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Winning at Working -- Those Crazy People

by Nan Russell

His voice was loud; his attitude hostile; his words caustic. Despite how rude he was, she remained calm, professional, and polite throughout the challenging encounter. Even from my close vantage point, I didn't detect a hint of irritation in her demeanor. The man in front of me in the breakfast order line at the food court, in one of the busiest airports in the country, wanted a "full" cup of coffee. He kept raising his voice, yelling at the woman to "fill his cup to the top." His words peppered with angry comments about her not giving him his "money's worth."

People trekking to their gates paused to see what the commotion was. The upheaval, as it appeared to me, was about a person angry over something other than coffee, and taking whatever it was out on a stranger attempting to fulfill his request.

Maybe he couldn't control what was happening in his life, but he could control how much coffee he got. Who knows? After the fourth time he shouted at her about not satisfying his request for a "full cup of coffee" and accusing her of "stealing his money" by not giving him what he paid for, she glanced my way. Shooting her an encouraging look, her eyes smiled in return.

I'm sure that in that busy airport, this woman gets her share of "crazy people." Yet people like her, people who are winning at working, aren't easily fazed by them. They use two approaches when these unbalanced, obnoxious, or demeaning energy bolts come their way.

First, they seem to deploy the equivalent of an emotional shield by switching on a silent choice button. Instead of letting some crazy person ruin their day, pour toxic venom into their energy field, or define how they see themselves or their jobs, they choose to deflect the angry words and focus on the situation. They refuse to take the occurrence personally.

We all have crazy people encounters at work from time to time. Sometimes customers, clients, staff, bosses, or coworkers, use us as verbal punching-bags to vent their frustrations, anger, or disappointment. But people who are winning at working keep that in perspective, too. They realize, more likely than not, they've been someone else's difficult person, from time to time.

I'll never forget as a young, infrequent traveler, our first expensive family vacation outside the U.S. We were bumped from an overbooked plane out of Philadelphia, bused to a New York airport, missed that plane, rebooked on a flight through Puerto Rico that turned into an unplanned overnight stay in a seedy hotel. When we finally arrived at our Caribbean island resort having lost nearly two days of a six day vacation, no luggage arrived with us.

It's true that the person who encountered my rage over the overbooked flight that started it all did not deserve my wrath. I was her "crazy person" that day. Our son, quite young at the time, still teases me about "going ballistic" and screaming at the airline representative in anything but a professional manner.

Twenty years later, I'm still embarrassed to think how I reacted and to recount how out of control I was to an unsuspecting person on the other side of the desk, whose caring approach and compassion was memorable. She demonstrated the second approach people who are winning at working use in these brief, explosive encounters. They offer a compassionate heart.

People operating with the winning philosophy of offering the best of who they are to the world, understand this: some heavy life-loads people carry are invisible. The person next to you or behind you or across from you may have a waterlogged heart, a broken spirit, or limited days. We can't know the challenges someone else is dealing with, the tragedies touching their lives, or the stresses crushing them day after day. But we can view them (and their temporary craziness) through compassionate eyes.

You see, people who are winning at working understand life is hard sometimes and we all benefit when we're gentler with each other. That young women serving coffee in a crowded airport modeled a better, winning at working, way.

(c) 2010 Nan S. Russell. All rights reserved.

Nan Russell may be contacted at

Author of Hitting Your Stride: Your Work, Your Way (Capital Books; January 2008). Host of "Work Matters with Nan Russell" weekly on Nan Russell has spent over twenty years in management, most recently with QVC as a Vice President. Sign up to receive Nan's "Winning at Working" tips and insights at


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