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William is an Assistant Professor at Mount Saint Vincent University in the Department of Business Administration and Tourism and Hospitality Management. He is fascinated by research around how individuals construct and create their social realities, intrigued with the powers of creativity and innovation, and an avid proponent of outstanding service experiences. When not teaching, writing, or researching, he tries to spend time with his family and occasionally paint. He is currently completing his PhD in Management at Saint Mary’s University.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Power of Two Pennies in Communication

There is a coin that lives on my desk. It's a very special coin.

More than a few years ago, when I worked in a different place, decisions were being made about an upcoming 'big' event. I was reasonably new back then - the kind of new where you might understand some of the political dynamics but really fail to appreciate historical context. And because it was more than a few years ago, I was a tad greener about organizational realities than I am now.

This 'big' event was the naming of a new facility, one that I watched grow from conception through construction. People around me were grumping about what it was going to be named; I too was on the grump band wagon. It seemed to me only fair that those involved with its design and development should have a share in the naming process.

The announcement came down one afternoon that the facility was going to be named after the patroness of the region, much in the same way many other buildings and centres had been in the past. To me, this was just a bunch of people selling out to political pressure and I was none too pleased. I could have just let it go. I could have continued to grump about it. I could have learned more before speaking. Nope, not me.

I wrote an email. A permanent, on the record, saved in the files kind of email addressed right to THE person in charge of the decision. As the organizational chart went, it was directed to my boss's boss's boss, the very same person who took the risk of hiring me in the first place just a couple years earlier.

Long paragraphs were crafted about the need to be our own organization, not caving to pressures outside of our four walls. I wrote of pride and honour, and questioned the wisdom of the decision at more than a couple of levels. With misplaced confidence, I ended my note with 'Just my two cents." and hit send. Essentially, my note was a “what not to do" in the digital age. Luckily, I was smart enough to keep the email address to only one person.

Just a few days later, my phone rang. Being neck deep in teaching and students, I wasn't thinking much about the email I had sent a short while prior. On the other end of the phone call was the person in charge, asking if I had time to chat; he would come to me. It's amazing how quickly you can retrieve and reread information when panic strikes, and I consumed my past prose with fresh eyes.

I was doomed. This was bad – really bad.

He joined me in my office, coming in with a calm, patient demeanour. No beating around the bush today, he got right to it; he told me that he was here about my email.

“Thank you” he said. I paused, taken off guard slightly. He appreciated that I took the time to express my feelings in a passionate and thoughtful way; it was refreshing, he said. Without notes or cards, he walked me point by point through my email, agreeing in some places and disagreeing in others. At the end of the day, he said, facilities are named because of money. Our patroness had pledged 10 times the next largest financial commitment, an amount that put us over the required investment; however, her estate didn’t wish the specific dollar amounts released. The exact amount they gave was not to be the news story.

At the end of our chat, he paused and reached into his pocket. He said that he’d been travelling a lot lately. From his pocket, he handed me a coin. “Do you know what this is?” he asked. I looked the coin over. “It’s a tuppence.” I answered after reading the coin, having not actually seen one before. He nodded. “That’s right – two cents. You gave me your two cents. I’m returning the favour.”

An agreement was struck that day. Should I ever feel the need to express myself about an issue, I need only include the tuppence with my comments as a way of signalling their importance. He would in turn return the coin to me after we had the chance to speak about it face to face.

I’m no longer with that company, but I still have that mentor. And I still have the tuppence. It lives on my desk to remind me of the responsibility that comes with using your voice, along with the importance of using it with intention, with conviction and with compassion. It symbolizes the effort involved in listening to others and valuing their input, especially when they disagree with you. It’s a simple tool that encourages and celebrates civil, honest discourse and promotes critical thought while protecting and respecting people.

I think we need more tuppences in circulation.

But that’s just my two cents.

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