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OWNER'S MANUAL

The Power of Being Thoughtful and Kind

Want to make a real difference? It's easier than you think.
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My client acquired a large company, and I went along for his initial meetings with his new employees. In the afternoon, he planned a companywide address. But that morning, we met for several hours with top executives.

(Talk about emotions on full display: ego, anxiety, obsequiousness, defensiveness, fear, excitement… When the new sheriff comes to town, the icy-cool corporate masks quickly come off.)

The meeting ended at noon, and when we walked out 15 minutes later, he noticed a sizable buffet set up on the other side of the atrium. There were plenty of people standing around in white coats and black slacks but no one in line or sitting at tables.

"What's that for?" he asked someone walking past.

"The company arranged a meal for after your meeting," she said. "A local restaurant closed for the day to come here." She paused. "I think the chef and her staff were really excited about it," she said, her voice trailing off at the end.

"Did anyone eat?" he asked.

"Um, I don't think so," she said.

He stood looking a few moments. Even from a distance, it was evident the catering staff was confused and disappointed.

"Come on," he said to me. "We're eating."

And we did.

But he did more than just eat. He spent a few minutes talking to every--every--member of the staff. They knew who he was, and while some were initially shy, they quickly warmed up.

And why wouldn't they? He complimented the food. He complimented the service. He joked and laughed. When we finished eating, he said, "We can't let great food go to waste!" and borrowed two white coats so we could serve them. Then he made the rounds of the tables and happily leaned into all the selfies.

When we finally left, he waved and smiled.

They smiled bigger.

Sure, it took a lot of his time. Sure, it took him off point and off focus and off schedule.

Sure, they loved him for it.

I already knew the answer, but as we got in the car, I still asked. "I know your schedule," I said. "You couldn't stop to eat. Besides, no one else did, so no one would have noticed."

"I felt bad for them," he said. "They tried hard to do a good job, and everyone blew them off. How bad would that feel? So it was the least I could do.

"Maybe my staff thought they were too busy," he continued. "Or maybe they thought they were too important. But maybe they are too self-absorbed to notice they hurt other people's feelings."

He thought for a few seconds. "And maybe they're the wrong people for the job, " he said.*

Much of the time, we want famous people to be so humble they don't recognize there's a fuss, a special buzz, that people are excited to see them. We want them to be oblivious to their fame or importance. (After all, if they're too aware, that means they're too full of themselves.)

But what we should really want is for famous or notable people to recognize that in the eyes of others, they are special--and that other people might want something from them, even if that something is the simple recognition that what they do matters.

Because it does.

Picture a CEO walking into a building for an important meeting. Maybe he says hello to the receptionist. (Maybe.) Otherwise, he only has time for the people at his level. It's like no one else exists; they're just unseen cogs in a giant machine.

Unfortunately, at times, we all do the same thing. We talk to the people we're supposed to talk to. We recognize the people we're supposed to recognize. We mesh with the cogs in the machine we're expected to mesh with, but there are many other important cogs.

So go out of your way to smile to everyone. Or to nod. Or to introduce yourself.

And when someone does something that helps you, even in the smallest way and even if it's their job, go out of your way to say thanks. Make it your mission to recognize the people behind the tasks: the people that support, that assist, that make everything possible.

Even though most of us aren't famous or notable, by recognizing people--especially those who have been conditioned to not expect to be recognized--we add a little extra meaning and dignity to their lives.

And that's the best reason to go off point, off focus, and off task.

Although, when you think about it, you really aren't taking yourself away from an important task. You're just shifting to an equally important task: showing people they matter--especially to you.

* Six months later, only three of the original 22 remained.

More in my "The Power Of..." series:

Last updated: Apr 3, 2014

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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