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What Works: The Case for Slowing Down

May 29, 2002
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We all have our stories about September 11. I was about to take mythree-year-old to her first day of preschool when the phone rang. Did I see whatwas happening, my sister asked frantically. And had I heard from Jim?

I raced to the TV, flicked it on, and stood aghast. My thoughts immediatelyturned to my brother Jim, who worked at 7 World Trade, just across from the twintowers. None of the buildings had yet collapsed, but the scene was all fire anddeath. In an instant, my mind had gone from thoughts of a sunny first day atpreschool to the horror of war at my brother’s doorstep.

Throughout the morning, while my children played in another room, I watchedTV and waited for a phone call from Jim or his wife or anyone who knew where hewas. But the only calls we got were from others in our immediate family whowanted to know if we had any new news. No one knew a thing beyond what we werewitnessing on TV, and all our conversations trailed off with "I can’tbelieve this is happening."

At noon, it was time to head to preschool, and my wife and I decided to takeour daughter together on her big first day. We met the teachers and mixed withthe kids on the playground. The children were laughing and chattering, allhaving fun. The adults did their best to play along, but minds and emotions wereelsewhere. We whispered among ourselves, feeling sick, searching for words,wondering what else would happen as this terrible day unfolded.

It’s tempting to let the daily grind define our lives all over again.

I used my cell phone to check in with family members, but there still was noword. And on the drive back home two hours later, my mind was going back andforth between horrible TV images and a desperate hope that people would survive.I remember one other thought: that things would never be the same. After atragedy like this, I reasoned, people will surely be different. They’ll treateach other with more compassion.

At about 4 p.m., I finally heard from my brother’s wife. He had gotten outof the area before the buildings fell and was now safely out of New York City.But for so many others. . . No, things would never be the same.

A month later I visited Jim in Manhattan. We spent five hours walking aroundthe remains of the WTC site, looking, talking, thinking, hurting. We boughtlemonade and brownies from two grade-schoolers who were raising money for thefirefighters. I’ve been to New York City many times, but this was sodifferent. The tough city of big buildings and big business seemed so . . .human. While we were eating our third brownie, a woman walked up and paid forher lemonade with a hundred-dollar bill. "I know it’s for a good cause,"she said softly, and she walked off into the crowd.

Ever since September 11, I’ve been collecting newspaper and magazinearticles about the shift to greater humanity in the workplace. "Attacks promptpeople to rebalance work, life," declared one Associated Press headline fromOctober. "Workers take steps to boost own morale," The Charlotte Observerreported that same month. And in February, Fast Company magazine focused itscover story on . . . love.

The article, by author and Yahoo senior exec Tim Sanders, builds a wonderfulcase for compassion and selflessness in the historicallyall-about-the-bottom-line business world. He writes: "The most profoundtransformation in business -- a transformation made more urgent, not less so, by the calamitous events in New York and Washington,D.C. -- is the downfall of the barracudas, sharks, and piranhas, and theascendancy of nice, smart people with a passion for what they do." Who everthought we’d hear about the rise of "nice" people?

This is good news indeed, but recently, I’ve noticed that these promisingarticles are getting harder and harder to find. Could we be going back tobusiness as usual? We’ve had the therapeutic calendar change to a new year andthe national catharsis of a victorious Winter Olympics. There are signs that oureconomy is pulling out of recession. It’s tempting to let the daily grinddefine our lives all over again.

In the wake of September 11, an overworked friend of mine had promisedhimself he’d rebalance his priorities. We recently had plans to meet forlunch, but he sent me a quick e-mail. He was trying to wrestle down severalimpossible deadlines, and could we please reschedule? I wrote back asking himwhen we could get together. "In five weeks or so," he responded. "Thehamster wheel is going too fast right now."

A couple of weeks ago I overheard four people talking about the terroristattack and its aftermath. They were from four different organizations, and allwere saying that their workplaces had returned to the old routine. My earsperked up, and I asked what they meant. They told me about the pleasant civilitythat had unfurled on September 12. "Everyone seemed more empathetic," one ofthem said.

"It took lots of different forms," she explained. "For one thing,people who never gave me the time of day were suddenly being friendly and sayinghello. And our group meetings seemed to become more collaborative. We gave eachother more time to talk instead of trying to ram through our own ideas. And Ithink we really listened to other people’s perspectives. I wouldn’t call ita lovefest, but there definitely was a change."

They went on to tell me that internal competition is back in full force aspeople and work units fight for scarce resources. Meetings look and feel likethe meetings of old, with people talking over each other and the boss ultimatelydictating how things are going to be done. As for those pleasant hallway hellos,they’re becoming a quaint memory.

I won’t deny that these are fast times and that we all need to beproductive. But perhaps we should make a habit of slowing down, living more inthe present, acknowledging the positives, and taking time to appreciate all thepeople around us. It shouldn’t have to take another tragedy to make our worklives and workplaces more human.

Workforce, April 2002, pp. 24,26 -- Subscribe Now!

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