The power of not reacting

Luckily I like Schipol airport—my local airport and the main one for Amsterdam—because I find myself there quite often travelling for work. It’s light and airy, with plenty of good places to drink coffee. Recently I was waiting at the gate for my flight and had the opportunity to observe an incident that seemed to encapsulate several themes from any working day.

The first player in the scene was an airport cleaner—a small, quiet man who was sweeping the floor with a wide broom that was able to gather up a generous arc of rubbish. He worked diligently, pushing the broom methodically across the floor and seeming to take some satisfaction in the effectiveness of his work. I enjoyed watching him work. He was focused, self-contained and effective. He did not draw attention to himself in any way, and almost seemed to expect to be invisible to others.

It occurred to me that he must have swept this same expanse of floor many times and had probably never actually been thanked for the quality of his work. His pay was probably low but he did the job thoroughly from a sense of self-respect, rather than for any outside acknowledgement. I found it restful to watch him but a bit sad also. He seemed to expect so little.

My reverie was interrupted by a couple running towards a neighbouring gate where a flight to the States had just been called. There was no great rush but they were obviously concerned to arrive well in time. They ran right through the pile of rubbish the cleaner had so painstakingly gathered, scattering it all over a wide expanse of floor. The woman checked her steps for a fraction of a second and I thought she would see the cleaner and apologize but instead she picked up her pace and quickly followed her companion towards their destination.

I understood then the man’s attitude of not expecting to be seen—this must happen to him over and over again. It is so easy isn’t it, when you’re pressured [as we so often are at work] to simply put your own agenda centre-stage and not even see that others may have an agenda of their own that needs your attention. There was a power imbalance in this incident too—the customer’s needs taking precedence over a mere cleaner getting on with his job. That often happens at work too when we have dealings with a manager, or team leader who may, or may not choose to see our contribution clearly, or as important as their own.

Perhaps it will not surprise you at all that the cleaner simply gathered up the scattered dirt and debris and continued with his work almost as if there had been no interruption. He did not react in any way. He could have called out, he could have cursed under his breath, he could have looked around for a sympathetic eye [I admit, I was ready to provide one] but he did none of those things. He simply continued with his job.

It occurred to me that he considered dealing with that kind of lack of awareness from the people using the airport around him as part of his job, rather than as an annoying incident to be stored up to take home and tell the wife about. By having that attitude he was ensuring that he was keeping his own stress levels under control. Imagine if he had reacted every time someone failed to see him working how tired and exhausted he would be at the end of every day.

It brought home to me strongly the power of being able not to react when irritating things happen, and the beneficial effect for oneself and the people one is working with.

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