How Do You See?

You can judge a man's character by the way he treats people who can't hurt or help him.

It was the first day back at work after the Christmas and New Year holidays. I was standing in line at the cafeteria checkout, lunch in hands. When it was my turn to pay, I smiled at *Nancy, the cashier.

Hi! How are you today?” After she responded, I continued, “How was your holiday? Did you travel or stayed in town?

Her face lit up with a smile as she told me that she spent the holidays with her son in India. He’s an engineer and had been in India for about a year on a 3-year contract. She was happy that she could spend the holidays with him, his wife and their little boy.

Later, as I settled down to lunch with *Frank, one of my colleagues, he asked, “What’s going on with you? I saw you talking excitedly to the cafeteria lady” I responded that I was just asking if she had a good time away from work, and wanted to know how she spent her holidays. His next comments baffled me.

Why? You don’t have to talk to her! She’s just a cafeteria worker!

I wonder how many of us see others the way Frank saw Nancy; people to be seen, not heard. We treat people as objects to be used for our purposes. But there’s something to be said for treating others with courtesy and respect; for valuing them as people with hope and dreams.

Some of these behaviors are so subtle and unconscious that we don’t even realize that we exhibit them. This could have their roots in our upbringing and the culture we grew up in. Frank grew up in the type of Middle Eastern culture where the elite do not typically mingle with middle-class and low-class people. His parents were rich, and they had several helpers or servants in their home. These people just worked for them; they never saw them as people. The entire family knew nothing about the personal lives of those who worked in their expansive mansion.

Now a leader in the organization, Frank is yet to learn how to relate to people appropriately; how to treat them with respect. Unfortunately, today’s American culture further diminishes the impact of respect. It’s filled with music, books, television shows and movies that elevate disrespectful attitudes and with behaviors that are borderline abusive towards other people. As a result, we are becoming numb to the effects that these have on meaningful relationships.

When you don’t respect people, you don’t see the value in them. When this happens, you are not able to benefit from whatever insights they may have and what value they may be able to add to your life.

I recently came across an anonymous quote that says, “You can judge a person's character by the way he treats people who can't help him or hurt him.” There are some people who would be polite to others they consider better than themselves; to those who have something that they want. It may be a boss or someone they want to do business with. But to others that they see as beneath them socially, politically or economically, they become very disrespectful. They think these people have no value to add to them. So they treat them as if they don’t exist. They don’t recognize or acknowledge them.

As a result, they miss whatever value these people could have added to their lives. In his book, Leading Change, James O’Toole proposes that “what creates trust, in the end, is the leader’s manifest respect for the followers”. When leaders do not respect those that they lead, this is a symptom of more fundamental problems such as insufficient humility and too much ego. Disrespecting people you consider unimportant says a lot about your character.

Have you heard of what is known as the Waiter Rule? It refers to a common belief that a person’s true character can be gleaned from how he treats service workers, such as a waiter. A USA Todayarticle by Del Jones in 2006 described some interesting experiences a few CEOs had when they were younger. They contend that how you treat a waiter can predict a lot about your character. Part of the article also described how this could be tied to the way people were raised.

About two years ago, I was having lunch with a friend, who is a Pastor. As we settled down to place our orders, he asked our waitress her name and asked if she had anything that she’s worried about, for which we could pray. She lit up immediately, and shared her concern with us.

Could you imagine what could happen if we all treat people who provide service to us in this manner? Or what the impact would be when leaders, in the true spirit of being servant leaders, extend some courtesy and respect to the people they lead?

What a revolutionary behavior that would be!

*Names have been changed.