On Saturday morning, my wife, children and I had the opportunity to wake up early, head over to our children's elementary school and participate with hundreds of other people in a service project.
I call it an "opportunity," and I am glad I had the chance to serve with my whole family. But if I didn't say that losing the rare gift of sleeping in on a Saturday made me a little bitter, I'd be lying.
Anyway, we got to the school, registered and received our assignment. We were handed a box with bottles of cleaning solution and heavy-duty paper towels and asked to scrub all of the chairs, tables, desks and other flat surfaces in eight classrooms.
I'm sure you'll be surprised to hear that such surfaces get pretty filthy in a school, especially when they're in rooms occupied by young children who use a lot of crayons and glue.
As our family scrubbed away, we noticed the jobs that other volunteers were doing. Some were deep-cleaning the bathrooms. (Yuck!) Some were sprucing up the playgrounds and other outdoor areas. Others were painting. And still others were coloring pictures in learning games for students.
What? Some people got to color, as opposed to scrubbing grime from the bottom of chairs?
When we heard about this, my wife and I were once again a little bitter. Sure, they were doing the job they had been assigned, but how is it fair that some people got to color all morning while we had to clean dirty desks?
As we discussed this later, our reaction to the situation led to a more philosophical discussion of the value of the jobs that different people do.
First of all, we guessed that the people who were cleaning bathrooms on Saturday morning were feeling the same way about us as we were feeling about the people who were coloring.
And then we considered how frequently in our work and family lives we have similar thoughts about the relative value of different kinds of work.
For example, how many times have you parents out there refereed an argument between two children complaining about the comparative difficulty of the chores they've been assigned?
Likewise, how many of you managers have watched your direct reports come to you with basically the same complaint?
The fact is, we all want to believe that the work we're doing is important and that those who work with us are doing their fair share. What sometimes trips us up is what exactly constitutes "fair."
I've worked in several office environments, and I've been involved in quite a few conversations along these lines in the past. One worker will come in to complain that another isn't pulling his or her weight. Then the alleged slacker comes in with a similar complaint about his or her accuser.
What's to be done about such situations?
I don't often quote religious leaders in this column, but a story told in October 2008 by President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, gives a great answer.
"Some years ago in our meetinghouse in Darmstadt, Germany, a group of brethren was asked to move a grand piano from the chapel to the adjoining cultural hall, where it was needed for a musical event," President Uchtdorf said. "None were professional movers, and the task of getting that gravity-friendly instrument through the chapel and into the cultural hall seemed nearly impossible. Everybody knew that this task required not only physical strength, but also careful coordination. There were plenty of ideas, but not one could keep the piano balanced correctly. They repositioned the brethren by strength, height and age over and over again — nothing worked.
"As they stood around the piano, uncertain of what to do next, a good friend of mine, Brother Hanno Luschin, spoke up. He said, 'Brethren, stand close together and lift where you stand.'
"It seemed too simple. Nevertheless, each lifted where he stood, and the piano rose from the ground and moved into the cultural hall as if on its own power. That was the answer to the challenge. They merely needed to stand close together and lift where they stood."
I love this story for many reasons, but primarily because I believe it contains a basic truth that can apply equally at home, at the office or anywhere else: Meaningful work is accomplished when all of those involved know their individual tasks, focus on them and "lift together" to get a project done.
Note the three steps required in this process. First, every person needs to know what he is supposed to do. This means he needs to actively seek out information and instructions, ask questions when necessary and be clear about expectations. It also means his manager needs to provide good leadership and guidance from the start of the project.
Second, the worker needs to focus on the task at hand. She must buckle down and direct all of her knowledge, skills and energy toward completing her particular part of the project.
Finally, everyone involved needs to "lift together." To me, this means people on a team need to worry more about their own part of a project and less about others' shortcomings. Again, a good manager has to be part of this equation, making sure that everyone on the team really is completing his or her tasks. If the manager is doing her task, she can better coordinate the lifting.
Because we're human, we're always going to be tempted to judge the efforts of others, whether they're in the next cubicle at work or the next bedroom at home. But if we follow this basic formula and overcome our natural tendencies, we may not only rid ourselves of moments of bitterness, but also find that we are enjoying the success that comes from standing close together and lifting where we stand.
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