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Seeing the Best in Others

The following article is a popular reprint penned by the Spitzer Center’s inaugural editor, John Keenan.
One of the things I valued about the Journey to Excellence program is that it offered me something akin to an MRI for my own behavior and those around me. Patterns I hadn’t diagnosed before became clear to me, revealing more often than not the disorders common to Level 2 guys in a Level 2 world.
My relationship with “Sam” was one such disorder. The two of us sat on the leadership team of an organization that numbered 3,000 people. It’s hard to remember how we started to get along so poorly, but once the pattern emerged it fed on itself for several years.
As Personnel Director, Sam held the high ground. He was silent when my department, Communications, did something well, but I could count on him to call me whenever we dropped the ball. If a fact on our website was wrong or we issued a statement that was unclear in any way, I was sure to see Sam’s name on my caller ID. It got to the point where I’d never answer the phone when he was calling. I’d let his arrows land in my voicemail, and only return the call when the problem was fixed.
My strategy for dealing with Sam was jokes at his expense combined with avoidance. So when corporate HQ requested that I reorganize my group, I drew up a plan, got my boss’s approval, and passed it along without a word to Sam. The snub wasn’t even deliberate; it simply never occurred to me to seek his input.
One night about a week later, I was in a hotel lobby not far from HQ when Sam confronted me. “The head of corporate HR called me in to ask about your department’s reorg,” he fumed. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. You made me look clueless!”
It was late and I was too weary to think of excuses, so I told him the truth. “I always work around you because you only talk to me when you have a complaint. Dealing with you makes me feel like a kid who’s been sent to the principal’s office.”
I can’t take credit for what happened next, and it didn’t happen immediately. But the next time my group slipped up, Sam popped his head into my office. “You got last year’s figures and this year’s figures mixed up on the web site today,” he said. “You better fix it before someone up the ladder notices.”
For years that “someone” had always been Sam himself. Now, he was watching my back. So the next time I had an issue with an employee in my group, I went to Sam for advice. The advice was good.
While Sam and I never discussed our bad old days, I saw a precise description of our dynamic when I read Fr. Spitzer’s description of Level 2 (ego-comparative) behavior: “Level 2 means looking for the bad news in others...It’s much easier to focus on what’s irritating, stupid, unkind, and weak in other people. Looking for the good news takes discipline.”
For years, Sam and I both saw the worst in each other, and to his credit he was the one who decided to break that pattern. Instead of taking a Level 2 delight in my department’s infrequent mistakes, he decided to see the good work we did in the glare of the company’s spotlight day in and day out. In turn, I decided to value his grasp of the company’s rules, both written and unwritten.
The remarkable thing is that all it took to end the Cold War between us was a single act of empathy on his part. I’m not saying every workplace conflict can be defused so easily, but seeing the good in others is the best way to get them to see the good in you.
– John Keenan