Wet Paint: A Story about Leadership, Trust, and a Summer Job

Like many kids in the 60s, I worked summer jobs in order to have money for college. During one such job, working in my town’s recreation department, my co-worker and I were instructed to paint a meeting room in one of the community buildings.

The color of the new gray paint was the same as the old gray paint, and in low light it was difficult to tell if the new paint had been applied. Phil and I displayed signs reading “Wet Paint” and headed back to the Rec Department.

When Phil informed our supervisor that we had completed the task, the supervisor come to inspect our work. Despite the posted signs, he placed his forefinger on the nearest wall, and subsequently colored his fingertip gray.

A short time later the supervisor returned to the freshly painted room with his manager; and again we observed the finger test. Hard as it is to believe, the same scenario repeated itself: the department director rubbed his fingertip on the wall in spite of the “Wet Paint” sign.

As Phil and I wrapped up for the day, we agreed that it did not matter what was said verbally by our supervisors about our fine work. Instead what was communicated with a fingertip to a freshly painted wall was that these individuals did not trust us to do our job. And, thus, one of my first workplace leadership lessons was learned at the age of 17: trust (or lack of trust) is communicated through action.

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