This is a picture I took this morning outside the back corner of our house. There is our junk-and-trash filled wheelbarrow brimming full with stagnant rain water. This picture is really unfortunate for a couple reasons:
- To mosquitoes, my blood is the sweet nectar of the gods. As a result, spending just one evening on the patio (which is right around the corner from this wheeled mosquito farm) like we did this past Saturday leaves me riddled with a dozen or so itchy bites that swell up like Will Smith on shellfish.
- The forgotten wheelbarrow has been sitting there so long that it has killed the grass beneath it.
The reason for this destructive eyesore is simple enough. Our neighborhood trash pickup day is on Friday, and we cleaned up the backyard on a Saturday. Instead of substantially filling up our lone trash can before the week even started, we decided leave it in the wheelbarrow and park it on the side of the house. The logic was sound: not only would doing so keep this mess out of sight to visitors and other passers-by, but it would also keep our trash bin open for our normal weekly trash buildup. As an added bonus, wheeling the yard waste out to the curb for pickup on the next Thursday night would be a cinch.
Except, as you can see, that didn’t happen.
Despite the best of intentions and the soundness of logic, once this wheelbarrow was put out of sight, it wasn’t long until it was out of mind. And because going around this side of our house rarely occurs, neither it nor its contents had many occasions to climb back into my mind and demand my attention. A couple of times over the summer I walked past it and remembered “Oh yeah! I need to dispose of this crap.” But, the few times that happened were always on a weekend, and by Thursday night, I had long forgotten it again.
This is what happens when the reality of things get hidden from our view.
Today is Labor Day, and on this holiday to celebrate the contributions working men and women have made to our country, seeing this wheelbarrow reminds me of how companies too often treat their people. As I have written before, it isn’t hard to find company after company in the news tossing their people overboard pursuant to a plan to “realign resources and gain efficiencies” as the Q3 results have come and gone and the end-of-year profit targets loom.
Yes, it is certainly true that abstraction is a necessary part of analysis, and thinking of employees as “FTE’s” and “capacity” is no crime, just as parking that wheelbarrow out of sight was not a bad idea in the abstract. The problem is when leaders lose track of how abstraction puts the humanity of their people out of sight, and the risk that, over time, this puts that humanity out of mind. Combating this requires conscious, deliberate choices to limit those abstracting ways of thinking and to connect with your “resources” as the people they really are.
As you celebrate Labor Day today and begin the post-summer homestretch of your year tomorrow, commit to really seeing your people more often than I saw my garbage-laden wheelbarrow this summer. Allow yourself to go too long without making this effort, and you’ll soon enough find yourself never thinking about these messy things at all.