A few years ago I heard Tim Sanders tell this story. It has made it’s way around the internet and may be familiar to some. I think it is such a powerful example of the impact of our words and the things we say (or perhaps don’t say) to those around us.
A few years ago, I gave a keynote speech at a technology conference about the dangerous high-tech/low-touch management style in which e-mail replaces face-to-face contact, even when the manager’s employees work in the same building. It’s possible, I argued, that you could work for months without much real human contact with your co-workers or your boss.
Then I invited the audience to ask me questions or share stories. A few days later, I received an e-mail from someone I’ll call Steve, a manager at a software company. In the note he admitted, “I’m guilty as charged. I’m exactly the type of manager you described. What should I do?”
I told him to take immediate action by spending time thinking about the contributions each one of his nine employees made to the company and to him. Meet with them in person, I said, and give them the recognition they deserve. The rest will take care of itself. About a week later, Steve sent me a note I’ll never forget as long as I live. The subject line of the e-mail was “Xbox Story.”
Steve told me that he’d met with engineers personally that day, making one positive personal and one positive professional comment. Two days later, one of his engineers (let’s call him Lenny) entered Steve’s cubicle just as Steve was arriving at work. Carrying a box wrapped in brown paper and topped with a bow, Lenny told Steve he wanted to give him a gift. Steve unwrapped the box and found a remarkable prize: an Xbox gaming system and a copy of the John Madden Football video game. Steve was thrilled.
Steve hadn’t given Lenny a raise for as long as he could remember. So Steve asked Lenny where he got the extra money for such a lavish gift. Lenny looked him straight in the eye and said words no manager ever expects to hear: “I sold my chrome-plated 9mm semiautomatic.” Lenny told Steve that though he had worked at the company for two years, in all that time Steve had never asked Lenny a single question about himself.
Lenny had moved to town from Denver the day after he buried his mom, who had died suddenly. Lenny’s mother was his only close friend and only real confidante. So Lenny moved to a new city and took a job at a company where he thought he would make new friends. But, he said, “People here aren’t very friendly. No one ever speaks to me in the halls or the lunch room.”
Lenny said that his only friend in the world was the Internet. So he logged on daily to look for solutions and found several.
“Suicide chat rooms,” he said. “They’re filled with other people just like me. And they told me what to do.”
Lenny saved up for several months and bought a chrome-plated, 9mm pistol, which he stored in a cigar box. Every night when he got home from work, he’d open the box and look at the gun. The end of the chat room program is “the final approach,” which was where Lenny had recently arrived.
“And then, the other day,” Lenny continued, “you freaked me out. You come into my cubicle, you put your sweaty arm around me and you tell me that you admired the fact that I turned in every project one day early. You also told me that I had an incredible sense of humor over e-mail, and that I made the whole group laugh when times were stressful.
“But then you told me, ‘Lenny, I’m glad you came into my life,'” Lenny whispered as he moved closer to his boss. “I went home that night, put on Kurt Cobain and started my nightly routine. But when I opened up the cigar box, as the light reflected off the chrome, the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. And for the first time I was afraid to die. At that minute, I was off the program. I shut the cigar box and put it in my backpack. I took it back to the pawnshop that sold it to me, and they gave me a few hundred bucks. I thought to myself, ‘What do I want to spend this money on?’
“Then I remembered that you had been bellyaching for a month over e-mail that your financial controller at home, aka your wife, wouldn’t let you buy the new Xbox gaming system because you had a new baby.”
With tears streaming down his cheeks, Lenny said, “Sir, in exchange for my life, my soul, this gift is for you.”
(Here is the link where I re-read this story: http://www.mpiweb.org/Archive/220/38.aspx)