06/16/2014 05:36 pm ET Updated Aug 16, 2014

Bring Your Brain to Work

My wife, my infant son, and I arrived at the boarding door, baby in arm and bags in hand. That's when we found ourselves caught in an example of one of the biggest workplace problems of our time.

A little background: We've taken several trips as a family on this airline -- It's the main one I fly for business. I fly it often enough, in fact, that I have earned both early boarding and a pass allowing my wife to accompany me at a deep discount -- two benefits for which I'm quite grateful.

Oddly, though, the airline treats the two as unrelated. I'm issued an early boarding card while my wife is relegated to the back of the line. This isn't an issue when we fly as a couple, but when we add the one-year-old into the mix, it becomes more attractive to board together.

I should be clear that I love this airline and choose them at every opportunity. I've actually been told multiple times that I deserve to appear in their magazine's "happy customer" feature. This is not a misfiled complaint.

Enough background, you cry. What happened?

Well, after nearly twenty segments of family travel, I've learned to ask in advance: "Are you the one who will board this flight, and if so, will you allow us to board together?" The results are about 50/50: Half of the boarding agents permit it, half split us up. My response is always "thank you," and my wife and I have a system for either alternative.

But this time around, the agent who claimed he would be boarding the plane and allow us in together wasn't there when we arrived at the door. "I'm sorry," the replacement agent shook her head, "but I can't let you board together. That's not allowed."

Now I'm thankful and polite to all the people I encounter in the travel industry. Their hard work makes my business life work, and I know it. And I probably should have have just reconfigured quietly. I'm sure my wife would have preferred that. But instead, I tried to make conversation during the sixty seconds it took to run our Baby-Airport-Parent Reconfiguration Process (first revision). And things only got worse.

"I'm pretty sure boarding together is allowed," I replied. (Wife gets laptop bag.) "In fact, I was told that we could do so now, for this flight." (I get baby.)

"Oh no," she retorted. (I get diaper bag.) "You can't have been told that." (Recover dropped blanket.) "It's strictly against the rules. I can't do it." (Wife gets carry-on.)

"It really is your choice," I answered. (Exchange boarding passes.) "You could let us if you wanted to." (Baby socks to back pocket.) "About half of the gate agents on our flights do." (Clip Sippy cup to belt.) "But this will work too." (Boarding passes to front pocket.)

Our reshuffle was complete. As my wife and I departed in opposite directions, the agent looked troubled and offended. And as the little guy and I made our way down the ramp, I heard the agent sigh to the passenger behind me. "I just can't win."

The conversation was polite and short. Neither of us was rude, and I certainly wasn't trying to be argumentative or make her life difficult (though I doubt she would agree). But by setting herself up as the powerless enforcer of someone else's policy, she touched a nerve. You see, I have a difficult time hearing, "I have to make you because it's a rule." It's just a little too suggestive of brain-free work.

Not long ago I attended a conference in which I observed a leadership simulation. During the debriefing, the designated leader complained about receiving only general activity instructions at the outset of the process. "I can't possibly lead these people," she said, "if someone hasn't told me what to tell them."

Again, brain-free work.

We operate under the specific and too-often unquestioned notion that our primary function is to carry out the orders of those above us; that efficiency comes when clearly defined and well-communicated directives reach everyone and are followed unilaterally and uniformly. In other words, check your brain at the door when you get to work. Pass along the information they give you. If you don't like it, complain to your coworkers and customers about your powerlessness -- but don't do anything about it. And don't think too hard.

Research and experience tell a different story: There's rarely anyone 'up there' who knows as much as we know. What we need is everyone thinking -- engaging mentally as well as mechanically. We need everyone to keep their eyes, ears and minds open in today's complex workplace.

As people grow into leadership roles -- taking on greater responsibility for more complex output -- this becomes more important. Ask any good leader at any level, and they'll say "the buck stops here." They look upward for direction, guidance, and expectations, but they never go to management seeking scripts to read to their people or excuses for making difficult decisions.

They don't pass scripts or excuses downward, either. They set direction and guidance, and leave it to the intelligence and authority of their team members to carry out the work. They know that engagement and challenge in work produce not only better results, but also happier people and more fulfilling lives.

I'm not daft. I'm not advocating chaos or insurrection. Workers at all levels, including this particular gate agent, must enforce policy. But even if she wasn't able to recognize some flexibility in this particular rule, she could have expressed a rationale for it, showed some empathy for its unintended consequences, and perhaps offered a process for giving feedback about it. She certainly could have stopped short of suggesting that I was dishonest -- or, ahem, daft -- in my claim that another agent had told me differently. She could have been a contributor, not just an enforcer.

Enforcing policy doesn't require blindness to reality. It doesn't preclude expressing a rationale for the policy. And it doesn't prevent us from recognizing the difference between an iron-clad policy and one that allows for a little judgment.

When we fail to contribute -- to bring our own intelligence to the workplace -- and when we fail to equip others to do so, we fail to create meaningful, engaging work. We fail to benefit from critical intelligence and output. We fail to develop in workers the orientation toward responsibility they'll need to grow into leaders. And, we fail to treat customers the way we should.

So, yes. This particular interaction touched a nerve, enough for me to write this article imploring you to bring your brain to work, and to encourage everyone around you to do the same. Banish from your repertoire phrases like "there's nothing anyone can do about it" and "because it's a rule." Instead, try phrases like "I think," "I suspect," and "I expect." Let's let each other -- and the world -- benefit from our collective brainpower and ability.

Oh, and if you have any leftover brainpower at the end of the day. Let me know. I need some help troubleshooting the second revision of the Baby-Airport-Parent Reconfiguration Process. I think there's a problem somewhere around baby to back pocket.