15 June 2016
We generally think of growth spurts as a significant feature of our physical growth that occurs during adolescence and/or teenage years. Considering that I missed the physical growth spurt in my own life course, I like to think that I’ve made up for it in my personal development during adulthood. In particular, I feel I have had a significant personal growth spurt over the last six months, riding the emotional roller coaster of life. I am truly exhilarated about accomplishing milestones and the changes happening in my work and personal areas of my life. Over the years, I have learned that I actively create or seek opportunities to learn, to grow, to develop more self-awareness as often as possible. Although it may appear like it’s an individual quest for self-development, in reality, like many other things in life, it is a collective social activity. One of the best ways to describe this is through the beautiful African term, Ubuntu, the translation I love best is “I am because of you” (watch Boyd Varty’s TED talk). In the English language, we translate Ubuntu to embody the concepts of connection, community, and mutual caring. Although these terms and concepts conjure warm and fuzzy feelings, I firmly believe that unlike physical growth, personal growth occurs most when we face conflict. How we deal with or react to difficult life events or challenging situations allow some of us to learn more about ourselves and others.
Most recently, my observations and interactions with teammates at work have challenged me to work on a very important leadership quality – empathy. Empathy is a deep understanding of another. In order to gain this deep understanding, one must see with the eyes of another; hear with the ears of another; and feel with the heart of another. Intellectually, I understand what this means and I have plenty of opportunities to practice empathy on a daily basis. In these opportunities, I see supportive behavior as well as passive aggressive and cynical expressions. In actuality, these passive aggressive and cynical behaviors are simply coping strategies of distrust, pessimism, and doubt, all of which reinforce the importance of empathy to try to understand why people choose these behaviors. What kind of pain or stress must they be struggling with, I wonder. Underneath their hardened (or cool-seeming) exterior, I choose to believe that the majority of my teammates still care deep down inside. They just don’t want to get hurt any more. They would like things to be different, but they are not willing to risk opening themselves up to being hurt again. I choose to give my teammates this benefit of the doubt; however, I am well aware that there are those who choose to care only about themselves and prefer to play the victim as they blame others for their choices not to care or trust others. Thus, they put on the mask to cover up the simmering pool of negativity that lives on the inside. Sarcasm or cynicism offers an acceptable way to keep up “professional” appearances but when left alone, these behaviors will breed and multiply like a cancer – it will poison the organization’s culture with negativity. Over time, what ends up happening is the culture slides towards learned helplessness – the belief that whatever they do will not make a difference. Despite this understanding, it does not make it any easier to deal with teammate’s passive aggressiveness or cynicism especially when you are trying to change the learned helplessness culture. I know that many times I have not dealt with some of the negativity or cynicism in the best way. In fact, I realized later that I may have been completely wrong in my approach even with the best intentions.
I was having a conversation with a friend and mentor, and he told me in his very pastoral kind of way that my approach was flawed. He shared a blog post entitled, “Living from a place called Forgiveness” that he authored and it has taken me weeks of self-reflection to fully digest it. I knew I needed to better develop my empathy skills and to be more understanding. Yet, why wasn’t my understanding, my empathizing, and apologies not translating into better interactions? What was I missing? Finally, at church last week, I realized that I was not lacking in empathy per se – it was about forgiveness. The question I should’ve been asking myself is, “Am I living from a place of forgiveness?” Doing this requires that I first forgive myself of my own actions, and then take it a step further, to forgive others even before I become offended. THIS is what it means to follow the example of a great leader and to be Christ-like. My mentor’s message that resonated most with me and was so profound that it hit me like a ton of bricks, “If you live from a place of forgiveness, apologies aren’t necessary for you to forgive. Apologies become something the offending person does to ease their burden, not to remove yours…Unforgiveness is the biggest barrier to demonstrating love”. I was not lacking in empathy; I had a deep understanding of the situation. I was lacking in demonstrating love. I was lacking in forgiveness. So last weekend, I wholeheartedly forgave myself and my teammates. It was not easy in the least, but it was necessary if I want to learn to be a Christ-like leader.
At work (and in life more generally), everything I do and say sends a message to others, including everything I don’t do or say sends a message. Sometimes the latter sends a louder message. Therefore, when I see passive aggressiveness, sarcasm, or cynicism and I don’t deal with it at the moment and in the right way, I am sending the wrong message of condoning that behavior. In essence, I am enabling the cancer or poison to take root and multiply. As a leader, I have the responsibility to speak up in a challenging or uncomfortable situation and confront the aggressiveness or cynicism at hand. To do nothing does the team an injustice as it allows the negativity to fester and grow. Yet, as a Christ-like leader, I must do this from a place of forgiveness. It isn’t a passive action, nor is it a personal or individual thing – confronting difficult situations and people from a place of forgiveness is very much a collective action: I am because of my team.
Reference: On A Mission In Life