I was recently visiting someone in hospital when I encountered a hospital employee – a woman who appeared to be in her late 40s – heading for the toilets with her cleaning equipment. When she emerged she acknowledged me with the words “the poor will be poorer”. While conversing with her I learnt that her name is Norma and that she has been employed as a cleaner at the hospital for many years. She indicated that she had always ensured that her work was done to a very high standard but had seen colleagues who had not been so meticulous get promoted ahead of her. I sensed that she felt frustrated, unrewarded, unappreciated and taken for granted. We chatted for a while and she left in a somewhat more cheerful mood.
“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is a phrase that is used in the context of economic inequality but I realised during our conversation that she was referring to the Bible – Matthew 13:12 – “Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him.” It is unfortunate that that verse is taken out of context for if we read the preceding verses we see that it is a parable referring to seeds falling in different places – on stony ground, among thorns and on good ground. Did Norma take the parable literally and was therefore bound by its inference, believing that being poor was her fate? There is a Jamaican proverb that says: “Hard ears pickney nyam rackstone” - who doesn’t hear will feel. Some of us hear but do not listen and eventually face the consequences, while others listen but do not hear because they are so distracted.
Since the encounter I found myself thinking about Norma’s chosen words: “the poor will be poorer”. It is significant that she stopped there, not mentioning the rich for clearly she has no part with ‘them’. She cannot imagine herself among the rich so she saw no point in uttering it. If we do not prepare our minds for increase how will we cope with that increase when it arrives? Norma drew inspiration from the Bible but how could those biblical references be more encouraging to her? If her seeds fell on good ground she would appreciate the need to build her repertoire and become the best cleaner there is and widen her horizons. She would develop the courage and confidence to approach her bosses for promotion or to discuss her professional growth. She would develop the will to explore avenues for personal development (within or outside the organisation) – applying for higher or lateral positions that will give her more job satisfaction, opportunity for upward mobility and greater rewards, financial and otherwise.
We all have talents but it is for us to seek ways of showcasing and maximising them. There is no point throwing them on stony ground and then complaining that they don’t grow. Neither should we let negative influences confuse, hamper or ensnare us; we have to take our future into our own hands. If we want something we have to work for it or ask for it; we cannot assume that it will be handed to us. The same Bible that Norma reads tells us: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. (Matthew 7:7). Too many of us don’t ask, don’t receive and then blame the world for not giving. Some years ago I was writing a book and needed some pictures; I tried to purchase them but couldn’t handle the restrictions so I turned to the internet where I found some wonderful pictures. I asked the various owners if I could use their pictures and every single person said “Yes”. In the end I had more than I needed and I happily sent copies of the book to those who had obliged.
As I pondered more on Norma’s statement – the poor will be poorer, the thought occurred to me - how can it be that the person who is responsible for maintaining the most important part of the house see herself at the very bottom (no pun intended) of the pecking order. As far as I see it, the bathroom is the main part of the house for what you can do in the bathroom you cannot do in any other part of the house. Let’s break it down – the bathroom has a bath where you can sleep if necessary, just place a pillow and some sheets. The toilet provides a seat with cover which can be used as a chair. If your bathroom includes a dressing table you can use it as a dining table and it has a sink where you can wash. You can wash your clothes in the bath and hang them on the rails to dry – the bathroom can replace the laundry room, living room, dining room and in a given moment, the kitchen – just place a hotplate on the dressing table. It is improbable that we use our bathrooms in that way but it is certainly possible. Now turn the tables and let’s see where in our houses we can use in the same way as we use our bathrooms? I think we would be challenged to identify such a place.
It follows therefore that the bathroom is the key part of the house. If a man’s house is his castle, what can we conclude? Consider: if the toilets at the castle are out of use and an important event is being planned at the venue it is almost certain that the said event would be cancelled (unless other conveniences can be accessed). Why does the person who is in charge of the most important part of the castle find herself at the bottom of the pile (again, no pun) - disregarded, disrespected, scoffed at and worse still, lack self esteem? How can the cleaner be made to understand that she plays a key role? There is a popular anecdote that goes like this:
The parts of the body were talking, each in turn arguing that they hold the most importance. The eyes said that without them the body wouldn’t see where it was going, the legs said that without them, no one was going anywhere; the hands said they do the work that bring in the money, and the list goes on. When it was the anus’ turn, they all laugh and scoffed at it, clearly indicating that it was the least among them. The bottom took offence and went on strike and hell broke loose. The eyes started to bulge, the legs weren’t going anywhere, the stomach hurt, hands couldn’t go to work, no one was able to function. They soon realised the importance of the anus and eventually they acknowledged that Mr Anus was indeed the boss. He went back to work bringing an end to the chaos.
The above correlates with a biblical story (1 Corinthians 12: 12-26) and holds important lessons about the interconnectedness and inter-reliance of our body parts. We are interdependent - we need each other to survive and no one is better than the other, irrespective of his or her status. There is an Italian proverb that says: Alla fine del gioco, il re e il pedone tornano nella stessa scatola (Once the game is over, the king and the pawn go back into the same box). Be humble, respectful and grateful for we are all equal. “The first will be last” (Matt. 20:27-28) promotes Servanthood for “if anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all”.
This week one of my students asked me to explain the meaning of the word ‘initiative’. That is what Norma should show – an attitude that goes beyond the call of duty, is resourceful, creative, identifies problems and proposes solutions; she should make herself invaluable! If that doesn’t work at least she would have earned a good reference which will position her in good stead to seek more rewarding opportunities. At the end of the day no one is indispensable and she is not tied to that hospital. She may have other reasons why she may want to stay – location, fear, resistance to change, apathy, convenience, the work schedule, travel costs, relationships, flexibility, security... the list goes on. She has to consider all those factors and decide what is important to her.
As managers of organisations, how do we relate to our junior staff? Do we recognise the value of their contributions to our success and do we create pathways through which they can grow and get an opportunity to shine? Too often we ignore those who are watering our roots, appealing instead to those who are admiring our leaves. We should be careful about this and take time to ensure that those who are close to us feel valued and know that they are appreciated. Seek opportunities to show appreciation – a gift from a business trip, a birthday card, at simple Thank You. Look around your office and find the Normas that may be there. Help them discover their talent and show them how they could increase their rewards and enhance their job satisfaction. Look for opportunities to show gratitude and appreciation; share some of the spoils with your staff.
Life is a cycle and we don’t know where we will be tomorrow; be nice to people and take no one for granted. At the end of the day all human beings need the same things to survive (food, clothing shelter) and generally share the same aspirations – safety, belonging, esteem, self actualisation/success. No man is an island and the sooner we realise it, the better off we all will be. If we help others to get what they want, we in turn will get what we want.
The poor may get poorer but if they look carefully at what they have in their hands and use it, they may discover that they are not so poor after all.