Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, December 7, 2020
It’s getting to be the time of year when old times should be forgotten. If I had my way, that would include burying them. We are coming to the end of 2020. Of course, one dilemma with coming to the end of something is the realization that a couple days later, it starts all over again. You are never really outta here until the pine box shows up.
Still, I am good with taking a short breath and seeking leadership and guidance on how exactly to navigate these waters. To that end, I turned to Professor Boris Groysberg, Harvard Business School. His advice starts with a quote from Henry James, “Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind.” Henry does have a way with words, doesn’t he?
Next, Groysberg lists the challenges we all face. Parenting, remote work, home schooling, isolation from loved ones, special needs children, caretakers, health care workers, financial strains, Zoom and doom — there is not enough newsprint available to list them all. But in the end Groysberg decides that “the fundamental leadership strategy is the most innately human one: Be kind.”
Sounds simple, no? We all think we are. But when we look in the mirror, for sure we see some cracks. The techniques he suggests are reassurance (no, Bob, you are not going to lose your job, we can make it together), compassionate listening (yes, I can take some time to really listen to your concerns without interrupting you and making notes on my phone and thinking about my next meeting) and a “conscious effort to validate people’s fear and confusion,” (I know that you are afraid. That is perfectly rational at this time, but let’s trust together that the company will survive, and you will too).
A survey of psychiatrists (I asked mine) shows that more than 42 percent of their new cases are associated with “these times we are living in.” See, the good news is that it is perfectly rational to be terrified and neurotic (finally the justification I have been seeking).
Now, let’s take the other side of the coin. Groysberg is asking the CEO to exhibit all those kind behaviors, while at the same time navigating the tsunami of crap coming down on his head, financial pain, market woes, customers bailing out. This standing in the other guy’s shoes is not so easy — high heels, flats, wingtips or flip-flops. So, the practice of kindness cuts both ways.
Ritchie Davidson, University of Wisconsin, says “Kindness is teachable. Practicing compassion can be compared to weight training.” It is not a weakness to be empathetic. Groysberg goes on, “Kindness is contagious as well as calming.” My assistant of 28 years, Ms. Rockstead, has a phrase for me when I am bouncing off the wall, “Breathe. Just breathe.”
And of course, it is yoga that focuses a lot of its training on breathing. And breathing leads to calm and calm leads to reflection and the ability to see outside yourself, and finally by extension kindness is contagious. The Mayo Clinic says that “acts of kindness activate a part of our brain that releases oxytocin that makes us feel pleasure” and then in the workplace, this translates to improved morale and performance.
Philo of Alexandria, 20 B.C., (I did a startup with him) says, “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” Groysberg offers a few concrete thoughts on how to practice kindness.
“I hear you.” Make space for your employee to speak safely. Be present, don’t judge. Just listen. (This is good advice for marriages, as well.)
“Are you OK?” Be willing to provide comfort. Tell Betty it is OK to leave early to just get some extra rest.
“What can we do to help?” Even if you can’t really help, be a sounding board. Tell her that you know she is doing the best she can.
And finally, “I’m there for you.” (Feels like Groysberg might have lifted that from my first book.) Be available and in the moment.
But the fishhook is that you can’t just say the words. You need to really be there, baby. And that is the hard work.
Rule No. 687
I hear you.