Cares About the Individual

Last week I wrote about the second skill of a great managers, Does Not Micromanage. That means this week must be about the third skill. As a frame of reference, here is the complete list of skills.

They are:

  1. Be a Good Coach
  2. Does Not Micromanage
  3. Cares about the Individual
  4. Productive and Results Driven
  5. Listens and Shares
  6. Helps with Career Development
  7. Clear Vision & Strategy
  8. Technically Competent

This week I want to touch on the third vital skill: Cares about the individual.

While it seems pretty obvious that managers should care about their staff, it also seems equally obvious that many managers don’t. Or to put it more appropriately, many manage do not know how to show that they care. In my experience there can be an enormous gulf between caring about your people and them knowing that you care.

Professionalism and relationships

While we talk all the time about “work being a family”, if we are completely honest, this analogy has short comings. In truth, most of us only have a few kinds of relationships and so our pool of analogies is pretty shallow. Work, no matter how great, is not really like a family and it can’t be. We just don’t often have anything else to compare it to.

Yes, work can share some of the characteristics of familial relationships, however there are many aspects of the family we don’t want at work at all. I’ll let you fill in the blanks here, but if you have raised little kids, or have a complex relationship with your parents need I say more?

Like so many things, what we need is clarity on what specifically we are trying to do.

What is caring?

In her book Stop Being Lonely, author Kira Asatryan explains that there are two dimensions to people. The first is their internal stories. The second, is how they feel about those stories. This aligns perfectly and supports the idea Kerry Patterson put forward in his book Crucial Conversations about the path to action.

The concept behind the path to action is simple, but profound.

When we as people experience an event two things happen. First, we tell ourselves a story. As in what does this event mean. Then that story fuels our emotions. As Eckhart Tolle wrote in his book The Power of Now, emotions are thoughts (story) manifest in the body. And different stories produce radically different feelings.

Understanding how two people can see the same situation differently is very important, because our job as manager and leader is to understand our people, not only intellectually, but also to be cognizant about how they feel.

Caring comes from not only knowing how someone feels but demonstrating that their well-being is important to you. However, to know how they feel, you do need to know their stories.

Why Don’t More People Care?

I don’t think it’s that people don’t care, it is that they don’t understand. You see, we all have access to our own internal stories. What’s more, there is tremendous evidence that we are wired to believe our stories. In the The Honest Truth About Dishonesty Psychologist Dan Ariely explains that studies have shown our left hemisphere will make up reasons for us to rationalize our actions. This is called conflation, or the lie told honestly. We believe what we are saying. The problem comes in that we are not wired to make up stories for other people.

So we have to figure them out.

And that kind of figuring is hard.

So we don’t do it.

When we act, we get the whole chain from the inside: Event > Story > Feeling > Action.

However, when someone else acts, we get the chain backward, or jumbled. We can get Event > Action > ?? or the Action > (implied) Event > ?? We do not know or cannot guess the story (do not get me started on guessing how people feel). What’s more, our brains are not wired to go get missing information. Our fast-thinking mind (System 1 according to Thinking Fast and Slow) evolved to make sense of the information directly in front of it. Therefore, we make up a story. And usually that story is a result of our own emotions.

Put another way, I know why I act the way I act, but I do not understand why you act the way you act. This confusion leads to frustration and so out of an emotional space of frustration, I make up a story for you. And the easiest story that makes the most sense to me (and my frustration) is, “you’re a bozo.”

When I worked with Microsoft Games, they called this, “flipping the bozo bit.”

So it is not that people don’t care by default, it is that we don’t know and our default setting is to avoid asking for the information.

When people ignore our stories and our feelings it signals they do not care

As a result of not being naturally wired to get missing information, it is easy for anyone not just a manager to ignore the stories and feelings of others. This ignoring creates the impression we do not care, when in fact we may care deeply. So how do we get our actions to be in line with our intent?

