“Wait here to be seated”

Today we enjoyed some orienteering (I last did so when I was a teenager) and had decided to go to Polly's Tea Rooms in Marlborough for one of their famous cream teas. The orienteering took less time than we had anticipated, so we chose lunch instead. Polly's Tea Rooms have a great reputation, so we were looking forward to this with some anticipation.

When we arrived we were met by a sign which said, “Wait here to be seated.” A family of three were ahead of us in the queue and we wondered how long we would wait. Nobody attended to us to welcome us or give us an idea of how long the wait might be. Nobody seemed to have that role or to feel that such an action was important. Meanwhile we watched the bustle of waitresses clearing tables, and a queue of people alongside us waiting to pay for their table gradually reducing.

After what seemed like half an hour, but was probably five to ten minutes, and by which time there was a significant queue behind us, the waiter finished collecting money and told us we would have to wait a few minutes.

I suggested to him, probably more aggressively than I should have done, that it would have been nice to have been greeted earlier. When we were politely pointed towards a table a little later I wondered why we had all been queuing as there seemed to be quite a few empty tables around.

I found it interesting how this experience diminished our enjoyment of the restaurant. Does it take a lot to say “hello” to people rather than line them up like cattle? Perhaps what felt like a poor welcome was not intentional – maybe half the staff had phoned in sick, and the difficulty for service industries is that people rate them on the whole experience and not just on what they think their core product is.

Perhaps as I get older I become less tolerant, or perhaps I am just more aware of what good service can look like. I also find myself surprised at the number of businesses who do not seem to have a way of encouraging feedback from their customers. Good feedback provides testimonials that help with marketing. On the other hand complaints are a gift to draw attention to the way things can be improved, and to prevent the diminution of reputation and sales that can be caused by disatisfied customers.

When the meal came it was good – scampi and chips cooked to perfection – however next time I'm in Marlborough Polly's Tea Rooms will not be the place I have been looking forward to going, rather it will be one of a number of possibilites alongside the other pubs, hotels, and restaurants.

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Good deeds make a difference, scientists say!

In this world that sometimes seems so competitive, does your character make a difference? The “nice guys” (or gals) sometimes wonder whether being kind to people has any effect on wider society.

Prof James Fowler and his team from the University of California have discovered from observing participants in a game that they had devised that someone on the receiving end of an act of kindness went on to show similar goodwill to three other players, on average. So “This creates a domino effect in which one peson's generosity spreads.”

On the downside, selfish behavour was seen to spread in the same way! However this does show that behaviour is influential, and character (which is about repeated patterns of behaviour) is important. From a coaching point of view this shows the importance in a group or organisation of the behaviour of leaders, and how it is important to make issues of character, or personality, central in executive coaching. Of course, what we call “character” in an individual becomes “culture” in a group, and this study shows something of the way culture can be formed and influenced.

This reminds me of a quote by Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “We cannot all do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”

Follow links for more detail: popularist Daily Telegraph; technical: Red Orbit.

(First noticed by me in The Week 20th March 2010.)

Would it be good to be infallible?

Secretly, even if you did not admit it, would you like to get every decision right every time? Can anyone be infallible?

Alan Turing was one of the people who made enormous contributions to code breaking during World War 2. He was fascinated by machines and what they might do. He worked out that it is not possible to solve every problem by logic alone. In seeking to determine whether machines could replace human beings he developed the 'Turing Test' which is still referred to today. This is the test: if a machine can really think then a person interrogating the machine and a human being from behind a screen should not be able to tell the difference.

In reading an article* about him recently I was struck by another of his conclusions, or paradoxes: that if a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent – because part of what makes us human is that we get to solutions by making mistakes. If as human beings we are to learn well from our mistakes, it seems to me that we need to also to develop skills to do so – skills of review or reflection.

I think I'd rather be intelligent than infallible. I enjoy learning, and value the ability to learn!

Furthermore learning is at the core of most of the interpersonal work that I do, and I seek to help people to learn during the conversations that we have and also to live life in such a way that on an ongoing basis they review the results of what they do to maximise their learning (and, to an extent, their awareness).

Besides, I think my children probably destroyed any attempt of mine at infallibility a long time ago!

*Third Way magazine, March 2010.
(If talking about infallibility brings up thoughts of religion, it may be worth noting that Alan was an atheist.)