A Few Feet Makes All The Difference

They say that the distance between happiness and sadness is often very short.  I was reminded of this the other day in visiting a local merchant, who is sometimes noticeably happy and upbeat when I’m in the store and other times quite withdrawn and uncommunicative.  I started to wonder if it was me, until I noticed the pattern. In this case, a few feet made all the difference in the world.

Same Person, Different Roles, Different Demeanor

"Casting" an employee in the right role can make all the difference between happiness and sadness, as exemplified in these ancient dramatic masks.

The merchant, a soft-spoken, pleasant woman in her 50’s, owns a lovely stationery and specialty gift shop — the kind of place you go for fine writing paper, or wedding invitations, or special “knick knacks” of the type that my mom loves. A corner of the store serves as a postal “sub station” handling  certain postal transactions.  Those few feet — from the cards-and-gifts side of the shop to the postal side — are exactly the difference between happiness and sadness for the merchant (not too unlike the “comedy” and “tragedy” sides of a theatre mask).

When she’s on the gift side, she’s happy and light-hearted, easily engaging her patrons in conversation about their purchases; when she’s selling stamps or putting postage on a Priority Mail letter, she’s serious and sullen, almost morose, with no hint of a smile or a twinkle in her voice.  There is an old Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s girlfriend is  considered to be “two-faced” — attractive in some lighting, and unattractive in other lighting.  That change was a perception of the viewer, though.  This change appears to eminate from the individual themselves — i.e., they really are unhappy, and their unhappiness manifests itself in their voice and demeanor.

I can only speculate why — does she feel uncomfortable selling stamps for some reason?  Is she insecure about her knowledge of postal regulations?  Does she worry that the old equipment is about to malfunction?  I don’t know — but clearly, she feels very differently about one part of her role than the other.

So, It’s An HR Problem?

In a sense, yes — it is an “HR-type” problem.  Granted, there are some tasks in any of our jobs that we would rather do without — it just the nature of work.  In this case, though, the sharp change in demeanor seems more indicative of mis-casting viz. the required characteristics of a role — or perhaps erring in the design of the job. In that way, it is analogous to any employee in our organizations who is miscast — something that is under the company’s purview to fix.

This shop is a one-woman operation, so there’s no one to delegate the task to (and certainly no HR person hovering about).  Even if an HR person were present, admittedly we can’t solve all problems and eliminate all employee unhappiness  through transfers, re-assignments, job re-design, and the like — but we can solve some of these issues.

The question, then, is: Are we doing enough to solve the miscasting issues that we can solve?  One can only imagine the impact on morale, productivity, and profitability if we could truly identify and then place all the right people on the bus (to use James Collins’ metaphor) in the right seats. Here’s to the perseverance and good spirit to keep trying!

* * * * * * * * * * *

Do you have people in your organization who are notably miscast?  How do you identify them … and how do you help them and their team?

One response to “A Few Feet Makes All The Difference

  1. Hey
    I have to say while I am never taken aback at some of the comments made toward Human Resource departments I am also truly dismayed at the minority of people who create these thoughts and their blatant disregard for others in the workplace.
    Hmmm imagine a place where people worked harmoniously, were paid fairly and completed their work in a timely manner, Human Resource Nirvana
    Tempting Bliss…
    HR Consultant Perth

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