I never thought it would be my mother-in-law, a woman 50 years my senior — more like a grandmother than a mother-in-law — who would inspire this life lesson. I didn’t know her for a very long time before she passed, maybe five years in total, but I liked this simple woman a lot.
Frequently I would visit with her — take her to appointments, run errands, purchase groceries or just visit. When the weather was nice, I would take to the river where we’d sit on the bench, enjoy the view and eat the ice cream.
I always believed that I was in her life to help her, to keep her company, to be of assistance. It was not a conscious thought, but I never acted with expectation — that there was anything in it for me.
Many years ago, I remember offering to dry the dinner dishes that my mother-in-law was washing. I had prepared dinner at her home, and after a pleasant meal together, she proclaimed that the dishes had to be washed before she could retire for the evening. “A reasonable goal,” I thought as I reached for the dish towel.
Well, goodness me! I have never met anyone who washed dishes slower than her. I wanted to take over the task to be done with it, but with no pressures on her time she seemed to enjoy the leisurely pace. With equal amounts of silence and idle chatter, I wondered what time she called it a night, because surely we would be done by then.
In the end she stretched the task to fit the time she allotted to it. I, however, would have completed the task in a flash, allowing myself more time to do something else, such as read a document or reply to one more email. That was the first and last time I ever offered to assist her. Therein after I quickly moved to the kitchen and speedily did the clean-up by myself.
Now, 14 years later, I understand the bigger picture. I realize that my mother-in-law wasn’t really washing dishes. She was choosing to spend time with me while doing a task that needed to get done. I, however, only saw the task that needed to get done and measured how quickly I could complete it within the timeframe I allotted. I stood in judgement of the way she did things, and didn’t respect the rules of her home.
As I reflect back on my time with her I recognize that it is true that an 86-year-old woman moves slower — much slower — than everyone else. But I don’t think that was of concern to her. Her home was a lot like walking into a new culture in the workplace with its own set of unwritten rules, people and expectations. The environment she established in her home was designed to spend time with those people she cared about. It was me who did not respect the culture she had established in her own home. I brought my own beliefs and shaped events to accommodate me.
If I had to live with her certainly we would have to accommodate her home environment, her rules and way of living, to meet the needs of both of us. But this thought brings me pause. The accommodations would need to be minimal because it is her home after all. She is the driver, and that must be respected. And maybe this is what work culture is. A big part of the environment is defined in advance by the leader to attract qualified people who want to work in that culture. And a smaller part of the culture morphs and evolves as people come and go. Organic fluidity. Out of necessity work culture evolves with the people working there. A company’s culture is, after all, “the way we do things around here,” and as people change, and innovation, diversity and uniqueness are embraced, the culture will also change.
My mother-in-law has long since passed, but she left me with a great gift. I have no doubt now that she knew what she was doing. She was trying to use the environment of her home to slow my family and I down. She was trying to teach me to take the time to reconnect with others, to take the time to smell the roses. All too often we increase our speed to do more so that we can relax later. But does later ever come?
I wish now I had been paying attention to one of life’s great lessons— to simply slow down and observe. And one lesson that should be considered when developing any work culture.