About 250 kilometres from Milan, going South on the Autostrada del Sole, there is a highway restaurant (belonging to one of the worst chains in the industry) where a few days ago, having run dry, I stopped to buy petrol and a cup of coffee.
As there was a long line for the till, a young man joined the cashier to help out, hastily and effectively contributing to thin out the crowd. Having taken possession of my receipt, I went to the counter to be served my coffee, and again, behind the counter, I saw the same young man who was swiftly helping the personnel to cope with orders.
After drinking my coffee, before leaving, I approached the till again to pay for a bottle of water.
Before me in the queue, a gentleman was asking (who, if not the same young man who had gone back to help at the till?) for the Friday supplement of Corriere della Sera, which was not on display with the newspaper. The search for the supplement was taking some time, covering every place on the desk and in the cabinets below. In the end, not having found it, the man turned to the customer and said that he did not have the supplement. To which the gentleman, quite a distinguished person, repeated that he wished to buy the supplement, and to please have another look. While the queue was again building up, the irritated reply was “I do not have a supplement, you can have the newspaper alone”. “Try looking better” the customer insisted, and from behind the till the attendant, fuming, countered in a strained voice: “Listen, if you want the newspaper, this is what you have. If not, leave it. I am in a hurry”. The tone of voice had attracted people’s attention, and we expected the customer to leave off. On the contrary, he leant forward to read the man’s badge on the front of his shirt, and asked: “Are you the restaurant’s manager?” “Yes, it’s me, and you can do as you please. Go complain to whoever you want...”
Everyone around was silent, expecting more drama to happen. On the contrary, the newspaper gentleman said “But I am not angry with you!”. Coup de théâtre! “Then who are you angry with?” said the manager recovering quickly. “With those who have placed you there, knowing that it would be too stressful for you to do your job well.
That gentleman was right: there was no point taking it out on the manager, who was doing his best under pressure, coping with inadequate resources.
What made me think, was the way in which the gentleman resolved a state of tension. The most obvious thing would have been to carry on arguing; instead, thinking outside the box, he found a way out of an insoluble situation.
Well, this is what we should do in our jobs, too: not always think by clichés (rudeness for rudeness, offence for offence, insult for insult), but try to identify the real problem, and act on that.
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