place you will become wildly productive and successful without even trying.
Troy Headrick’s personal can be found at Thinker Boy: Blog & Art.