I used to run a moving company and many of my crew members came from a low-income background.
Back in 2003 I read Ruby Payne’s book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty. This book was immensely helpful in shedding light on some of the foundational mindset differences between economic classes.
Though it has been 14 years, here are three insights I still remember and share with those managers and leaders who have employees who either are currently low-income or who come from a low-income background:
1) Reciprocal relationships are worth more than money. When you don’t have much money, relationships are your safety net. You lean on your neighbor to give you a ride when your car breaks down. You ask your sister to watch your kid when the babysitter fails to show up. If your paycheck is tomorrow and you need twenty dollars to feed the family today, you ask a friend. This savings account of favors can only be counted on though if you can be counted on when someone turns to you for help.
My learning: I finally understood why Mark would choose to be late to give his neighbor a ride when his job was in jeopardy for tardiness. As far as Mark was concerned, if he got fired, there were plenty of other low-wage jobs to choose from – while there weren’t nearly as many neighbors who could fix his car.
2) Those that have grown up in poverty have incredible problem-solving capacity. They know how to be resourceful and how to “figure it out.” You don’t have to worry about “progress over perfectionism.” When you’re trying to make ends meet day-to-day, there’s no time for perfectionism. On the flipside, attention to detail may be lacking. Sometimes there would be a disconnect between the implications tomorrow from actions taken today. Planning the steps it would take to achieve a future outcome was often not in their skillset. My learning: Leverage their problem-solving strengths and resourcefulness while spending additional time training on attention to detail, implications thinking, and planning.
3) Stress relief is prioritized. The stress of trying to make ends meet on a low wage is relentless and often overwhelming. Any reprieve is welcomed. Rather than saving for a non-existent, unknown future, tips and bonuses were spent on stress relief for today. My learning: Rather than judging their choices, I was empathetic.
On my docket is to go back and re-read Payne’s book. I highly recommend you pick it up and see what else you can glean to support your team.
And as long as you are shopping for books, don’t forget to grab a copy of Culture Works: How to Create Happiness in the Workplace if you haven’t already.