Lipstick on the mirror
Francis J. Kong (The Philippine Star) - September 5, 2020 - 12:00am

What do you do when people intentionally disobey rules and regulations? Do you bring out the company manual, reinstate capital punishment, and subject the violators to torture non-stop? I don’t think that would be the solution. Besides, pretty soon, you will have the human rights advocates banging on your doors. But you can deal with the problem if you use a little creativity and understand a little bit of employee empowerment, as the following story will clearly explain. This is an old story that is worth repeating.

At a large private high school somewhere in the Midwest, a young girl created a mini-scandal when she made an impression on the bathroom mirror of her lips in bright red lipstick.

The principal, an intelligent, well-educated woman with over 20 years of experience in public school administration, was appalled. She immediately addressed the students over the school intercom: “It has come to my attention that someone has been leaving an impression of their lips on the mirror in the second-floor girl’s bathroom with her lipstick. This behavior is considered vandalism and will not be tolerated. I hope that whoever is responsible for this will not do it again and will apologize for her inconsiderate actions. And I will warn you all that if this incident is repeated, all guilty parties will be suspended for one week. I trust I won’t have to address this problem again.”

Naturally, the principal’s announcement had precisely the opposite effect. Despite the teacher’s best efforts, an epidemic of lipstick imprints galloped through the girl’s bathrooms. In desperation, the principal listened to an idea from the school janitor and allowed him to try it.

The janitor gathered five junior and senior girls who were the “unofficial leaders” of their classes and led them into one of the bathrooms with a bucket and a washrag in his hands. “I wanted to show you girls just how difficult it is to wash this lipstick off the mirrors,” he told them. The girls rolled their eyes, folded their arms, and otherwise signaled their utter indifference.

The janitor then proceeded into one of the stalls, dipped his washrag in the toilet, and swirled it around in the water. He went over to the lipstick on the mirror and wiped it off with the toilet-water-soaked-rag. Wide-eyed horror replaced the expressions of boredom as the janitor finished wiping down the mirrors. The lipstick problem ended almost immediately.

The school janitor came out with the best solution in dealing with the problem, which teaches us a lesson as well. Empowerment simply means listening to the suggestions and recommendations of our people. Our job titles, positions, or even business degrees may not necessarily mean we have all the right answers. In my business experiences, I have discovered that many practical and logical solutions lie in the hands of those simple folks without fancy work titles. They’re merely waiting for us to give them a chance to show us what they’ve got.

Today new things are happening. Work from home has eliminated many layers of bureaucracies, and ideas now can freely flow from the team straight to the leaders. I have not heard of any clients complaining about “silo-thinking” and things of those sorts. Even then, I still have HR people telling me that certain leaders still dominate the Zoom conferences and provide a minimal opportunity for their people to suggest ideas and solutions. And this is not a good thing.

Empowering our people means giving them due respect, attention and appreciating their inputs. To inspire them, and to provide ideas on how to improve things. And this begins with the leader’s mindset of shifting the thought that these people are not “working for me” but they are “working with me,” and as a leader, it is my role to serve them and inspire them to do their best.

Leaders need to adopt a teachable mindset and to be reminded that there will always be something we can learn from others. Successful leaders understand this principle, and that’s why they get the most out of the people. The bonus here is that people like what’s happening and they get motivated to do more and do better.

Lisa Cash Hanson, who is CEO of Snuggwugg Baby Gear, says: “Leadership is the ability to guide others without force into a direction or decision that leaves them still feeling empowered and accomplished.” And she is right.

(Attend the live webinar this Sept. 14 at 7:30 p.m. Francis Kong will host, and Pastor Chad Williams of Union Church of Manila will speak on “Finding Strength in The Small Things.” Live via Facebook @francisong2)

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