Boston explosions provide reminder to create compassionate work environments

It's a rare occasion to have all the animals in our house resting peacefully nearby each other. A happy moment!

Grace is almost always at odds with Oliver and Dodger; her jealous nature prompts her to constantly push her own agenda. She edges in to make sure she receives ALL the attention so that the cats get none (we do our best to share it equally anyhow). But on this day, she’s decided to follow their lead and give it a rest. One way to arrive at mutual understanding and trust is to relax and try to imagine how the other person is thinking. Be curious. Ask questions. Create an environment — for even a few minutes — that is opposite of what you would normally do.

For the nation and the world, and most definitely New England, the news this week has focused on the events at the Boston Marathon. My husband and I were in the city on Sunday for the afternoon Red Sox baseball game. We parked in Cambridge and took the subway to Fenway Park, which required bus transfer shuttles due to maintenance on the T lines. It took a little longer, but the parking was easy and it afforded us the views and experiences of city life again.

As we navigated the public transportation in busy buses and packed trains, we had ample opportunities to see the city from a vantage point that driving in would not have provided. It felt like we part of the city, instead of just visiting. Everyone was in a good mood, weekend activities filling their day. We chatted with other travelers, some local, some not.

We met three women who had flown in from Chicago to cheer on a good friend who was fulfilling a long-time dream to run in the race. She had come with her husband and two children, all energized and enthusiastic about all they had already done in the city and all that was to come on race day.

Our day in Boston had been a real reminder of the hustle, bustle, energy, excitement and enthusiasm — all things that were enormously evident from the crowds, traffic, and commotion that day.

So when the news aired of the explosion, it resonated deeply with us. We had just been there. It was within reach to picture ourselves being among the crowds and understand the fear.

But for those who were there, I know that nothing could come close to experiencing it directly.

When we manage people, we can fall into the same type of illusion — that we understand how an employee feels about something. If it is makes sense to us, then it will make sense to the other person, right? Nope, doesn’t always work out that way.

When two people in an organization are experiencing friction, simple statements made can be taken out of context or misunderstood, creating an explosive situation.

I had the opportunity to work with two people recently who weren’t seeing eye to eye. When a third-party party (me) came in to listen to the different versions, it was easy to see how the messages were getting tangled. The reason is that each person was crystal clear in their own mind about what they believed and how they felt, yet one wasn’t tuned in see that another perspective was even possible.

In times of tragedy, like the explosions in Boston, we open up our hearts more quickly, more easily, more generously. We offer a lending hand, we are open to seeing what the other person needs, we are kind. Thank goodness, because it’s the right thing to do. I hope that never stops being the case.

Perhaps one lesson we can take from that horrific scene is to hold that same type of generous spirit towards others  during all of our everyday experiences. Imagine how different our interactions would be if we were constantly open to learn, to support, to care. When we do something as simple as working to understand how someone else is feeling, we are helping. I guarantee it will lead to more satisfying and productive relationships with your co-workers.

Most examples of workplace conflict in no way compares to the urgency and tragedy of the death and injuries that occurred this week, and I don’t mean to align them in that level of intensity. But my hope is that we can use this horrible event as a way to help us create safer and more compassionate work environments.

Be open. Be curious. Take a rest from the usual frictions, like Grace did, and seek new understanding about an old situation. It can help us all.

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  1. Rhonda on April 19, 2013 at 9:56 am

    Just one big, happy family for Grace, Dodger, and Oliver. They all look pretty comfortable . . . reminds me of a door mat I saw yesterday; it said, “a dog and his housekeeping staff reside here”.

    You are so right; we need to remind ourselves that perception is reality and show kindness to understand others.

    • Robin on April 19, 2013 at 10:44 am

      Rhonda, thanks for your comment. I love the doormat saying! And I also like the way you phrased the idea that perception is reality, and how being kind can open us to thinking differently. Appreciate you adding to this, it is most helpful.

  2. Michelle on April 22, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Robin, as always, you apply tremendous insight into a challenging time. I continually wonder where things went wrong in the minds of these violent individuals – could more caring and compassion over time have resulted in a different outcome? So hard to understand…

    • Robin Eichert on April 22, 2013 at 6:20 pm

      You raise an excellent point — and a very exciting possibility — in that if we all start to act more compassionately, we could change outcomes. I do think our environment helps mold us — positively or negatively and that is certainly a lesson that managers should pay attention to! Thanks for being here, Michelle.

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