This past weekend, I had to do something I’ve been dreading for awhile. It’s been looming over me. It’s been staring at me (literally) for years.
The old paint cans needed to go.
Several painting projects over the years had littered our garage with half full cans of paint. And, since I’d placed it on my 90-day personal plan, I begrudgingly decided to do something about it.
I had our children help me move the cans out of the garage (curiously, they were also not excited about this project). I cataloged each color by photographing all the cans. And then, loaded them all up into the back of our vehicle to take to our designated hazardous waste disposal site.
When I arrived there, I was sore, tired, and resentful that this had already taken more of my Saturday that I originally planned. After all, I had committed to doing this, but I had not committed to being happy about it.
The employee at the drop-off site took one look at me and said:
You’re not supposed to be transporting that much paint at one time.
He immediately went onto tell me that the rules only allowed him to accept about a third of what I’d brought. To drop off the rest, I’d need to make return trips, since there’s a daily drop-off limit.
In retrospect, I should have known there would be a limit, but it didn’t occur to me to look it up before I got on the road.
These limits are smart and sensible. Without them, there would be all kinds of carelessness and attempts to dump industrial waste or otherwise abuse the system.
In my specific case, this sensible rule didn’t seem to make much sense. Either way, the paint was going to end up at this site — but under the rules, I’d be coming back over three days, burning more gas to harm the environment more and opening up additional chances that the paint would spill in transport. Plus, taking more of everybody’s time and paperwork.
So, the well-intended rule was, at least in this case, counter-productive.
I hesitate a bit to share a story like this, because on its face, it’s completely inconsequential. I had to make a few extra trips to the landfill to rid myself of too many paint cans from our beautifully painted home. Talk about a first world problem.
But the exact same kind of thing happens everyday in organizations all over the place. The well-intended policy or procedure doesn’t make sense (or actually causes harm) in a specific situation.
Since no rule can address every possible situation, wisdom is needed. One of the many definitions Merriem-Webster has for wisdom is a bit of “good judgement.”
On more occasions than I’d care to admit, I’ve expressed anger about well-intended rules to people who didn’t make the rules, but are being paid to enforce them. Most of us have lost our cool with a customer service representative who, like many of us, is simply attempting to do a good days work, handle the next situation, and follow the guidelines of their organization.
So when the opportunity comes for a bit of good judgement, we get to make the choice. Do we lead with an attack — or do we lead with kindness? Abraham Lincoln is believed to have said:
A drop of honey gathers more flies than a gallon of gall.
Easy to say. Hard to remember when you’re sore, tired, and feeling resentful.
After getting my lecture about bringing too much paint and the details on when I’d need to come back, I had the conscious thought of all the Dale Carnegie courses I’d taught over the years. So, I started with this:
Wow. Thanks for telling me. So sorry — I wasn’t aware what the limit was. I’ll plan to come back on Monday.
And I added:
How’s your day going?
This started a conversation that ended with this a few minutes later:
We’re closing in 15 minutes. If you drive around and come back in the line in 10 minutes, I’ll see what I can do about the rest.
We both know the rule. We both why the rule is here. In this case, a bit of wisdom should prevail.
I never asked for an exception, but I left without my paint.
If we are willing to stop for a moment and give people margin through respect and kindness, we open the door for wisdom to emerge.