The Parable of the Thermostat: A Lesson in Communications

Our company had just moved into a brand-new state-of-the-art building. It was constructed using green design principles with an open, organic feel and plenty of windows for natural sunlight. I was excited to move in!

Entering my new office that first morning, I noticed it was a bit too cool for my taste so I turned the thermostat up a degree or two. After unpacking a half dozen boxes and beginning my real work, I was still cold so I bumped the thermostat up again.

Throughout that first week, I continued to mess with the HVAC system to try to get comfortable. When I could stand it no longer, I called Maintenance. They explained that the system was computer controlled and that they would make an adjustment. I was satisfied that the problem was solved. It wasn’t.

After another week, I called back in desperation—“Please help me! I’m freezing!” The kind person on the line said she’d send a technician over immediately. When the technician arrived, he quizzed me on the situation. I told him I’d been freezing for two weeks and no matter how high I turned the thermostat, it just kept getting colder. He examined my thermostat and, without a word, he left!

As I sat there shivering, wondering why he had abandoned me, the technician returned to my office. Only now he wore a silly grin on his face as he yanked the Velcro attached thermostat box off my wall and disappeared again. He was gone 10 seconds and returned only to reattach the thermostat to the wall.

Reading the puzzled look on my face, the technician explained, ”Our HVAC controllers are wireless. It turns out that while you’ve been freezing for two weeks, the guy next door to you has been boiling. I just swapped your controllers—you should be fine now.”

It dawned on me–every time I had turned the thermostat up, the temperature of my next-door neighbor’s office had been going up. Because it was so warm in his office, he had been turning his controller DOWN. Literally, my office mate and I had been torturing each other as, little by little, we had each maxed out the one control we had our hands on.

Although comical in retrospect, there are many lessons in this true story turned parable. Here are five:

Lesson 1: Communicate
My own lack of communication prolonged my pain. If you see something in your workplace that isn’t right, speak up. Perhaps a critical tool is missing or doesn’t work, or maybe you or members of your team lack proper training. It’s possible that there aren’t enough hours in the day for the existing staff to get the job done.

Any impediments to getting your job done well should be productively communicated and now. Discuss the problem with your team. Come up with potential solutions. Present the problem and your recommendation to your manager. The best ideas and solutions come through understanding the problem. And, understanding the problem can only happen through communication.

Lesson 2: Adapt To Your Environment
I had a job to get done so I stayed with it. Because of the cold, I wore a jacket and then a parka (really). Sometimes our work environment is uncomfortable in other ways—high pressure, bad boss, demanding clients, uncooperative co-workers, etc. Whatever the challenges, you can’t just stay home. You have to try to make it work. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for help. If you’re under-skilled, get training. If you’re inexperienced, ask for coaching. Stretching yourself to meet the challenge will make you more capable, more productive and more valuable.

Lesson 3: Make Sure You Have Your Hands On The Right Controls
My high-tech wireless thermostat was impressive–it looked great and was designed well. It just didn’t control what I thought it did. Likewise, when we take action in our professional roles, we should be thoughtful and intentional in ensuring that we are focused on the right things and using the right tools for the job.

We should be purposeful in choosing what to focus on. The late Stephen R. Covey taught this powerfully when he said, “If the ladder is not leaning against the right wall, every step we take just gets us to the wrong place faster.”

Lesson 4: Act Quickly When Things Go Sideways
If I had called for help on day one, I could have avoided two weeks of misery for my office mate and me. In our jobs, perhaps critical materials haven’t arrived or the progress of the work isn’t on track. If you know you’re going to miss a deadline, you have to make decisions and act immediately–get more resources, expedite the order for materials, find an alternative supplier, etc. We do what it takes to stay on track.

If nothing can be done to avoid missing a deadline, communicate with management and/or your client ASAP. It’s always better to be up front. Distrust is worse than missing a deadline. If you’re honestly doing everything possible and the project is still going to be late, reasonable people will want to know so they can accommodate the delay in their other plans.

Lesson 5: Communicate
I’ve made communication the focus of both lessons #1 and #5 because professional and personal effectiveness begins and ends with it. Regarding the fundamental importance of communication, renowned British physicist Stephen Hawking said:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination. We learned to talk and we learned to listen. Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind’s greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn’t have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking–Stephen Hawking

Effective communication is the most powerful activity you can engage in. It’s the most powerful skill you can develop. And it, along with honesty, are the most valuable character traits you can exhibit.

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