What Can we Learn from Catastrophes to make Working Lives Better
Catastrophes often bring out the very best in people. When the needs of others are so urgent and profoundly obvious, something seems to awaken in the human heart and great works are achieved.
I look at the destruction of some locations following Earthquakes for example. I was in Christchurch following the quakes there and I looked around with helplessness. I thought to myself, “How is this mess ever going to be cleaned up and how will all of this be restored? Who will do it?”
But it gets done.
What’s more, in the hours and days following the disaster, people voluntarily work hundreds of hours, going long stretches without sleep in difficult and profoundly stressful circumstances, to save lives, restore some order and create somewhere safe for those effected to find comfort.
During these times, even the toughest unionist has no attention on time, working conditions or breaks, and nobody is interested in slowing down to prolong the work.
During such times, we humans are driven by our hearts, by our basic care for others, and our deepest empathy for the suffering of others. These are some of the finest qualities of human beings.
So how do we help to bring these qualities alive in our day-to-day workplace, where people naturally come more from a place of care for others than from self-interest. Again, self-interest is a common and sometimes useful trait of being human, and at other times, it is the roadblock that stops alignment, cooperative acts and a strong and positive workplace culture.
How do we bring out these qualities that inspire good people to bring their “A” game to their work, to give for the sake of giving and to enjoy the adventure of being part of something good?
Not long ago I had the opportunity to work with a large team that was preparing to take on a huge challenge. Everyone was stressed and resisting the event.
The event was an extended occupation spanning a couple of months where a major suburban train line was to be closed, a massive amount of earth moved, and new train lines routed underneath three roads, two of them busy thoroughfares. New train stations had to be built as well.
This was to be a huge project involving over 1000 employees with shifts going around the clock. The project could not blow out because the disruption was already going to be significant.
When I addressed them, we looked at what was going to happen, what the outcome was going to be and how it would affect the community moving forward in the future. We talked about the incredible positive impact of their work for future generations and the positive impact on families, on parents’ ability to spend more time with their kids and on the general welfare of the community at large.
We took a detailed exploration of the ongoing benefit of the project, the impact on the city, the state and the communities most closely effected. We looked at what would happen if the project did not go ahead. As we progressed, the team began to feel the profound awesomeness of their project and the legacy their efforts would leave. It was truly amazing to feel the collective shift in perspective.
The attitude shifted from one of fear and stress to one of positivity and excitement. This was going to be a landmark event in many of their lives.
The project was completed under time and under budget. As I drive past it now I shake my head as I realise what this group of incredible people achieved.
I spoke to the Project Manager and he reported to me that it was indeed an extraordinary experience. He said they were greeted by incredibly warm community engagement all through the event. He said to me, “We became the city’s number one tourist attraction. Daily we had so many people gathering at the fence to see what was happening. As personnel walked around the site, they would be stopped by regular citizens asking about what was happening on an aspect of the project, or about what a piece of machinery was for. The interest and curiosity was off the chart. even though there was extraordinary disruption, there were no complaints and everyone enjoyed the task. We were all moved by the support we felt.”
Over the duration of the project there were no complaints at all, and just two slightly negative tweets. The buses brought in to replace the trains carried over 800,000 passengers between the two points where the line had been closed.
Sometimes I feel we lose sight of what we are doing with our work. We lose sight of the impact we will have on people’s lives when we do our work well. And if management and leadership lose this connection, the workforce most certainly will.
I am wondering if you have ever taken time out to look at what your organisation is doing? Have you asked these questions?
- Who does this project serve?
- Who are the immediate beneficiaries?
- How will the community benefit?
- How will the city/state benefit?
- How will the country benefit?
- How will families benefit, as a result of this project?
- How will kids benefit from this project being successful?
- What will our work mean to future generations?
Sometimes it is helpful to contemplate these questions and re-connect with a greater sense of purpose. If able, invite others in the workplace to also explore these contemplations. You may be surprised.
Instead of just doing a job, you may find your people feeling more of a part of creating something worthwhile, something that provides benefit to many. And in facilitating this, you may find you will create a more aligned and harmonious workforce, and avoid a few catastrophes along the way.