The #1 Management Imperative for 2021

The #1 Management Imperative for 2021 1080 540 Jason Lauritsen




Well, we made it. We’ve turned the page from 2020. After last year, surviving the year feels like a milestone to celebrate. We certainly toasted the end of the year at our house.

Now a new year begins with at least the promise that the end of this pandemic-fueled era of disruption is on the horizon. There might be a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

However…

Many of the problems that plagued us in 2020 did not vanish at the stroke of midnight on December 31. COVID is still ravaging the planet, and our lives are far from any vague memory of what “normal” used to mean.

The experts tell us we are closer to the end than the beginning, but the toughest stretch is likely still ahead of us. Not only will it be months before vaccines are distributed broadly enough to have any dramatic impact, but there’s also this issue of a trailing mental health catastrophe that’s likely to unfold like a slow-motion train wreck.

Depressing, I know. But as leaders and managers of people, we need to step into this year with our eyes wide open to what’s happening around us.

Many of us are now entering the long dark winter that will confine us to our homes as the snow, wind, and frigid temperatures amplify our isolation from others. No socially-distanced driveway gatherings for a while now. The post-holiday months are going to be hard on us all.

That’s why it’s imperative that for 2021 (starting right now), we focus on cultivating and expanding our capacity for compassion.

Resilience and Compassion

As I wrote about in my 2020 reflections post, compassion was a key ingredient for me to beat my burnout last year. Learning about compassion and how it differs from empathy opened my eyes to how important and valuable it is for the road ahead, particularly as managers of others.

There’s been a lot of focus lately on resilience—specifically on helping our employees be more resilient in facing challenges and crises. While I think there is an enormous benefit to learning the skills of resilience long term, I don’t think it’s enough.

Resilience is simply defined as “the ability of a person to adjust to or recover readily from illness, adversity, major life changes, etc.” In more crude terms, it’s the ability to take a punch in life and stay in the fight.

This is an essential quality to possess as a human being. The more resilient you are, the more capable you’ve proven yourself to navigate and survive the challenges of 2020.

We could probably all benefit from developing more resilience. That said, I have concerns with organization’s current obsession with employee resilience.

First, it reflects the organizational bias to “fix employees.” We have a legacy in management to assume that when things don’t go well with an employee, it’s the employee’s fault. They don’t have the work ethic, discipline, or self-motivation. If we can fix what’s missing or broken in the employee, the problem will be solved.

The conversation about developing resilience feels similar. If we teach employees how to take a punch more effectively, we don’t have to worry about how often or how hard they’re getting punched.

I know—that’s a pretty cynical take on it. But, I don’t think it’s too far off for many organizations. And that’s not the only challenge.

It’s also really challenging to learn how to take a punch when you are under a constant barrage of punches. Building resilience isn’t easy or straightforward. It requires time and space for learning, reflection, and practice—things hard to come by when you are overworked, burnt out, or just stressed to the max as many of our employees are right now.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach our employees the skills and mindsets they need to become more resilient. This is absolutely a good thing to do that can have significant long-term benefits. But, it’s not nearly enough or fast enough. Particularly for those who are struggling the most.

Compassion is The Key

What people need more than resilience when they are facing difficulty is help. When someone is getting repeatedly punched in the face, encouraging them to keep fighting isn’t nearly as useful as making the punches stop or helping them get out of the way.

As managers and leaders (or even peers), the best way to support our people during turmoil and chaos is by cultivating compassion.

According to Hooria Jazaieri, Ph.D., compassion is a mental state or orientation toward suffering that includes four components:

  1. Bringing attention or awareness to recognizing that there is suffering
  2. Feeling emotionally moved by that suffering
  3. Wishing there to be relief from that suffering
  4. A readiness to take action to relieve that suffering

In other words, compassion is recognizing when someone else is struggling, caring that it is happening, wanting it to stop, and doing something about it. As managers, particularly right now, this is what we are called to do for our people.

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
-Theodore Roosevelt

How to Be More Compassionate

As described by Dr. Jazaieri, compassion is a muscle that can be developed and strengthened with practice but which can also atrophy with lack of use. This has definitely been true for me.

