I feel like I was unknowingly part of my own social experiment a few weeks ago. I was hired to work a freelance job one weekend, and as anyone freelancing in the entertainment industry can tell you, you’re often thrown in to the mix with little to no information. So it’s a delicate balancing act of pretending like you know everything and admitting you don’t. Most of the time, you’re waiting around for the next direction.
By waiting, I mean constantly approaching extremely busy people and asking how you can help (thereby admitting you don’t know what needs to be done). And if that fails, you mess up something you already did so that you can redo it (I jest. Sort of.)
Freelance workers can sometimes feel like oil in water. We try hard to assimilate and contribute, but there’s no denying that we’re not part of the core team. It’s a very similar sentiment to what interns experience – you work your butt off for a team you don’t fully belong to and aren’t guaranteed to stay with. But, it’s definitely not philanthropic – after all, you’re gaining a credit for your resume, experience, and let’s not forget pay (unless you’re one of Charlie Rose’s interns… two years and one class action later, they’ll finally be able to record that experience on a W2).
I digress. So the credit, the experience, the pay… it really is nothing to complain about. But when you invest your time and energy into something, often times you crave something more. Backtrack to a few weeks ago. My supervisors were excellent – very helpful and encouraging. But there was one supervisor I always felt eager to help.
“Natalie, do you mind hanging these signs?”
“Hey Nat, can you run this to the other room?”
“Thank you for your help, Natalie.”
Are you seeing the common thread here? I honestly didn’t for a while – all I knew was I was feeling valued.
“Hey Natalie, would you mind hanging a few more signs?”
Natalie. That was it. Every time this supervisor addressed me, it was by name. I no longer felt like the semi-recognizable but nameless part time help. All of a sudden my investment in the task at hand skyrocketed – because I felt acknowledged. I became hyper aware of this respectful action – everyone this supervisor spoke to was addressed by name.
Sometimes I think that in their haste, higher ups fail to acknowledge the workers greasing the wheels. They may not be driving the car, but they’re definitely helping it move more smoothly. Their overlooking of lower-level workers only ends up being detrimental to the overall success of the task at hand. It’s a domino effect. The simple act of acknowledging someone by name fuels them – tasks on the lower level are done with more enthusiasm, with more precision, with greater desire for accuracy, with a refusal to disappoint. It’s an exchange of value – you value me, I value the work I’m doing for you.
For some reason, I’m name disabled – I don’t know what happens to me, but when someone is introducing him/herself, my brain stops processing. Two seconds later, I’m thinking, “Was it Jim? Jack? Jeff?” There’s really no excuse for that. It’s lack of focus. Since that experience, I’ve made a personal vow to stop whatever I’m doing, stop whatever I’m thinking about, and focus on giving that person the respect they deserve.
It’s such a simple thing that yields such powerful results. Growing up, my dad would often use his frequent cigarette breaks as a mentoring opportunity. My dad is an engineering project manager and possesses a greater wealth of leadership knowledge than any text book I’ve ever picked up. I remember one time confessing to him that I felt I’d gotten bossy during a group project (one time? try…every time. Hello from the future, my anal-retentive thirteen year old self! You haven’t progressed much). Between puffs, he replied that being a leader doesn’t mean using the word “I” – it means using the word “we.”
To this day, I find that to be the essence of leadership. Using someone’s name acknowledges that they are an important part of the “we” – no matter for how short a duration. At the end of the day, all people want is to feel that their contribution – regardless of how small – was valued. It motivates them to be better for the whole. I can tell you from experience. That was the best sign hanging I’ve ever done.