Photo by: Abby Cole Photography
I’m used to being there for the people in my life. The past year and a half have been tough on all of us, and I’ve tried to be the one who offered a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on.
I’m not just talking about my family and friends, although they have been on my mind more than ever because of the pandemic. At the corporate training firm I started close to 30 years ago, Balancing Life’s Issues, I’ve made sure that my employees always had someone to talk to about the hard times.
But sometimes I can’t help but think that I’m the only one making the effort. There are times when it feels like I keep giving and giving and in turn people keep taking and taking without ever stopping to ask, how I’m doing.
I know it’s hard to see your boss as someone who’s vulnerable. But is it OK for me to say that my feelings have been hurt? Am I allowed to be sensitive? To let down my guard a little? To have a truly personal moment? Is it better for me to share the way I’m feeling, or just suck it up?
Sometimes I find myself wondering: Why doesn’t anyone care about Wendy?
Here’s an example: When my ex-husband died, I received just one condolence card from someone on my staff. Nobody else said anything. A couple of words as we passed in the hall, or a hand on my shoulder at the end of the day, were all I was looking for. I just wanted someone to check in, to say, “How are you doing?”
Thinking about all this made me look up a favorite quote from University of Houston Professor Brené Brown, who’s written a lot about the topic. “Empathy has no script,” she wrote. “There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’”
There are stacks of books out there teaching bosses how to show more empathy toward their employees and it's important because studies show that bosses lose empathy as they rise up the ranks. High-power executives even seem to lose their ability to accurately identify facial expressions. Hard to believe, but the research backs this up.
In a quick search online, I couldn’t find much of anything written about employees learning to show more empathy toward their boss. That’s strange, because I think it’s an equally important skill to have. It’s something that will pay off over the course of our entire career.
I believe part of the reason we don’t reach out to managers and supervisors and sometimes even co-workers is that we compartmentalize our lives. We put parts of ourselves into boxes — work, children, home — and feel uncomfortable when they overlap. We like things to be neat and orderly, at least that’s what we’ve been taught.
But isn’t this part of what we’re doing when we talk about the importance of having a work-life balance? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t ever be able to unplug from our jobs. Of course we should. I’m only pointing out that we shouldn’t have one part of our lives where we’re allowed to feel something for people, and another where it’s strictly business.
Take a look at a TED Talk from Nigel March, a very funny, insightful man who has spent years thinking about work-life balance. He’s adamant that focusing on the word “balance” can reap huge rewards in our lives. “Being more balanced doesn’t mean dramatic upheaval in your life,” he says. “With the smallest investment in the right places, you can radically transform the quality of your relationships and the quality of your life.”
I believe that you can’t have a work-life balance unless you see everyone in your life — whether they’re in your personal or professional life — as a person. Get to know them, listen to their stories about their kids. Don’t turn off your feelings the minute you walk in the office door or switch on the Zoom meeting.
Having a flourishing ecosystem in a company means we have to care about each other.
We need to cross the lines sometimes and blur the arbitrary boundaries we put up between our work life and our home life. But it has to be both directions. Not just employer to employee. We all need to care about each other a little bit more.
So the next time you’re curious about why your boss seems off, maybe ask them. Chances are no one else has and it might just be the type of support they needed that day.