Jan
19
 

What hospital janitors can teach us about wisdom

What hospital janitors can teach us about wisdom

Someone forwarded me another TED video – they always make me think, and I always want to share them. Barry Schwartz speaks about our loss of wisdom. He argues that our society, businesses, and lives are becoming increasingly stuck on rules and incentives, and that what we need in order to thrive is instead practical, everyday wisdom that will guide us to do the “right” thing.

Barry offers us a chance to look at the job descriptions of hospital janitors. In their exhausting list of tasks, there is not one that mentions involvement with other people. And yet when interviewed, many janitors spoke of the ways they altered their jobs, or fulfilled their job descriptions, based on their interactions with others (and the feelings and needs of others). The changes they made included human interactions involving kindness, care, and empathy – and resulted in greater patient satisfaction, care, and recovery. And yet their job description contains nothing about other human beings.

These janitors had, according to Barry, moral will to do right by other people, as well as moral skill to figure out what doing right means. Practical wisdom, according to Aristotle, is the combination of moral will and moral skill, and it is this practical wisdom – the ability to know when and how to make an exception to a rule, to know how to use moral skills to serve others – that will help us thrive.

Our work around Thoughtful Leadership touches on the combination of moral will and moral skill. We suggest to clients and colleagues that they think through what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and why they’re doing it. We stress the importance of intentionality, morality, and humanity – of being human, of connecting with others, of doing what’s “right” and “best,” and of bringing our best selves to the table as often as possible. I listened to Barry’s words, the stories he shared, and was even more inspired to be a change agent and continue to share these thoughts.

This speech illuminates some of the areas where individuals have gone astray as leaders – by enforcing rules that made no sense in certain situations, by incentivizing behaviors that pull us away from moral will and skill – and some of the ways in which we can bring ourselves back to what is important. So that we can lead.

Have a watch and let us know what you think. And I also invite you to share how you find wisdom by visiting my LinkedIn Q&A.

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