So, who’s really important?

Neil ButlerUntypical Thoughts

A client was telling me about a conversation he overheard in his workplace the other day which brought back a memory of the first day of my second year of teaching – in February 1985.

Firstly, the recent conversation as told by my client …

“A new employee was being introduced to some of the people she was going to be working with and after providing the name of each person, the introducer told her that they were the senior, the officer and the assistant. Nothing more was said. No mention of what each of these people did. No mention of how the new employee might interact with each person … just a statement of rank and implied importance”.

Wow! I can understand how this might be a little more relevant in the military or some other rank-conscious context but in an office environment, I was really surprised to hear that this was the most significant (only?) piece of information to be given out to the new employee.

In 1985, I was a foundation member of staff in a brand new secondary school and sitting with me around the table on day 1 was the principal and 15 other people with whom I was going to work in creating a brand new school. The principal started his introduction with a piece of wisdom that I still subscribe to today:

“There are 17 of us here with different levels of experience, different levels of knowledge in our areas of expertise, different levels of responsibility and, consequently, different scales of pay. The one thing that is equal amongst us, though, is our level of importance in achieving our goal.

As a young member of staff, it was a real boost to my self-esteem to think that, despite my tender years and minimal experience, I was still just as important as everyone else.

What is it like in your workplace? Are people valued and made to feel important despite the position they occupy in the organisational diagram? Is there an implied importance attached to the person who sits in the box at the top of the organisational diagram? Do the folk whose names appear at the bottom of the organisation chart feel like they are an important part of the overall team?

A good test is what I call the “management laugh” test. If a senior member of staff gets up to present a “town hall” or similar, they will invariably start off with a feeble attempt at humour. Equally invariable is the usual reaction from everyone around, laughing as though it is the funniest thing they’ve ever heard (even though, nine time out of ten, it just isn’t funny). Meanwhile, Sally or John from Accounts Payable says something really funny and they are ignored.

Don’t get me wrong – I absolutely recognise the senior leader’s level of responsibility and accountability and the level of respect they deserve in taking the lead role in an organisation or division. But ask yourself this question – are they any more important than the person who drives the delivery van (that is, the person who has direct interaction with your customers), the cleaner (that is, the person who looks after your health and well-being) or the mail clerk (that is, the person who plays a key role in communication within the office and beyond)?

I think not.

Don’t ever confuse accountability and responsibility with importance.

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