The little things you say and do

“If you want one thing too much, it’s likely to be a disappointment,” declares Augustus McRae in Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove. “The healthy way is to learn to like the everyday things, like soft beds, and buttermilk…a sip of whisky of an evening…”

Not all those items are commonly found in the workplace (fortunately or unfortunately), but everyday things—the little things—certainly are. 

We talk a lot about the employee experience around here; it’s what we do. When asked to describe your employee experience, what do you say? Chances are nearly zero that your answer concerns achievements, either yours or the company’s. Or projects you’re working on. Or the latest financials, or the goals for the next FY. Chances are nearly certain, however, that your answer concerns what it’s like to spend 40 hours a week within these four walls. 

And more specifically, the people you’re spending those 40 hours with. My boss is a jerk. My boss is great. All my coworkers are lazy. My team is really tight; it’s just been wonderful being here. 

But another question arises. Work isn’t a show put on for my benefit. I’m in the show. What am I doing to do make these four walls a better place to be? What’s my contribution to the experience? 

Well, there’s little you can do. Literally. You can do little things. Life is an endless series of little things, punctuated by occasional big things. Most of them involve other people. Work is no different. 

Got a minute? Often seems like the smaller the thing, the more disproportionate the effects. Someone runs into your car in a parking lot? You’ll deal with it. But break a shoelace? Can’t get the can opener to work? And where, for the love of all things holy, is that freaking charger? So many of life’s deal-breakers, one after another. 

But it works the other way, too. You build on the good little things, and they become good big things. 

Every workplace has its share of workaholics, if not out-and-out obsessives. People usually respect them. They often admire their dedication, even if it’s to a degree they would never attempt themselves. But they don’t always follow them, at least not cheerfully.  

Instead, there’s the manager who diligently attends to his responsibilities, but who can always take a moment and talk about last night’s ballgame, or about the kids—his, and yours—or about what music he’s listening to lately. When you say, “Got a minute?”, the automatic answer is “For you? Always.” He works hard, no question, but work doesn’t appear to be the Central Fact of his life. 

You give the workaholic his due. But you don’t want to imitate him. The other manager? You don’t want to let him down. You’re happy to have him as your leader. You want to be more like him. 

But I don’t have a minute! some will say. OK. But you know you do. You have nothing but time. It’s the one thing you will always have. 

We do this every day. If 90 percent of life is simply showing up, it might be 100 percent at work. Given the chance to ask only one thing of your employees, what would it be? This might rank near the top: Always do what you say you’re going to do. That’s a whole, whole bunch of little things, but man, that’s big. 

It’s big because it’s the tie that binds. It makes teams, teams. You need not make an emotional connection with the products your company produces, although it’s helpful if you can. It’s not even entirely essential that you connect with your company’s mission statement, although you should if it’s a good one. But one thing you must do: You must connect with your team. Not letting each other down plays out every day, one little thing after another after another. The employee experience at its finest. 

So, little things; time; connections. Sort of squishy stuff when you’ve got deadlines and zillion-dollar budgets to manage and such. Fair enough. But if we’re going to do engagement, then let’s engage. “Bring your whole self to work” is a common refrain in the employee experience business. (Some even want to bring their laundry.) Work is one of the places where you will live your life. Live it, then. Look out for your fellow employees, do what you’re supposed to do, and don’t take yourself or those four walls overly seriously. 

Live it. Make coffee if the pot is empty. Look out the window when you see one. Walk slowly. Ask a coworker what the significance of an office knickknack is. Enjoy the five minutes of bantering before the meeting starts. Show up on time. Take lunch. Ask for help. Give it when asked. Take an extra 10 minutes to finish off that task. Breathe. Take a moment. Just do it. 

We tend to over complicate things. Unless you work in a hospital, we’re not saving lives here. It’s just work. As a legendary baseball manager once said, we do this every day. 

“The little things you say and do…” is the first line of an old Buddy Holly song. The line itself is a little thing; seven common words, which weren’t his, preceded by a six-syllable hiccup, which was. Seven words of a pop song. He’s been gone nearly 60 years, but the song is still played. 

What little thing have you said or done lately that someone may remember about you, many years from now?