Not too long ago, I was unloading some stuff from my car parked in front of my home in east side Columbus, when I noticed Katie, one of my neighbors from down the street walking by. She was apparently out for a run, and was walking back as part of her cool down. What really caught my attention was that she was carrying in one hand a piece of garbage—a discarded fast-food bag.
During our brief chat, I inquired about it. Katie apparently had picked it up off the pavement a few minutes earlier. Her intent was obviously to take responsibility and dispose of it properly. I offered to take it off her hands and dispose of it, especially since it was obviously filthy and she had another block to go. She gladly surrendered it.
Katie’s example reminded me of another tale that Sam, a hiring manager shared with me many, many years ago. It was about a technique he would often use when screening new prospective employees. What was more intriguing was that it was a test that the applicants took without even knowing it.
Whenever Sam expected a new applicant to come in for an interview, he would always have his assistant take a scrap piece of paper, roll it up into a ball, and position it on the office floor in such a way that it absolutely could NOT go unnoticed as the applicant entered the room.
The test: would this applicant, when noticing the garbage, pick it up?
“Interesting,” I replied in our conversation. “So, why is it that you do that?” I asked.
“It’s very simple,” Sam answered. “That simple test, in its subtext, reveals to me whether this applicant is the type of person that takes responsibility.”
“Even more so,” Sam continued, “it tells me whether that person is proactive, and on the lookout for opportunities to improve things—to look for needs—without being directed from someone else.”
Is it a perfect test? Might it be possible for an applicant, especially one who was nervous, to miss the garbage? I suppose so. And while not perfect, it is a revealing one nonetheless. After all, before I heard that story, I certainly could have imagined myself noticing something like that, and ignoring it because I believed that it wasn’t my problem.
Which takes me back to my neighbor Katie. Here is this young lady, a renter living on a suburban residential street. She sees litter, and chooses not to ignore it. It’s her street, her home, her responsibility.
What about you? Have you ignored “someone else’s problem” lately? As you go about your day, at home, at school, or at work, do you notice opportunities not just for big interventions, but for little ones as well? Do you take responsibility?
Subtext can be much louder than words. Since I heard that story from Sam many years ago, I still cannot walk past a piece of litter without picking it up, regardless of where I am. But that said, I can only hope that the habit has trickled down (and up) to other things.
Only time will tell.