I’m no expert on compassion; it’s a journey I’m on personally and professionally. But through my journey, there are insights I’ve gained that may be beneficial to you. In addition, there are a plethora of resources and training available to find and tap into if you go looking for them.

1. See beyond the behavior

For me, one of the things that I’ve learned is to practice a mindset of curiosity about others—particularly when their behavior doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve learned to remind myself that everyone is dealing with a great deal of uncertainty in their lives right now, regardless of who they are.

Uncertainty can be scary, and fear causes people to behave in various ways, some of which aren’t helpful. My challenge is to see beyond the behavior to recognize the suffering or struggle of the person. It helps me find a deeper feeling of care for them and a concern about what I can do to help their world feel less uncertain.

In general practice, this requires us to be more mindful of how we respond to other people’s behavior, particularly those who rely on us for leadership. It’s tempting to blame and judge an employee for their behavior (e.g., joining meetings late and unprepared). This leads us to show up in a way that isn’t helpful and likely to make matters worse.

Instead, lean into curiosity. Engage with the employee to ask questions about why they are late for meetings. You might discover that the meeting time coincides with when their three children are all supposed to log in to school in the morning, making it nearly impossible to make the meeting on time.

Your judgment or criticism won’t help them resolve this tension. But, your help and coaching might. Seeing beyond the behavior isn’t always easy, particularly when you’re under a lot of pressure and stressed yourself. But, it’s what your people need from you.

2. Get to know your people

When a close friend or family member behaves in a way that doesn’t make sense or is inconsistent with who they are, we don’t rush to judgment and blame them for their behavior. Instead, we ask, “what’s wrong?” or “what’s going on?”

Because we know them and have a bond with them, we assume that if they’re behaving in a way that seems counter to what we would expect, there must be something happening around them that’s causing them to act this way. We don’t assume a flaw in them as a person.

The better we know our people and the more we build a strong and trusting relationship with them, the more likely we are to show compassion when they’re struggling. It’s easier to ignore the suffering of a stranger than someone close to us.

To do this will require the investment of time. Time is the currency of relationships, and there is no shortcut. To build a better connection with your people will require that you make more time to be with them both formally and informally. When you’re together, ask questions to learn what’s most important to them and what they care about most.

3. Help until it hurts

One of the most critical parts of compassion is that it requires action. Not only must we recognize the pain and struggle in others, but we must care enough to want to take action to make it stop.

Today and for the indefinite future, we exist in a sort of limbo at work between the way we used to do things and how we’ll do things once the pandemic ends. In this limbo, people are being asked to work in circumstances they have no control over (e.g., at home while schooling children or dealing with layers and layers of safety precautions that make everything harder and slower).

They weren’t prepared for this. Neither were you. And, it’s not permanent.

Helping your people survive and make it to the other side of this limbo is probably calling on you to do things you feel you “shouldn’t have to do.” As managers, if you’re doing it right, you are more deeply involved in people’s lives than ever before, and that may be uncomfortable for you. Here’s my advice:

Get over it.

What we “should” have to do went out the window when COVID showed up. There is only what our people need right now. What they need is our help and support to get through an unprecedented time of disruption.

Among the most critical things within your control is to ensure your people know exactly what’s expected of them in terms of work performance. By making that crystal clear, you remove uncertainty so your conversations with your team can focus on what they need or are struggling with to meet those expectations.

Compassion is The Key

Let’s all hope that by the end of 2021, we are living in a post-pandemic world once again. Until then, we still exist in what could be thought of as overtime for 2020. None of the problems that existed at the end of last year have gone anywhere.

While we wait on the vaccine to do its thing, we can focus on injecting our teams and lives with a different sort of remedy. Becoming a more compassionate human and manager will help us see each other more fully and reach out to help when we need it.

1 comment
  • David Zinger

    I appreciate your call for compassion. Great line: “In other words, compassion is recognizing when someone else is struggling, caring that it is happening, wanting it to stop, and doing something about it. As managers, particularly right now, this is what we are called to do for our people.”

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