Leaders need to take note of the small stuff. For the simple reason that it can make a huge difference to their people. In this world where grandiose gestures or bombastic personalities tend to dominate the attention, it might be the simple act of someone getting out of bed and turning up at the office that should be celebrated.
George, a solicitor at a leading lawyers in the City, has struggled with his return to work after WFH during Covid. “My father died in the middle of the pandemic; complications caused by the virus,” he reveals, “Not only have I had to cope with my loss, but I’ve developed deep anxiety around travelling on public transport and being back amongst my colleagues. Some days I wake up and think I won't be able to do it. I am so tired of feeling like this, and I can tell my boss gets irritated with my lack of commitment, but I am fighting to keep it together.”
A significant part of George’s problem is his reluctance to be completely transparent about what is going on. He believes his boss will judge him; maybe his job could even be at risk? Yet it is understandable that someone like George might fall into this quagmire of negativity when many folks still hold onto the idea that vulnerability is a weakness.
At Untapped.ai, we embrace vulnerabilities. And in this scenario, we would encourage George and his boss to seek a different response. If these small acts of agency – like getting out of bed and going to work - were recognised by both these men for the bravery, determination and commitment required to achieve, the process of positive transformation would slowly begin.
Ownership – however slight – is empowerment. It puts a person in charge of what is happening, and it builds a connection with change. An alternative approach to George’s current situation might involve: George’s recognition of his own ability to dig in and keep going, honesty with his boss about what is taking place with him personally, and then his boss’s capacity to notice and praise George for his behaviour.
Encouraging a culture of what we, at Untapped.ai, call, ‘human leadership’, is crucial for employees to feel safe enough to be open about their situation. Of course, this mindset is entwined with trust, acceptance and substantial levels of EQ. It’s not always an easy balance to pull off - and that’s where our expert UAs come in, unpicking the murkiness to reveal the small positives that might otherwise be missed.
And while leaders need to be empathetic and inclusive, boundaries are part of the picture too. Bréne Brown, professor and author, who has built up an expertise in vulnerability, talks about this in the TED podcast, WorkLife. “Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability. Look, some of the most vulnerable and authentic leaders I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with — truly authentic and truly vulnerable people — personally disclose very little. And some of the leaders I work with disclose everything, and they are the least authentic and vulnerable people.”
Brown’s point is that you don’t have to tell everyone everything; it’s important to understand what might help or hinder your situation. “You can say, ‘I’m really struggling right now. I’ve got some stuff going on and it’s hard, and I wanted y’all to know’,” she adds. “Tell them, ‘And I want you to know what support looks like for me, I’ll check in with you if I need something or I may take some time off.
Support also looks like being able to bring it up with you when it’s helpful for me but not having to field a lot of questions about it. That’s what I need right now.”
Back in the summer, Claudia, an HR Director in the media business, went through a messy divorce. She was adamant she didn’t want to tell her colleagues at work, then one day she shared the basic details with her CEO. While it was somewhat of a relief, there was still a sliver of apprehension (from her) around the perception of her ability to hold things together. A couple of weeks later, Claudia had to showcase a new talent programme to the company’s stakeholders.
Afterwards, the CEO took her aside and said how proud she felt that Claudia had presented so well. The CEO also added that she’d noticed it was Wednesday - the day after Claudia’s husband had moved out of the family home. For most people in the room, it was just another day of the week, but the recognition of its significance meant a huge deal to Claudia. She says, at that moment, she saw her boss as another woman who understood her grief and who was rooting for her. It was an important turning point in their working relationship and Claudia says she’ll never forget it.
So, while the small stuff might not seem rip-roaringly momentous, it can trickle feed a workforce that feels seen, heard, encouraged, supported and understood. And that is a very good thing.