It Matters More When No One's Looking
It’s easy to be nice (or virtuous or kind or thoughtful) when the eyes of the world - or even a single person, for that matter - are on you. It’s much harder, and frankly, far more telling and meaningful when they’re not.
This is true in all walks of life, but especially so in the business world, where we allow ourselves to use the “capitalist filter” to make decisions that, if we were to step back and assess them in a broader social or moral sense, we likely would have acted otherwise. (Putting aside why people are so completely comfortable divorcing moral or fairness considerations from economic ones. That’s a conversation for another time.)
I was reminded of this in an article I recently read about what the difference is between an entrepreneur and a businessperson. The point of the article is interesting (and debatable), but what was more interesting was a particular point in the story relayed by the author about his experience at a Milliner (hat shop) in NYC.
To cut a long story short, the owner of the store (Linda) needed oversized hatboxes that customers could then put their large, wide-brimmed hats into. She had approached a local paper packaging factory that could do the job but hadn’t fixed the relevant die-cutter for years as the owner didn’t believe the demand would be there for this size of box. So Linda offered to pay to fix the die cutter (a couple of hundred dollars) - but ultimately left with the view that the factory still wasn’t convinced of the value of making the fix.
“So she was surprised when, a few months later, the large hatboxes she'd requested arrived from the factory, but without the bill for fixing the die cutter. She talked to the factory manager, who told her that the owner had done some investigating on his own and concluded that there was, in fact, a growing market for hatboxes much larger than he was used to making. He had the die cutter fixed and proceeded to sell so many of the big boxes that he felt it wouldn't be right to bill Linda for the repair. He was grateful to her for recognizing an opportunity he had been totally unaware of.”
The author’s point was that Linda, the entrepreneur, helped the factory owner see an opportunity in this size of box that the owner himself didn’t. That may well be true.
But what’s more interesting to me was that the owner felt it wouldn’t be right to bill Linda for the repair that she herself had offered to pay for. In almost every sense, he was well within his rights to do so. But he “felt it wouldn’t be right”.
That’s a personal stance, on the basis of principle, that many might consider naive. In fact, I know of individuals who would consider it to be ‘stupid’. That’s their right.
But what it suggested to me was that the owner did business on the basis of a code, a set of principles, that valued more than simple transactions, or every last dollar, or the fact that business is, simply, business.
What it suggested to me was a code for conduct that was based on principle, on long term relationships, on the big picture. You could even argue - if you were inclined that way - that he did business, implicitly or explicitly - on the basis of karma, and positivity, and paying credit where credit is due.
No, it isn’t necessary. And no one would have thought twice if he’d sent the bill for the repair.
But it would have meant something to him. He would have noticed. There’s a value in that.
That’s the type of person we should all look to work with.