An Afternoon In A Hospital Waiting Room

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.0July 2007

I recently spent an afternoon and evening in a hospital waiting room while my wife was having minor surgery. I observed a few things that applied to supervising people and providing services - two topics that interest most of us IT managers.

Observation #1: The delayed response.

People waited for hours in the surgery waiting room while our loved ones were in surgery. When surgery was completed, the surgeon would come out and speak with the family of the patient. I saw several people experience a cycle: they spoke with the doctor, received good news (everyone that day heard good news), made a few calls, and then, about half an hour after their initial chat with the doctor, they shook and cried.

Their strongest response to the stress of the day came a while after everything was over.

Lesson #1: Deep emotion and meaning that accompany a stressful event often come long after it seems that people have processed the event. As a supervisor, I have "big event" discussions with people I supervise. I should have another chat with them the next day or two to learn about their delayed response.

Observation #2: Distress and specific words.

One lady had her chat with the surgeon, made a few short phone calls, and then spent several hours in one phone call. After about one hour, I overheard the woman say, "I am so tired with all this going on. I just cannot talk to people."

Cannot talk to people?

Lesson #2: Distressed people can give confusing signals. This woman was talking on the phone constantly, but she claimed that she couldn't talk to people. The specifics (I just cannot talk to people) were contrary to her actions. The topic (talking), however, was important. When supervising distressed people, pay attention to the topic of what they discuss, but not necessarily the specific things they say.

Observation #3: The cafeteria.

I grew up in and around small southern towns. This may sound hard to believe, but in many of these towns, the best restaurant (especially on Sunday) is the hospital's cafeteria. The hospital cafeteria workers take pride in that and work to serve their community.

The hospital I was waiting in is in a planned community in the Washington D.C. suburbs. There are a dozen eating places within a five-minute walk ranging from Chick-fil-a to Morton's Steakhouse. This hospital's cafeteria was lousy at best.

I had the impression the cafeteria workers didn't like their work. Lousy food and service drives customers away; fewer customers means less work to do, and less work means happier cafeteria workers. The hospital managers didn't seem to mind.

Lesson #3: The cafeteria is a service to the hospital; IT is usually a service to the enterprise. Do we in IT appear to the enterprise like this cafeteria appears to this hospital? Are we seen as chasing away our customers because we don't want them to bother us?

Observation #4: (Meta-Observation) Learning.

I learned much from a few hours sitting in a hospital waiting room - much more than I have space to write here. I haven't sat in a hospital waiting room since my second son was born 20 years ago.

Lesson #4: A good place to learn a lot in a little time is a place that I don't frequent. I didn't enjoy my time in the hospital waiting room, but the education was worth the expense. This leads to...

Observation #5: High-Pressure, Life-Critical

A hospital is a place where people perform life-critical services. Mistakes here are catastrophic. Sometimes even excellent performance is not good enough to prevent tragedy. People have to deal with that pressure and those results.

Lesson #5: To learn about how people work, behave, and provide service while under high pressure in life-critical situations, spend a day in a hospital waiting room. No one will charge you for this training. I suggest this when you choose to do it instead of when you are forced to do it, i.e. it is best experienced if no one you know is in surgery.

My wife? She was fine, but the one day of recovery in a hospital room is another story full of its own observations and learnings.