I lay back in the chair, closed my eyes, and almost immediately felt my body relax. An instant later a stream of warm water rinsed through my hair while strong, competent hands massaged my scalp. For that moment my stress disappeared, washed away with the water.
I might as well have been at some exotic spa on vacation in the Caribbean but I was in New York City, in the middle of a workday, still in my suit.
I was getting my haircut at a salon, Lovella, run by a friend of mine, Avi Benichou. I expected a great haircut, and I got one. But I also got a lesson in management.
After the shampoo, in a slight daze of tranquility, I was guided to a chair and Avi began to cut my hair. We began to chat when, suddenly, behind us, came a commotion. I watched Avi in the mirror as he looked around to see what was happening.
One of the other hair stylists, we’ll call him Jon, was talking to a colleague, gesturing dramatically, clearly upset. The other customers began to look around, a little uncomfortable, not sure what was happening.
Avi excused himself and went over to Jon. He spoke softly to him, listened, and in a few seconds Jon calmed down.
Avi returned to my haircut, apologized again, made a joke — but not at Jon’s expense, and resumed his cutting.
“So Avi,” I said, “You know I’ve gotta ask: What was that about?”
It turns out that Jon had gotten into a small dispute with a client on the phone. The client had asked Jon to spend the day doing her hair at her wedding but was upset by the fee he quoted which was much higher than a single haircut. He tried to explain to her that he’d have to give up a day’s work at the Salon and needed to cover that lost work. Still, she was upset. Which made him upset. And a little dramatic.
Which, Avi said, must never happen in his salon.
“Drama?” I asked.
“Anything unprofessional. We’re always on stage. We’re all in a single open space. Anything anyone does is visible to everyone else. I don’t want customers, other stylists, the receptionist — anyone — to feel uncomfortable.”
That’s when it hit me: We all work at Lovella.
I was recently on the trading floor of a large bank. Hundreds of people were sitting next to each other in rows, everyone visible to everyone else. The head of the department, one of the top ten people leading this multi-billion dollar company, worked in an office constructed entirely of glass. There was no place to hide.
And it’s not just trading floors. Many of the newly built offices I’ve seen — like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s — are built as open spaces with everyone from the CEO to the receptionist visible to everyone. Even in older buildings almost everyone sits in cubicles or behind glass walls.
This architectural style reflects a management style — we’re breaking down the walls between us, trying to soften the hierarchy, and offering transparency. It also reflects a social style facilitated by the Internet that exposes, well, just about everything.
In other words, there’s no place to hide.
We need to be diligent and disciplined about how we act, because, as Avi observed, we’re always on stage.
In the past, we could be calm and professional in front of everyone and then walk into our private offices and lose it. That harmless venting didn’t impact anyone. But when our offices are glass — or worse, desks in the middle of everyone else — our losses of composure are losses of professionalism. People begin to lose confidence and trust in us.
So when Avi noticed Jon lose his composure he knew two things: 1) everyone was looking at Jon and 2) everyone was wondering what Avi would do about it.
Avi passed the test. He maintained his composure, spoke softly to Jon, and let Jon know that it would be better if he as the Salon owner — not Jon — negotiate the price. He promised that he would do just that after my haircut.
“When you’re in charge,” Avi told me, “You need to look good, relaxed, in control. Meanwhile your stomach is turning because you see that things aren’t running like they’re supposed to.”
Avi demonstrated the new rules of professionalism in an open work place. Be calm. Be supportive of others. Show leadership by avoiding — and, when necessary, actively managing — drama that could distract, embarrass, or unsettle others. And never, ever be the cause of that drama yourself.
“You know,” Avi said to me. “Hair stylists can be a little, well, fragile and moody. You need to handle them gently. Otherwise they’ll just leave.”
He’s right. But it’s not just hair stylists. It’s people. We’re all a little fragile and, at times, moody. We all need to be handled with care.
I emerged from the salon an hour after I had entered with a great haircut, more relaxed then I had been in a long time. And that led me to one final insight.
If you’re in a situation in which your professionalism is hard to maintain — for some reason you’ve become upset, riled up, or anxious — and a deep breath or glass of water isn’t enough, go for a walk. Leave the office — or whatever space you’re in — entirely. Then, if you have the time, walk over to your neighborhood hair salon and ask for a shampoo and cut. You’ll emerge composed, relaxed, and professional.
Peter Bregman is a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams. His latest book is 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done.