I didn’t notice much about him apart from the fact that he was rather scruffy and that he kept his head down as if trying to avoid recognition. He dashed out in a terrible hurry as I stepped in but it was only as the lift doors began to close that it really hit me; the hard, stomach wrenching smell that made me instantly wish I was anywhere else, rather than in that lift that Wednesday morning.
I wondered if the escaping man may have been a tramp that had somehow sneaked past security to spend the night sleeping under a desk somewhere.
A thought flashed through my mind; what if someone entered the lift and saw me as the cause of the stench? What if it was someone I knew? And then it happened, instead of going straight to the 6th. as I had ordered, it made an unscheduled stop at the 3rd. “oh please, no” I prayed. The doors opened and to my enormous relief no one stepped in. But what if they had? What if on the next floor someone does? What then, should I say something, and if so, what? It may sound stupid now but I was in a kind of panic.
I stepped out at the 6th and luckily no one was around, I had escaped with my reputation in tact! However, the smell seemed to linger on me, so I headed for the gents to wash my face down. I don’t know if it made a difference but the cool water was soothing and I gradually came back to my senses. My mind returned to the man who had left in such a hurry and I thought that he too may have been completely innocent. Does being scruffy automatically equal smelly? Perhaps the smell was coming from someone else before him, or even from the lift shaft itself?
Re-telling this story to my wife this weekend made her laugh at the silliness of the situation, but it also made me see the connection with when I work for companies facing serious challenges. The people within them tend to act like me and the man in the lift. They know that even if the smell was not produced by them that somehow they are implicated. And the more they might protest their innocence, during my one to one interviews, the guiltier they seem to become. What to do? Lie and see how it comes over? Plead innocence and hope that the interviewer believes you? Take the blame, at least in part, because in that way you feel re-deemed and able to move forward?
It’s too easy to walk into a situation and to get the story wrong. The scruffy man, leaving the lift in a hurry is too quickly the undeniable cause. But life is not that simple, and experience has taught me to believe everyone’s word until proven otherwise; to trust people’s versions of the truth and to build a picture knowing that it is going to be complex and contradictory, with only glimpses of possible ways forward. Either way, the lift will need to be cleaned or allowed to stand with the doors open for a while. Sometimes, just sometimes, things have a habit of sorting themselves out on their own.
Have a good week,