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The Passenger Effect: Their Valuable Role in a Car and on a Team

For the longest time I was nothing more than a passenger. For the first 16 years of my life I sat dutifully in the front or back passenger’s seat of my parent’s car, being toted around to church, to practices, to public auctions and to well, everything. No one would have given me the clearance to drive at age 8, 10 or 12. I wasn’t ready.

Then in a span of a year everything changed. Permit…driver’s ed class…written test…road test…license. Boom! All of a sudden I could drive. And not even with an adult in the car. I could drive all by myself!

passengerMy role in the vehicle certainly changed at that point. No longer was I a mindless robot staring out the window at the endless farms that dotted the landscape where I grew up. Instead I was an active participant in moving a multi-thousand pound vehicle from point A to point B, with the hope of not incurring or inflicting any damage along the way.

What I soon realized when I first became a driver is how valuable passengers are. It didn’t seem like I had been doing anything important all those years I served as a passenger, sitting in the back seat of my parent’s car. I mostly felt like an innocent tag-along who didn’t impact the process of driving. But passengers can impact the driver in many ways, both for good and for harm.

The Passenger Effect

For example, did you know that passengers can see more than drivers? Drivers are focused on the road and what’s in front of them. They do look from side to side but only to see the major issues. They miss many small details along the way because it’s not where their focus lies.

Because my daughter has received her permit and recently begun to drive, I’ve had ample opportunity of late to be a passenger. The other day, she was driving down a stretch of road I frequent multiple times a week. As I sat in the front passenger seat, I saw three things in about two miles that I’d never seen before. My detachment from the wheel allowed me to observe the landscape a bit deeper and see things I hadn’t noticed before as a driver.

Passengers also help give directions. When our family was in Washington D.C. recently on vacation, my wife rocked Google maps. Despite traffic that rivals any city in the U.S., we were able to navigate relative quickly and smoothly to our destinations of interest. She could read the GPS and give me directions quicker (and safer) than I could have done if trying to drive and look at the map myself.

Of course, there is another side to this equation. Someone who can’t see the direction you should be going would be a detriment to the driver. They’d miss turns and have the driver going all over the place. And this would in turn cause the driver to get very frustrated. He or she would have to backtrack and compensate for the fact the direction giver wasn’t up to the task.

A good passenger also knows when it’s time to keep quiet and when it’s time to speak up. Times to speak up might be to identify dangers the driver doesn’t see (“Watch out…deer!”). Speaking up would be a good idea if the driver becomes tired or sleepy. (In that instance the passenger can even take over for awhile while the driver recuperates.) In some cases, the passenger can ask a question if they don’t understand the direction the driver is going (“Hey, why are we taking this road?”) or if the driver is behaving in a way that is harming the passenger (“Can you slow down? I’m getting queasy.”)

But passengers should be careful because too much chatter is unwarranted. No driver likes the constant critiques from the backseat about their driving habits or choice of route. Passengers don’t want to distract the driver either with idle chatter, endless questions or unwarranted noise (take note kids…mom and dad want a quiet car while navigating D.C.). And passengers certainly shouldn’t goad drivers into doing things they are uncomfortable with. That puts everyone in danger.

So as you can see the passenger plays a vital role for good and sometimes for bad within the car. Yes, they are along for the ride but they should have a vested interest in what happens while they ride. And when it’s appropriate they should participate (by either action or inaction) to make the job of the driver easier.

In a way, it’s almost like driver and passenger are on the same team. Speaking of teams…

Every Team Has Drivers and Passengers

I hope you’ve picked up some insights so far that extend beyond the passenger car. That was my goal. If you haven’t well then let me just spell it out for you:

Every organization has drivers and passengers on their team.

Without drivers (leaders) to set focus, push goals and outline expectations, organizations would drift along, never really getting anywhere. They’d have no one to rely on to take the wheel when clear direction was needed or when times get tough. There would be no one willing to step in to lead the course corrections and make drastic, strategic moves to avoid accidents. You couldn’t do all these things if everyone was content to be a passenger.

By the same token, drivers in organizations can’t do it alone. They need passengers (team members) who are willing to look out for things the driver may not see. They need passengers who can help the driver chart the organizational course. It will proceed better and have a greater likelihood of success with the input of others. Drivers need passengers who can ask questions at the appropriate times to clarify what’s happening. And driver’s need passengers who know when to keep quite and let the driver do the job, while all the while remaining supportive of his or her efforts.

Good organizations have people in both roles. There can’t be all drivers. With too many hands turning the wheel the car will eventually lose control. But there can’t be all passengers either. With no one steadying the wheel the car will quickly lose control.

Great organizations have figured this out. But they’ve also figured out something else that really makes them tick and that is this:

The drivers don’t always have to drive and passengers don’t always have to ride.

At times, it’s good for the main organizational drivers to step out from behind the wheel and see things from a passenger’s perspective. It will enlighten their world as it has mine as I’ve sat next to my daughter as she drives.

And at times, it’s good for the main organizational passengers to step up and drive for a bit. They are capable to do so if they’ve been trained. Even if they haven’t been trained, they can quickly learn. How would that change an organization if more passengers felt empowered to experience the driver role in some capacity?

Drivers and passengers need each other. Yes, I could probably drive by myself from Atlanta to Cincinnati without getting lost. But I’d sure miss a lot of details along the way because my eyes, by necessity, would be fixed on the road. Or I could become distracted and get sidetracked at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. And besides that, it sure would be boring without someone to share the journey with.

So give me passengers every time I take a trip in a car or build a team or lead an organization. They are invaluable.

Questions for Discussion: What other value do you see passengers bringing to the equation? Think about your role on your team or in your organization – are you a driver or passenger most of the time? If you are a passenger, do you find yourself ever resenting the driver? How can you move from being a passenger to driver? Drivers – What have you found to be beneficial when you’ve stepped back and taken on the role of a passenger for a time?

Image by Mat Simpson at Flickr Creative Commons

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