It has been a very quiet 18 months for me. I use “quiet” not to mean peaceful or uneventful, but off the digital radar. After such a long absence, I admit that coming back to social media feels like I’m at a party introducing myself to a room full of strangers. Scary for an introvert like me!
In real life, I’ve reserved precious time and energy for family and a very small circle of loyal colleagues and clients. Among other misfortunes, cancer entered my world, striking close family and friends, including my husband, Nick.
When life turns into a storm, some dear people brave it with you, while others board the lifeboat and head back to shore. You learn a lot about the depth of your relationships, and of others’ ability to handle the rough and tumble with you.
For a long time, I drew a sharp dividing line between my professional expectations and private circumstances, believing that I could protect my work from my personal turmoil. I stubbornly held on to this illusion – until I lost a client. In shock, I surrendered to the fact that my personal self and my professional self were inseparable, and I needed to be honest about that.
I share this because I always believed in a holistic merging of the private and the public self, but when I had the chance to walk the talk, I didn’t do it. I had an image to uphold. I pretended I could be the same person and do the same things as I did before. I was afraid of what people might think of me.
This happens all the time at work. There are so many parallels between personal crisis and organizational crisis. Some challenges in the workplace are like cancer – they are systemic and they have no easy solutions – while others are relatively simple and manageable. And, like health problems, workplace problems that start small become complex and messy when they are ignored. This is more malignant than the illness itself. The cancer of inattention breeds deep disease. I got through a hard year with the help of loved ones, Buddhist writings, long walks, and a lot of time to process. I noticed what behaviors were constructive, life-affirming, hope-giving. They enriched my connection to myself and others. Whether they came from me or from my circle of support, they were the same behaviors.
- Admit the truth. Acknowledge what is real. “I’m scared.” “I don’t know what to do.” “I don’t know what to say.” It takes guts to speak the truth, and when we do, most people (those who matter anyway) look up to us for it. Nothing is more admirable than facing a challenge with truthfulness and courage.
- Stay present and sit with it, face it. We’re accustomed to repressing our emotions, distracting ourselves, and escaping harsh reality. While it’s painful to sit with hard feelings, this is the only way to move forward in a healthy and healing way. I love a Buddhist term for this – “walking the razor’s edge.” Yes, the razor might cut us, but as we scramble along, clumsily and awkwardly, we become more agile and limber and eventually do cross to the other side.
- Own it. Take responsibility. Act. There’s no blame or passing the buck, no waiting for someone else to solve the problem or rescue us. No “experts” to figure things out. Just us.
- Share it. Be together. Talk about it.
It’s tempting to self-isolate and keep our problems to ourselves, not wanting to impose on others. I do this because I struggle with embarrassment, a lack of trust, and my deep-seated belief that if I ask for help, others will let me down.
- Be there. Listen, really listen. When we’re in pain, it’s difficult to hear anything beyond the pain, and this can alienate us from others. At least those who witness our pain can listen for both. This is NOT about “saying the right things” or having answers and solutions. It’s simply showing up. The biggest mistake we make is letting our own discomfort get in the way of showing up for others.
Imagine if we all took this to heart at work. Instead of ignoring crises, we can be honest. Honesty bestows dignity and respect to everyone experiencing the issues. We can avoid the culture of denial that destroys our morale and creates extreme cynicism, distrust, and disillusionment among employees.
For example, how might this play out in a company with a burned-out workforce that it is on the brink of buy-out or bankruptcy? How might leaders talk with employees?
Admit the truth: “Yes, the rumors are true: we’re at risk of filing for bankruptcy. We’re also considering an offer to merge with another leader in the industry. Because all of you have been working so hard for so long, this must feel like a betrayal.”
Stay present, sit with it: “This is urgent and action is necessary, but we also want to take the time to reflect and learn from our mistakes. We’re using our heads and our hearts. No rash or quick decisions. Our next steps will be made carefully and cautiously.”
Own it. Take responsibility: “It’s our fault. Poor management decisions have brought us here. Our mistakes have made life tough for everyone here these last few years. Now we’re committed to listening to you to strategize the way forward.”
Share it. Talk about it: “Your perspectives matter to us. Your input will guide our way forward. Please share your ideas as we’ll be drafting a plan in the next 3 months. Expect invitations to listening sessions, focus groups, and roundtables.”
Be there. Listen: “Tell us what’s going on for you. How can we support you through this time of uncertainty? We invite each of you to come talk with us, one-on-one, or to submit anonymous feedback.”
In disclosing such news, does this company face the added risk of employees quitting and jumping ship? Absolutely. But it’s also likely that plenty will stay because the leadership has shown vulnerability, humility, commitment…and made a genuine call for help. This moves us. It stirs our deep need for connection, for wanting to make a difference and help others. Leaders are not only asking for a collaboration but a deepening of the relationship between management and employees. Pride, loyalty, and dedication are predicated on the quality of our relationships.
This scenario is not far-fetched. Famous companies like IBM, Ford, and Nissan have bounced back from the brink because they listened to their stakeholders and handled crises with honesty and humanity.
I don’t have a huge company to run, but I still need to be accountable to myself. So I’m working on my listening and my sit-with-it skills. Even harder for me: sharing and disclosing, and speaking what I believe to be true. I am owning my circumstances. Those who know me well – hold me to it, please! There’s no time like the present.