September is a month of new. It is the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, a time when we take a moment out of our lives to reflect on the past year, and plan for the next year. We blow the shofar to call us to action.
In contrast to this time, we are still facing old problems of the pandemic. With health systems struggling to varying degrees, housing and seniors care still reeling from the past two years, educators unsure levels of safety, burnout running rampant, and a general “malaise” for many, I am taking some time to learn from many of you about the problems of the day.
Over the summer, we at Thought Architects took the time to review our thinking about our collaboration, where we have been, and where we want to go. We are collectively driven to ignite what we are calling a “Radically Human Revolution”…the curation of experiences in the workplace that honour, support and grow the humanity in teams, leaders and systems. We make the “invisible skills” of things like psychological safety, adaptive leadership and building effective teams “visible” in meaningful ways.
But how does this fit with the you – the people who are working on the front line, leading teams and doing the hard work? An article my husband sent me highlighted many challenges leaders are seeing, and gave me moment for pause. It was an opinion piece by Jillian Horton on her frustration with “kindness gaslighting,” where there is lip service given to “kindness” in the absence of true action. It is saying “be kind to each other” but operating in a way that is contrary to that, in a contrary environment, with contrary policies. We can all think of examples of this in our own lives.
Horton goes on to explain that we are oversimplifying kindness in ways that disregard the lived experience and emotions that we all naturally feel. I agree with her, and believe that “kindness” is too surface of an idea. What she is calling for is “humanity”. How do we understand the lived experience of another person, recognize their experience, understand ourselves, and create conditions, teams, policies and environments that foster humanity? And then we need to ask ourselves, what are the characteristics of teams, organizations and systems “acting in a humane way”?
I believe it is directly related to the way in which we listen to, respond to and ask questions of others. That means we can disagree with ideas, not people. It means that we strive to get to “what is right” not “who is right.” It means that we approach others with presupposition that they want to do a good job. It means that as part of our humanity, each and every one of us has the duty to help each other learn and grow. This is done in a context and environment that does not punish us when we speak out. Even if organizations or systems move in a direction that we don’t want them to, we know that our opinions have been heard and considered.
So – what does this mean in practice? I asked a few people that exact question. I spoke with individual leaders in long-term care, quality improvement, and primary care. I asked them what they are struggling with, and what they would like to see different in their context.
At an individual level, they all felt some sense of helplessness. They felt all the skills they possess are inadequate for today’s issues. This is a situation no one has been in before – short staffing, turnover, complex environments and high safety risks. Statements such as “how do I engage with others virtually in a meaningful way,” or “how do I get people to share and engage in a world where everyone is tired” came up repeatedly. One leader said: “how do I re-create an organization that is capable of learning and growth when we have been focused on the day-to-day survival for so long?” This is the crux of the challenge.
We see the impacts of the pandemic in ways we describe as “retention issues”, or “staffing issues.” Maybe we see “complaints” or “grievances”. We are certainly seeing it as “burnout”. We have high degrees of conflict or “people issues”. These are the symptoms we see. They are the direct result of how the organization or system is working, and improving the root cause often seems impossible.
The skills needed to shift how that system or organization is working are the invisible elements of our work. It is the shared reality we operate in. There are some things we can’t change and have to manage the best we can – like the feeling of being burned out because the ICU is at 150% of capacity. There are others that are within our direct sphere of influence, like how we lead meetings and seek the input of a team. The conditions with which we create at work are the conditions that others experience the work and care.
At Thought Architects, we are tackling these big issues. We articulate and develop others to create the “secret sauce” of how teams, organizations and system really work. It is not about addressing the “retention” or the “staffing” issues of the day. It is the creation of an environment where individuals and teams thrive. This is the real work of leadership and this is about building and sustaining a culture of humanity…and it is more tangible than you think.