St. Paul was a remarkable person. What he said about his own life, then, is not surprising. He wrote that, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
Most of us aren’t fully up to that standard. Our childish things aren’t put away forever, at least not totally. Instead, all too often our thoughts, words and actions are expressions of our childhood rather than our adult rationality.
No one on television understood that better than Fred Rogers, who was the host of “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” a children’s TV show which ran for an incredible 33 years. One of the reasons that it remained popular for that unprecedented length of time was that he understood how to present things and ideas to children without talking down to them or lecturing them.
The show certainly owed some of its enduring popularity, though, to the fact that it appealed to adults, too. In fact, it often included subtle references to the things of a child that we adults had not totally put away. By quietly demonstrating and explaining them to the children in his audience, Mr. Rogers also explained them – and expiated them somewhat – to their parents, which was a remarkable achievement. Whether we grew up with “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” or watched it with our children we learned things.
Is there anything in Fred Rogers’s program and approach that we shouldn’t put aside now that we are all grown up? Is there anything we can use to improve our economy?
The answer is yes. It is, as he simply put it, to “listen.” In our world today, there is far too much talking and not enough listening and, certainly, too much noise. And this is especially true in workplace management, which is the key to productivity in our economy.
One of the first things you will notice if you start to listen is that there is too much noise in today’s workplaces. As people raise their voices in order to be heard, they contribute more to the din. The problem is so bad and so widespread that workplace designers are including not only conference rooms — which are infamous for their scheduling issues — where workers and managers can have a conversation but also “quiet rooms” that theoretically a worker can use as a place to think.
Cost reduction was the driving force behind modern workplace design. Unfortunately, one of the consequences was the near-total elimination of offices in favor of lower cost “open space.” This reduced the total cost but had the unintended consequence of raising the noise level because all conversations, including those on telephones, now became part of the shared sound environment. At its worst it becomes a kind of organized bedlam.
It is not unusual for workers in today’s workplace to be wearing headphones or ear buds, and, possibly, microphones rigged so they can carry on a telephone conversation with both hands free to operate their computer. Initially, these innovations made a positive contribution to productivity as workers became adept at what became known as multi-tasking.
Over time, however, and with the proliferation of smartphones workers discovered that the same devices that allowed multi-tasking also allowed them to escape the din and create their own space, a sort of “virtual office,” where along with their work they could pursue games, shopping, social media, and movies. The net contribution to productivity swung to negative.
The answer for managers can be found in Fred Rogers’ advice: “listen.” Listen to your team of workers; make eye contact with them even if what you say is just good morning. What they say is important, and it is equally important that you become a person to them, not just another “suit” looking out for himself or herself and talking to them only if something goes wrong.
Listen to your workplace, and if it seems too noisy to you do something about it. Noise is the enemy of communications, and thus the enemy of productivity.
The workplace environment, as it is now and how it is developing, represents a liability, a drag on productivity that will eventually put us at a competitive disadvantage — not only with our foreign rivals but also with our homegrown Artificial Intelligence (AI) robots.
It is definitely a liability, but also an asset; a treasure trove of untapped productivity possibilities that could boost our economic growth. Imagine how productive we could be if our workers and workplaces were as effective as they could be. It would benefit the workers, the individual firms, and the economy. And it will all start with “listen.”
Thank you, Mr. Rogers.