Thursday, September 15, 2005

Stopped at a Red Light (Again)

I was stopped at a red light on my way to a meeting this morning. The little white signal light on top of the traffic signal was flashing, indicating that a train was coming (we have lots of trains running through downtown Fargo). Apparently when that white signal light flashes, all the traffic lights turn red, because the train blocks an intersection just north of the one where I was stopped.

I was going east on Main Avenue (the majority of the traffic goes east and west on Main Avenue) and was stopped in the left lane, second in line behind a white car. I could sense that cars from all four directions were beginning to be uncomfortable with the traffic being stopped for so long (it was probably two minutes at the most). I sensed us all wondering "what are we supposed to do in this situation - should I stay? Should I go?"

The white car ahead of me started inching forward, and the car next to him in the right lane followed suit. The light continued to stay red, so finally the white car went through the light and on down the street. The car next to him did the same thing. Now I’m the first one in the line. Other cars start to venture out – in the right and left turn lanes. It starts to look a little chaotic, as first one inches out and then the other. Soon the flashing light stops, which signals that the train isn’t coming. I know that also means that the traffic signals will be reinstated. I notice that a car in the right side intersection is now barreling through the intersection, which means, to me, that his light must be green. I then know that mine soon will turn green, so I wait.

In the split second I decided to wait, I started thinking about the guy in the white car in front of me who decided to go through the red light. My first thought was that he must really have someplace to go in a hurry. I immediately formed a story in my head about how important he must be (or must think he is) to go through a light that eventually would change. Just then the light turned green and I went through the intersection on to my meeting. At the next stop light I ended up right behind the same white car that I was behind at the previous red light. And my first thought was “see, you didn’t have to rush – I’m caught up to you already. It really didn’t matter that you had to wait at the last light – we’re in the same place again.” I think I had a bit of ego in that thought. Then that light turned green, and the white car slowly pulled ahead. It didn’t take me long to realize that the white car didn’t have anyplace to get to very quickly because he wasn't even going the speed limit.

As I pulled out to pass him, on my way to my very important meeting, it hit me: was he really that important that he had to run the red light, or was he feeling pressure from me (the car behind him) to go through that red light? Was I unconsciously sending him the message that this red light is holding me back? Was he really in a hurry, or was it me who was in a hurry, sending that message to him without saying a word (or using my horn)?

I didn’t really feel outwardly irritated by the situation – it was more of an observation in my own mind, which had absolutely nothing to do with the white car (or the person in the white car). How often have I felt pressured to do something because someone else would do it that way? Or because I thought that’s what the other person would want? And am I sending those vibes to people without even knowing it?

How often do we give up our own power – our own Knowing – because it doesn’t jive with someone else’s way of doing things? Or do we even take the time to stop and think about what we are doing? Is it the machinery running us – the momentum, the “way we’ve always done it” – that keeps us on the treadmill?

So I want to thank the guy in the white car today for being a great mirror for me. I'll never look at red lights the same way again.


At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Dick Richards said...

@ How often do we give up our own power?

I have gotten a lot of mileage out of that question, especially when my consulting contract with an organization has to do with employee empowerment. It has two important corollaries: How do I give up my power, and Do I recognize when I am giving up my power.

I count as one of my all-time most effective interventions a time when, during a three-day workshop with thirty plant employees, I assigned myself the job of alerting them each time someone gave up his or her own power: for example, each time someone spoke about what "they" were doing, or why "we can't do" this or that. At first they considered me an annoying pain in the butt. Then they got it, and the transformation was wonderful to behold!

The key I think is to help people focus on what they are in charge of or can influence, rather than what others do or don't do.

At 9:55 AM, Blogger Jodee said...

Thanks for your comments, Dick. You always present such a great perspective.

You mentioned empowerment. I read Ken Blanchard's book "Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute" and that gave me a new view on empowerment. He says in that book it's not that employees aren't empowered; they're not willing or able to step into their own empowerment, which reinforces what we're saying here.

It really is wonderful to watch someone "get it" - to behold transformation - that's why I do what I do for a living!

Thanks so much for your comments!


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