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August 04, 2008
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The Laying of the Bricks

The HR Doctor had great fun and the great privilege to be the keynote speaker at the first ever All-Ireland Human Resources conference several months ago. One of the great expressions heard at that conference, perhaps over a Guinness, was the phrase “the laying of the bricks.”

The phrase refers to the work of the mason in creating a strong and straight wall or house by the patient and knowledgeable laying of one brick at a time, brick after brick after brick.

Although the phrase was not said necessarily in the context of public administration or human resources, it is a rich metaphor for our consideration in the way we manage large projects and in the way we manage our own careers, and the growth and development of our children.

It certainly describes the long and persistent efforts to achieve a peaceful reconciliation between conflicting peoples in Northern Ireland.

The work of the mason takes skill, often developed as an apprentice in a productive relationship with a mentor or master bricklayer. It also takes having a plan or blueprint to follow — having a vision of what the final product will look like. Certainly it takes high-quality materials. Most of all, however, it takes a particular quality known as patience.

Patience is, metaphorically, the mortar that enables brick upon brick to be carefully and professionally installed so that the outcome of all the work is something to be proud of and something that will last for many years or decades. 

Patience has been declining as an American virtue. We live in a society dominated by an attitude reflected in a particularly loud and obnoxious current television commercial “I want it now!”  The “I want it now!” society is one in which people go into great debt, including high credit card debt, in order to be able to simply say “charge it” as we buy some new toy which we probably don’t need to begin with.

It is reflected in the current subprime mortgage meltdown. It is an attitude demanding immediate gratification including the gratification through the abuse of alcohol and illicit or prescription drugs. It is part of the larger lack of emotional intelligence and integrity that causes raw emotion to be victorious over reason when it comes to bullying, violence, sexual harassment or race discrimination. 

  It is very difficult to apply great skill or artistry in these conditions with the often necessary slow, deliberate attention to detail that leads to a product or an outcome which exceeds expectations over the long run.

We certainly live in a public administration world where short-term thinking is rampant, especially by elected officials, and increasingly by legislators at the state level.

These officials seem to value looking good at the next news conference, next week’s meeting or at the upcoming election over being “in it” for the next generation. It is a matter of patience as well as courage to adapt to the strategic long-term view, and build something strong and tall that lasts for a long time to come. 

There are many examples of the victory of impatience in public service. These include allowing an infrastructure to decay, cutting the funding for arts and music in schools while whining about the poor quality of education and the high drop out rate. It includes cutting indigent health care funding, including mental health funding, while complaining about the lack of quality health care treatment. We all stand at risk of seeing the zeal for tax-cutting replace the passion for effectively managed programs that contribute to a more civil society.

The icons of our culture, such as our television programs and video games, alternate between whining, dysfunctional behavior and great violence. These are not the products of a focus on the long-term and on the positive development of subsequent generations.

In an impatient world, the skills of a master bricklayer or a master administrator may crash headlong into a mandate to adhere to a schedule, live within an inadequate budget or produce an unrealistic outcome.

In how we raise our beautiful children, the balance is also working against patient master craftsmen. In our perceived necessity as parents to be working to excess, or for an American Idol episode to be watched instead of time being better spent in private coaching of a child, we sacrifice long-term development for short-term gratification. 

The HR Doctor has frequently mentioned a frightening statistic — frightening to him, at least. That is: The average American watches four hours a day of television. Imagine the kind of world we could shape if we watched only three hours a day of television and invested that extra hour in learning a new skill such as music, art, a new sport or learning a new language.

What a difference it would make if that hour was spent as a volunteer in one of countless 501(c)(3) charities that need all the help and support they can receive but are not receiving as their own funding is cut while demands for service increase. 

These trends certainly apply in the way we spend a great deal of our lives and in how we interact with people we care about, including our children, our spouses and our coworkers. It also applies, however, to the way in which we manage projects and serve the taxpayers at all levels of government.

The laying of the bricks in a patient manner harnesses the knowledge and skills of expert administrators in creating something wonderful. Isn’t it time that we learned from the bricklayers by taking full advantage of mentoring opportunities, by being a teacher and a mentor to our children and our colleagues and by bringing about, even in a very small way in our own individual lives, a restoration of the virtue of patience?

Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor •


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