“In a child’s lunchbox are a mother’s thoughts” (Japanese Proverb)

On occasion, I also took my turn as a parent preparing lunches for my children when they were in junior school. I was not that creative I guess in what I prepared, but was very creative in the way that I cut the sandwiches – the sandwiches were never cut in boring squares or triangles, but always in different shapes representing an animal or object. The sandwiches became the talk of the school – friends were always fascinated to discover “what has ‘dad’ had come up with today?” My children were never allowed to eat their sandwiches until all the friends had taken a look. One day, my daughter came home and said: “Dad, your sandwiches are a hit! My friends think that you are weird, but they do know that you care”.

It struck me that one of the key human needs that always needs to be met in people is that sense of being cared for – knowing that someone out there (and hopefully from those closest to you) really does appreciate you and demonstrates that through care. The same is true in business – Kevin Roberts, CEO Worldwide, Saatchi & Saatchi, notes: “The question in an imperfect competitive reality is how we move forward together? How can enterprise touch and improve life?” Without question, the never-ending pressures of today’s workplace, exacerbated by technological and economic disruptions are taking their toll on workers. Many employees are experiencing emotional and change fatigue, with few outlets for expression or debrief, especially in the work environment. High levels of stress do not necessarily bring out the best in people – in fact, studies show the greater the stress distractions, the less empathic people become. Daniel Goleman, author of Social Intelligence, suggests the following: “Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. The more attentive we are to others, the more keenly we will sense their inner state and pick up on subtle cues”.

Louise Altman (The Intentional Workplace) notes: “There is more at work here than the burdens of an increasingly complex workplace coupled with ongoing economic insecurities (as if that wasn’t enough!). A triple whammy of factors plays an enormous role in the growing emotional distancing of workplace relationships –

  • The increases of physical and structural work arrangements that keep people separate (virtual teams, multiple reporting lines, global travel, etc.)
  • Technologies that shift focus from people to self and things
  • People’s natural self-absorption and lack of interpersonal skills”

Relations are the foundation of business – leaders play a huge role in ensuring that these relationships are robust and that employees sense their care. As such, leaders need to address the following issues if they are to engender trust through care:

  1. ‘Results-only’ thinking – results are important, but not at the expense of relationships. Louise Altman notes: “Results-only language is also used as a euphemism for ‘I don’t care, anything goes to get things done, they’ll get over it, nothing gets in the way of my goals, etc.’” Obtaining the desired outcome is only fully realised when the same is constructed from sustainable relationships.
  2. Objectifying employees and their needs – reducing people to ‘groups’ (e.g. they are just human resources practitioners, they are part of the administration block, etc.), minimising their worth and trivialising their needs leads to anger and low trust.
  3. A lack of empathy – ‘business as usual’ without a demonstration of care and understanding sends all the wrong messages. When the going gets tough, leaders need to invest more time in engaging employees and dealing with concerns.
  4. Inadequate or partial communication – people need more than simple information. Employees want to know how their bosses are feeling, what they are excited about and what concerns them. This not only provides the ‘big picture’, but also introduces passion into the lives of all who are employed.
  5. Divorcing work and personal concerns – the old belief that work and personal lives should be kept distant from each other is simply not practical, nor does it demonstrate any form of care. An integrated approach, seeing employees holistically, does much towards growing employee wellness and a culture of care.

Leaders need to demonstrate care for followers. I say ‘demonstrate’, as ‘care’ is an action word – it requires movement towards others and reaching out. We are all interdependent social beings – people need people and particularly caring leaders. Cultivating effective workplace relationships requires leadership skill, empathy and care.