You can’t get through a day lately without hearing, “I’m glad I am not a kid growing up in today’s world. I couldn’t handle all the cell phone cameras, videos, and social media broadcasting every stupid mistake I made.” These comments are almost always accompanied by a reminiscence of earlier times when life was simpler. A time when people were supposedly allowed to be themselves without the entire world knowing their business. A time when children were to be seen and not heard, instead of now, when kids post a photograph of their meal so all their friends can know just what they had for lunch. And a time when a handshake was as binding as any contract.
These sentiments all center around one common theme, we treated each other better back then. People seemed to say “please” and “thank you” more, they opened doors for each other, and seemed generally more civil. Personally, I grew up being taught to open doors for others (men as well as women), and to speak with courtesy. I grew up long before the pressures of instant media. My house had a single land line with one phone in the kitchen and one in the basement; both rotary dial. The strength in my fingers came from learning to type on a manual typewriter in 7th grade. And our house was the first on the block to get one of those new-fangled kitchen wonders; the microwave oven (for the first three months, we stood five feet away when it was on, just in case).
I did not learn civility, however, because of the absence of Big Brother’s eyes-everywhere presence. You see, in my day we had something that would put social media to shame. We had an institution more instant than cell phone video; the neighbors. No matter what my siblings or I did while terrorizing the few blocks surrounding our house, it got back to mom and dad; often before we even got home. Many dinnertime conversations included “Mrs. Tarnow said she saw you kids playing at that house that is under construction. You know the one. The one we said to stay away from.” We kids could place watch guards at every corner, but we never saw Mrs. Tarnow; somehow she always saw us. And if it wasn’t Mrs. Tarnow, it would be Mr. DeFrang, Mrs. Higgins, the Frieds, or some neighbor we didn’t even know existed.
So, the truth is, those of us of a certain age did grow up in an era where our every mistake was broadcast. And it wasn’t broadcast to a world of faceless strangers, it was circulated to people who actually knew you. People who saw you only days after you were born when the neighbors would all come over to “see the new baby.” They heard about your every antic over coffee and doughnuts. And the reason the neighbors ratted on you to your parents was that they wanted to see you reach adulthood intact. And, of course, what is a neighborhood without a little gossip?
So, what does this have to do with running a company? Maybe nothing, maybe a lot. Why do employees do things that are bad for the company? Why do some managers treat staff the way they do? Why do we see business leaders at the peak of their careers one day and being indicted for fraud the next? People have a lot of fancy answers to these questions, but I think the answer is simple; anonymity. Quite simply, it is easier to hurt people you don’t know.
There was a TV show some time ago in which a married couple received a gift from a mysterious stranger. Inside the box was a metal cube with a red button on top. A note was attached that read, “Every time you push the red button you will receive $10,000 in cash. The money will show up at your doorstep, but you will not know who delivered it. However, every time you push the button somewhere in the world an innocent person will die. You will never know who the person is, and they will not be anyone you know or care about. You can keep the box as long as you like and push the button as often as you want with no consequences. Every time you do, you will receive $10,000 and someone, somewhere, will die.”
Of course, the couple was aghast. No way would they cause the death of an innocent person, no matter how much they stood to gain. For the first few weeks, they were diligent. They hid the button away where they couldn’t see it, and they never spoke of it. Then one day, an emergency arouse. (Something along the lines of a life-and-death medical emergency). Convincing themselves that it was necessary, and that they would only do it once, they pushed the button. They got the money, the emergency was averted, and soon everything was back to normal. They never heard news about the death. As you might guess, the story progresses; with each new “emergency” being a little less dire, but still worthy of pushing the button. By the end of the story, the couple was pushing the button every day, sometimes because they just wanted extra cash for shopping.
Most religions and spiritual philosophies encourage followers to “act always as if God were watching.” People in therapy for anti-social behavior are told to imagine that any harmful thoughts they might have are being broadcast to everyone around them. These beliefs are an attempt to combat the one thing that allows us to harm our neighbor, the anonymity that allows people to do bad things. Knowing someone isn’t the only reason we choose to do the right thing, but I can be an important reason. We don’t hurt, harass, cheat, or demean a friend. What if your workplace was like my old neighborhood? Not in the “Mrs. Tarnow is always watching you” kind of way, but in the “we are all neighbors” kind of way. In the end, I act the way I do, not because somebody with a cellphone camera might be watching, but because, in a real sense, Mrs. Tarnow is always watching.
Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management. He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or firstname.lastname@example.org.