Paul Butler: Don’t leave an unpleasant aroma at work

Paul Butler

I am beginning to wonder whether the people I see walking or jogging on the paseos wearing a mask are on to something.

The World Health Organization still states that COVID-19 spreads mostly through direct contact with infected people and via large infected respiratory droplets. The hefty droplets fly from a person’s mouth when they cough or sneeze, falling to the ground by the time they’ve traveled only a few feet.

However, mounting evidence suggests that aerosols may spur transmission more than once thought, and these particles “can remain aloft for a considerable amount of time,” on the order of hours, said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist and head of the Climate and Health Program at Columbia University in New York City.

Shaman noted that the study authors sampled the air for just three hours, meaning the virus could potentially remain viable for longer.

“You have this issue where people are unwittingly spreading the virus around,” Shaman said. Even imperfect homemade masks likely disrupt the movement of droplets and aerosols exiting your mouth, he said. “I would suspect that masks help.”

Maybe I ought to wear a mask when I’m out and about on the paseos and not just when I visit the grocery store. I’m no scientist, but I do notice when I pass someone either by walking or running, I often get a whiff of their perfume or cologne — some aromas linger for longer and some disappear in an instant. Some are pleasant and some not so much.

This got me thinking about the workplace and how some people are remembered for years long after they’ve gone. The challenge, of course, is — are those memories positive or negative? We can all think of people we’ve worked with in the past who left a positive memory — to us, they were a pleasing aroma. On the other hand, we can all think of people we’ve worked with in the past, who left a negative memory — to us, they were an unpleasant aroma.

Forgotten like a vapor

I always think it’s interesting how some people at work are so easily forgotten. It’s as if their working life was just a vapor — here today and gone tomorrow. I saw this recently with one of our clients — a large publicly traded company that has business operations across the world.

Due to the nature of the work we do with them, we partner alongside some of their very senior leaders on the specific assignment we assist with. A few years back, they were acquired by another company. I’m always aghast when I’ll mention someone’s name from just a couple of years back and there’s absolute silence on the screen. It’s not as if this person left a negative memory — it’s just that their name doesn’t resonate at all with my on-screen audience.

It’s as if that person never existed. They’ve become the Great Unknown when just a matter of months earlier you’d think they were carrying the company on their shoulders.

I remember teaching some leadership classes in China and, over breakfast, one of the Chinese leaders shared with me the metaphor of the arm in a bucket of water. When we remove our arm, water rushes in to take the place where our arm was. My host told me it was like that in leadership — we should make a positive difference but not think of ourselves as being irreplaceable.

In summary, we should take care to ensure what we breathe out in the workplace is helpful and not harmful. We also need to be careful what we breathe in — negativity can be very destructive within individuals, across teams and can even poison the operating system of an organization.

Likewise, the droplets of air we exude on the walkways of the workplace will live for a little while and then drop to the ground — meaning our work shouldn’t become all-consuming, else we run the risk of it consuming us.

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