Ask Open Ended Questions

I recently wrote about being process focused when coaching kids. It turns out this same advice works for interacting with adults. Our goal is to get to the persons internal story landscape, understanding what an event means to them, and how it makes them feel. We get there using two tools. First, we want to know what is going on for that person, what is happening for them. There are a variety of ways to get this information, but you want to stay away from the word “why”.

You can ask someone, “Tell me about what you see.” Or you can try “Can you unpack this form me?” Or the seeking to understand question, “What did that mean to you?”

There is the famous story of the lemon from Getting To Yes. Two people want one lemon. The traditional way of resolving this is to split it. The learning comes when we hang around see what happens next. One person takes their half of the lemon and squeezes it into a glass to make lemon water. The other person zests the rind because they want to make lemon bars. The irony is that both individuals could have had 100% of what they wanted from the lemon if they would have stopped to find out, What the lemon meant to the other person.

Once we realize what something means to the other person, we know something about how they value it. This is the essence of knowing. And this sort of value is unique and personal to all of us. There are two desks in my home office. The one I’m sitting at, and the one next to it. This desk to me is a nice antique desk. It also belonged to my (deceased) father-in-law. I value the desk completely differently than my wife because it means something completely different to her.

Use the Empathy Equation

Once you know what something means to someone, the next stage is to make the effort to understand how it makes them feel. This is where the late George Thompson PhD, training from Verbal Judo works like a champ. Your goal is to use the empathy equation. The idea is to understand how this story, or an event is connected to their emotions. Thompson put it this way. You want to be able to say to the person:

You feel x because of y

The idea is that you are connected a feeling to a cause, and then you let them correct or confirm what you are saying. Your goal is not to be right but to get it right. There is an enormous difference between right making and making it right. Our goal here is understanding and empathy. This does not mean that you feel the same way as the other person, or even that you agree with what they are saying. Your goal however is to make sure that you recognize their emotion and what is driving it.

How Managers Show Caring

Management is a skill. And one effective way to show caring is that you make sure you have the other persons story, and you know how they feel. Not just in your head, but they know that you know. This can take a little getting used to, but in my experience, it is always worth the effort. And there have been many times when someone I work with has said something that initially piqued my irritation — because I was in a hurry, or because I thought I already knew the answer — and instead of reacting, I responded with a thoughtful, “Tell me more about that.”

In every instance where I have had the presence of mind to seek understanding and express caring, I have learned something valuable, and helped reinforce our culture.

Conclusion

While there are countless ways to show that you care, two simple ones are not necessarily easy because they force us to slow down and pay attention. Attention may be the scarcest resource on the planet right now, but I can tell you from personal experience, as a result it is highly valued. When I make the effort to understand someone’s story, and reflect how they feel, I am demonstrating respect. As a result my work seems to get easier. When I don’t do this, and I try to be efficient with people, I have been known to inadvertently tell people I don’t care, and my work is usually harder.

Demonstrating knowing can be as simple as asking questions and getting the persons story. Demonstrating caring is rooted in understanding the emotions our stories produce.

References

  1. Asatryan, K. (2016). Stop Being Lonely: Three Simple Steps to Developing Close Friendships and Deep Relationships. New World Library.
  2. Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2011). Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition (2 edition). McGraw-Hill Education.
  3. Ariely, D. (2013). The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves (Illustrated edition). Harper.
  4. Tolle, E. (2010). The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment. New World Library.
  5. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow (1 edition). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  6. Fisher, R., Ury, W. L., & Patton, B. (2011). Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Updated, Revised edition). Penguin Books.
  7. Thompson, G. J., & Jenkins, J. B. (2013). Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, Updated Edition (Updated ed. edition). William Morrow Paperbacks.
  8. IZPA

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I am an engineer, innovator, speaker, and founder of multiple companies including GameTruck and Bravous Esports.

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Scott Novis

Scott Novis

I am an engineer, innovator, speaker, and founder of multiple companies including GameTruck and Bravous Esports.

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