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June 19, 2010

The Pansy Protests: Using Charm to Overcome
Filed under: People Skills,Sitework — nedpelger

I was chatting with Bill Gainer the chief estimator at Wiker Excavating a while ago and we got on the subject of the difficulty getting jobs done these days. We were covering the usual litany of complaints about the timing of permits, the arrogance of certain inspectors and Owner’s changing their minds. We hadn’t yet gotten to bog turtles and Indian burial grounds when he told me about a new source of aggravation they’d discovered.

Wiker was building a parking lot at Eastern University (I told him my daughter attended there) and had a bunch of the survey stakes pulled out of the ground and posies planted in the resulting holes. He said, “Can you imagine someone protesting the project by pulling out our survey stakes and planting flowers in holes?” I could.

I thought back to a phone call I’d received from our daughter Anna, who was full of righteous indignation that Eastern University (which she loved) was taking the favorite outdoor sitting area of the students and planning to build a parking lot. She was most aggravated that none of the faculty had heard about the proposed project and seemed opposed to it as well. She thought the Administration was trying to just push it through without the inconvenience of open campus debate and discussion. She thought something needed to be done and she wanted to do it.

She told me that these wood sticks had been hammered into the ground that had writing on them. I told her they were survey stakes and meant the start of work was imminent. She asked me, “Well what if we just pull the survey stakes out?”

I said, “Under no circumstances should you pull those survey stakes out. It takes substantial work to do that layout and you would be liable for thousands of dollars. Also, it’s disrespectful to the guys that did that work. I previously did that kind of site layout and hated when people drove over the stakes.”

Of course, that night she went out and pulled out all the survey stakes and planted pansies in the holes. She thought the principle bigger than money or hurt feelings.

When I told Bill it was my daughter who had pulled out those stakes, he roared with laughter. He said, “Even though we had to re-stake the entire area, we did think it was pretty funny that they planted pansies in the holes…it certainly was different.”

The response of the Administration, on the other hand, varied. A couple of the deans talked to Anna and gently chided her, but seemed sort of pleased that some real campus protest was going on, seemed glad that the response wasn’t apathy. The Dean in charge, however, didn’t see it that way. He called Anna into his office and asked her whose idea it was to pull out the stakes and who had done it. She responded, “It was my idea and I mostly did it.”

He started talking about financial consequences and disciplinary measures. She realized that she could be in some deep doo-doo here. Finally, the Dean asked her what she thought her discipline should be. Anna thought for a bit, then said, “I should have hours of community services, doing things like pulling up noxious weeds that have invaded the campus.”

The Dean looked at his notes and said, “Well I see here you already volunteer to do that, how is that punishment?”

Anna replied, “Well don’t you think that if I care that much about this campus that maybe I don’t need to be punished?”

Apparently he broke into a big grin and Anna walked away with no punishment and a new friend.

Charm. Never underestimate the value of charm as a lubricant in conflicts.

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