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31 July 2012

Creating contexts for growth: Showing you care

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I’ve been writing and thinking these days about how to create workplaces that are good places for our biggest selves to thrive—and how leaders can create these places for themselves and others. This is, of course, a big theme of my book Changing on the Job, and it’s the core of my second book (Simple Habits for Complex Times), where Keith and I play with ideas about creating organisations that allow us all to be at our best.

In my last blog I talked about two related elements that help us be our biggest selves: Release from perfection and Permission to fail.  Those are obviously intertwined. Today I’ll talk about what I call Care and Nourishment.

Have you ever brought a new plant to the office to brighten things up a little? I used to do this more than I do now. I like to imagine the lovely colours a new plant will add to things, the extra hit of oxygen in the air. Invariably, though, while I admire the plant for the first couple of days—even maybe weeks—it lives on my windowsill, eventually I forget about it and the next time I remember, the plant is brown and shrivelled and won’t be contributing oxygen to my office anymore.

I share this story not to demonstrate my (absence of) green thumb, but to point to something I see happen at workplaces all the time: we have a good sense of what it takes to support people, but we are too often distracted away from that part of our job and drawn to the louder, more apparently urgent pieces of our work.

I’ll say again here: there is nothing more urgent for a leader than supporting the people around you. But because people can survive on quite little care and nourishment at work, it is easy to create an organisation that is nearly desert-like in its climate.

What does care and nourishment look like? These are basic steps—simple to understand, but not easy to implement. Care is just that. I ask questions in my leadership programs around the world about what makes a superb leader. Thousands of people have answered in every type of organisation, and the patterns are clear: The number one element: The leader cared about me as a person.

This quality is really rare in leaders, I’m told, which surprises me a lot because of my conversations with leaders. When I talk to leaders in organisations around the world, they are clear: nearly all of the leaders I’ve worked with care deeply about their people.  I’ve seen tough leaders tear up as they recount some of the struggles of those around them. The problem isn’t that we don’t care; the problem is that we don’t show that we care.

I am not talking about holding hands, giving hugs, or sending cards and flowers. I am talking about expressing your caring to a person as a matter of course, of enquiring about the person’s wellbeing, of paying attention to a person as more than just a delivery unit for whatever it is your organisation wants to create. It’s about having the career of the human being in front of you matter more than the next task at hand. This means we may all have to get a little better at talking about feelings, at being willing to be uncomfortable in the messiness of life, at pausing to breathe in between outputs.

Think about it. How do you show caring in your workplace? What prevents you from showing more about how much you care about your colleagues as human beings? What are you afraid would happen if you opened up about that more? Surely it makes you more vulnerable for them to know that you care. What is it you’d gain, though, and is facing this particular fear worth the risk? I can assure you that just as plants need water, people need a genuine commitment and care. For plants and people, that kind of nourishment creates the context for our growth.

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