By: Stuart White 04-12-2020
I was having supper with a psychologist friend last week and recounting the frustration I experience when I pick my ‘naughty’ four-year-old twins from school. While there is much excitement to see me at the end of the school day, no sooner than they are in the car and buckled up, within a few minutes they are whining, crying and being unruly. This typically elicits a frustrated verbal assault from myself like ‘I bet you didn’t cry like this at school today’ or’ behave like this’ etc. etc. This is because I know that they don’t behave badly at school. When I arrive to fetch them, they will be sitting in the classroom like angels. I can almost see the halos above their heads, the same ones that will disappear within 5 minutes. I take this change in behaviour personally, imagine that everyone else’s kids are behaving perfectly on their way home from school and put it down to simple bad behaviour – a thought that brings out mine.
My psychologist friend explained to me how common this is. She explained that I am ‘their person’, with whom they can be themselves. Throughout the day, in a lesser place of safety they must, keep their sh*t together, and then can only release their true emotions when they get to a safe place. It’s called ‘after-school restraint collapse’. Talk about a ‘light bulb’ moment and paradigm shift. It’s a real thing! The shift in my thinking was significant because it moved me from being unaware of what was going on to awareness and understanding and just like that my behaviour changed from aggression to compassion and understanding.
In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People ( I still quote this book after first reading it over 30 years ago) Stephen Covey illustrates his own experience which starkly demonstrates how we need to look behind the behaviour, not at it.
“I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly - some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene. Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.
The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people's papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.
It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, "Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn't control them a little more?"
The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, "Oh, you're right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don't know what to think, and I guess they don't know how to handle it either."
Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn't have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behaviour; my heart was filled with the man's pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. Everything changed in an instant.”
It makes you wonder how much we just don’t get because we look at people and behaviour through the wrong lens. Whether it is because we have been conditioned to think in this way or that, we interpret the world through the lens of our own background, experience, judgements, limitations, or fears. I did not question my children’s behaviour. I simply took it for naughtiness and labelled them ‘bad’. It’s an important lesson for us as parents and equally so for managers.
Labelling employees is unhelpful and fuels our often-inappropriate responses. We need to be more thoughtfully and carefully attuned to those we work with. The more you understand the more you can better manage and motivate and that results in simply that – results. I don’t believe that without a reasonable degree of self-awareness, you can be an effective parent, same for being an effective manager. Without an accurate understanding of how and why your employees are responding to you will constantly be at loggerheads or out of synch and acting, as in my case, without empathy.
There are endless studies proving that empathy is a significant driver of successful management and an equal amount of research points to the fact that about half of frontline leaders are proficient and strong in empathy. Or to put it another way, 50% are out of synch and lacking in emotional awareness. And here’s the rub - you cannot be empathetic unless you are aware not just of what is going on but of the sub-text and psychology. Not jumping to conclusions or joining the wrong dots but by taking the time to stand back, reflect, ask questions, and seek to understand.
My children must have felt so confused when at the end of the day and re-entering their safe space where they can be their true selves, they were met with my criticism and judgment. They don’t know why they are acting up, nor can they verbalise it. As someone once told me “People don’t know what they don’t know. Remember that before you hold it against them.”