Same storm, different boats

Same storm, different boats 1080 608 Jason Lauritsen

In March 2020, just as the pandemic was ramping up to wreak havoc on us, writer and broadcaster Damian Barr shared this short reflection on Twitter.

We are not all in the same boat.

We are all in the same storm.

Some are in superyachts.

Some have just the one oar.

It was an invitation to stop saying “we are all in the same boat” when talking about the challenges that were unfolding as we grappled with COVID. Depending on your life and work conditions, the experience was very different for different people.

The saying “same storm, different boats” resonated with people. And I think that’s because it pokes at a blind spot many of us have. In fact, I think this blind spot may be one of the biggest leadership challenges and one of the biggest leadership mistakes being made today.

The Blind Spot

The mistake I’m referencing is assuming that your experience is everyone’s experience–that everyone else has weathered the storm in the same boat you have. And this mistake is both easier to make and most costly for those who have had the luxury of being on the biggest, safest boats over the past few years.

To be clear, this isn’t a blind spot for those who have been clinging to an oar, trying not to drown over the past 18 months. When you are just trying to survive, it’s hard not to be acutely aware that many other people, particularly those with money and power, are in very different boats.

The reason this is so dangerous, particularly as we embark on the important work of defining what a new future of work will look like, is that the executives making the decisions are often the most prone to forget that their experience of work (and life) doesn’t even vaguely resemble that of most of the people for whom they are making the decisions.

I was reminded of this last week through a conversation with an executive. Due to the nature of their organization’s work, he told me that they had largely returned to working as they had pre-pandemic. He even described it as “being largely back to normal.”

Your Experience is not Everyone’s Experience

In the experience of many executives, the pandemic and the restrictions placed on where and how they could work was just a temporary inconvenience until things could get back to normal. They were on a big boat with loads of resources to see their way through the storm.

The experience for their employees with fewer resources and support was very likely very different. They had prolonged periods where they worried about their personal safety and security related to work as the pandemic unfolded.

They felt the crushing weight of uncertainty as they waited and wondered what would happen next. They worried about their job.

Their spouses may have lost jobs, which put a severe financial strain on the family.

They had to figure out how to manage their children’s schooling at home while figuring out where to “home office” simultaneously in an already cramped apartment or house.

On top of it all, some employees had to deal with scared and angry customers or patients, which made their jobs far more stressful and difficult than in the past.

I know that I’m speaking in broad generalities here. Not all executives had an easy experience and not all employees struggled or suffered through the pandemic.

That’s exactly the point. I don’t know what their experience (or yours) was like.

All I know for sure is that it wasn’t exactly like mine. And if I want to understand your experience and what you need or what might work best for you, that will require that I engage you in a conversation.

The news has been filled with companies who have had to reverse their decisions to return to the office based on pushback from employees because they didn’t take time to really understand what employees needed. One of the most publicized has been Apple. This is what happens when leaders forget that their job is to create a work experience that works best for their employees, not themselves.

A Mantra for the Path Forward

Same storm, different boats” is a profoundly relevant mantra for thinking about the experiences we’ve all had in the pandemic. But I think it’s bigger than that. This isn’t just about leadership at work or return to office policies, it’s about how we treat and think about each other in general as fellow human beings.

So much of the discord that’s happening broadly today in our society is fueled by this blind spot assumption that our experience is everyone’s experience. Until we can move beyond that assumption, we are bound to live in a world where we can’t seem to find common ground with others, particularly those living very different lives than we are.

If I can’t even see and acknowledge that you are in a different boat, then we can’t have a very productive conversation about the storm.

My own ability to do meaningful work was limited until I embraced that my experience living in this world as a cisgender straight white male is very different from those of other genders, races, sexual orientations, etc. I was born onto a much safer boat than many, and that’s part of my own privilege that affects how I experience the world around me.

Same storm, different boats.

Illuminating the Blind Spot

How can we avoid making this mistake? I think it’s pretty straightforward.

  1. Always begin with the assumption that every person’s experience is unique and different from yours.
  2. Get curious about how the experience of others is different from your own. Get educated. Ask questions. Listen deeply.
  3. Embrace that everyone’s experience is just as real and valid as yours.
  4. Acknowledge that what works for you might not work for others. In fact, what works for you might actually be doing harm to others.
  5. Commit to doing no harm.
  6. Proceed knowing that to create an experience that works for everyone requires their participation and shared agency in the experience.

People are complex. The world we live in is complex. We need to do a better job of both embracing and making room for all of that complexity.

The organizations that have thrived through the pandemic and will thrive well into the future have realized that the only way to create a work experience that works for everyone is to include the employee in the design process.

It’s not the easiest or fastest path, and it’s also likely to lead to places that may not be comfortable for some at the top of the org chart.

But it is truly the only way to get it right.

  • Jim Rood

    That was an amazing blog Jason! Thanks for reminding us that our perception of the universality of our experience can be as dangerous and harmful as the myth of certainty to which we often cling. I’ve recently come to the conclusion that the only viable path to a sustainable future of work is through partnership. Partnerships rooted in authentic human connection and committed to mutual betterment. In the end, the only real employee engagement metric that matters is that the employee can say they are better off for having worked for their employer AND that the employer can say they are better off for having had this person as an employee.

    This concept of partnership is so critical, the United Nations included it as its 17th and final Global Goal stating, “The Global Goals can only be met if we work together. International investments and support is needed to ensure innovative technological development, fair trade, and market access, especially for developing countries. To build a better world, we need to be supportive, empathetic, inventive, passionate, and above all, cooperative.”

    “Same storm, different boats” serves as a reminder for our futuring. Coupled with a commitment to “leave no wake behind” there is hope that tomorrow will be brighter for all.

  • Nancy R. Hernandez

    Jason, Thank you for sharing Damien Barr’s story “Same storm, different boats”. It was profound and true to my personal and professional life experiences. In my role as a Chief Diversity Officer, it has been a challenge to convince many in the executive level the overall message shared in his story. People are so consumed with their authoritative position and the possibility of losing control that they dismiss the humanistic side of who we are and how we should treat our employees. They are razor focused on policies and the essential duties of the job tasks that many omit being flexible. My question is always “do you want to be right or make things better”? The pandemic has opened our eyes and forced us to realize there is a new normal that is more effective, productive and environmentally better. I face many request from employees wanting to continue working remotely from home vs office and commonly describe the scenarios in Barr’s story. Fear, health conditions, family matters, money and loss of employment are the factors that are affecting people in different boats. We need to recognize it and find a way to compromise, lift moral, and be supportive of all by listening and as Barr stated, having the conversation.

    Thank you, and if it’s all right I’d like to share and use much of what Barr stated especially his mantra.

    • Jason

      Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. You are not alone in these challenges. I’m struck by the irony that the act of clinging to control as a leader is exactly what’s causing them to lose it.

      I’m sure Mr. Barr would be delighted for you to use his words to drive change. Just credit him for inspiration when you do.

      Thank you for the important work you do. It matters so much.

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Jason Lauritsen