That’s Not My Job

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Imagine that your job is to paint the stripes down the middle of the road. And not just any stripes, but the double yellow ones that create a powerful visual safety barrier on a well-traveled two-lane road.

Imagine that you’ve reached the line that demarcates city from county and you are told to stop painting the stripes because “That’s as far as we go.”

Imagine that you look up and see that you’ve only got another 150 yards to the bottom of the hill.

Imagine how it must feel to not finish a job that in just a few more minutes of thoughtful effort would be so easily completed.

Do you finish your workday with a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment? Do you go home and announce with pride, “I striped some of the road today! I made some of the road safer for the residents of that neighborhood!”

“What do you mean ‘some’?” comes the curious reply.

“Oh, well, we’re only responsible for striping the part of the road that is maintained by the county.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Then why do you do it?”

“Because the rest of the road is someone else’s responsibility.”

Look of disbelief.

Shrug of shoulders.

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When we allow the red-tape of bureaucracy – be it in our government institutions or our private enterprises – to replace common sense, we also replace the qualities of autonomy and agency that make work the most noble human enterprise.

To be told that “almost” is “good enough” is an insult to the human spirit.


 

Agency

I was an attendee at a conference a number of years ago and the presenter, a teacher of considerable renown, was speaking about agency.

“Agency” is a social science term that is defined as “the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.”(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(sociology)

Early in her presentation, having clearly articulated the attributes of agency and its relevance to our time together, she asked us to engage in paired conversations about our personal experience, a time when we did or did not demonstrate agency.

After a short time she asked us to share our thoughts with the full group and I shot my hand in the air, eager to make a contribution.

She called on me and I proceeded to describe what my partner had said and why I thought it was an important point.

As the words were leaving my mouth I knew that I had stepped in it, big time. And since she was no small personality she let me and everyone else know it, too.

“Talk about stealing someone’s agency!” she bellowed, with the tone of a teacher resigned to her student’s position on the learning curve.

It felt pretty lousy to be called out like that. It was a healthy public shaming that I carried with me for quite a while. But I’m glad she made the point so energetically because I needed to hear it.

In my eagerness to make a “valuable” contribution, I stepped on someone else’s right to “make their own free choice.” Instead of inviting or encouraging my partner to share her story, I broke the unspoken trust of our brief interaction by putting it into the public domain.

I haven’t done it since, and when I encounter other’s trespassing in a similar way, I share my story as a cautionary tale.

Making space for other’s to be heard is one of the core responsibilities of leadership. Respecting the right of other’s to choose for themselves is just common decency.