I was on a packed train out of London Paddington a few weeks ago. I had been fortunate enough to get on board early and had a seat, which was ideal as I had a 3 hour journey ahead of me, whereas most of the other passengers were relatively local commuters from/to Reading and Oxford.
The train got busier and busier before departure and the aisles were full of standing passengers right along the carriage. I became aware of an elderly man with a white cane and dark glasses among the throng. I asked him “Would you like my seat?” To which he replied in a very sarcastic and grumbly voice “It’s my eyes that are broken, not my legs!” He then turned his back on me at that point adding insult to my sense of injustice and injury.
I thought to myself that’s it, I’m never going to offer to help people again! I shut my eyes and went to sleep!
After about 45 minutes I opened my eyes and the crowd around me had shifted slightly as people do when stood for a long time. To my horror I now realised that behind the blind man was stood a pregnant lady, looking somewhat flushed and uncomfortable. I rubbed my eyes for some reason, perhaps I thought I was still asleep and was dreaming. Could I face another sarcastic rebuff? After all I’d just allowed a pregnant woman stand up for 45 minutes, I’d deserve it this time, surely?
I looked at her and said “I am so sorry, I didn’t see you there before would you like my seat?” Thankfully and with great relief to both of us she gladly accepted, thus restoring my faith in helping those in apparent greater need than myself.
There are a number of learning points in that story that we can use in our roles as managers and leaders. Here are a few to start:
Just because someone is disabled in one way don’t assume they also need extra assistance to do the things that they CAN do!
When we get help thrown back in our face by one person it is easy to then think, we won’t offer help to anyone and therefore we stop looking. When we do this we will fail to notice people that really DO need our help.
The pregnant lady was desperately in need of help and wanted help but didn’t ask for it. As managers it is our responsibility to spot those in need & also encourage them to ask in the future.
I was not the only seated passenger in that carriage there must have been at least a hundred others. I did not hear anyone other than me offer to give up their seat. Perhaps they had heard the outburst from the blind man and thought better of it. So also remember:
If you publicly throw back the offer of help because YOU don’t need or want it, then you stop and discourage other people, from helping other people. This applies in the workplace not just on trains.
There is also the issue of stereotypes. It is very easy to pigeonhole people into ‘our own’ preconceived ideas on who they are and therefore what they will need from us.
Despite the experience on the packed train I still firmly believe in my own motto “It is better to do something with integrity and get it wrong, rather than not to do it at all!”