There’s a famous line in the play Hamlet, which you probably read back when you were in 11th grade, where the eponymous and chronically inactive antihero is complaining about his widowed mother’s recent remarriage. Hamlet sardonically quips that Claudius is “more than kin, and less than kind”—they’re now extra related (since Claudius is both his uncle and his step-dad), and yet their relationship is absolutely no better for it. There’s also an ironic implication (and here’s where you can tell that Ilana was an English major) that we all usually feel the most kindness towards people who are our kin—but Hamlet feels particularly betrayed by his uncle’s and mom’s decision, and is very unkindly disposed towards them both as a result. (He needs to grow up and get some hobbies, but that’s a separate issue.)
That last idea, of kin and kindness, is important to consider in our interpersonal relationships, and in business in particular. The idea that managers and other heads need to lead with kindness is well-worn, but not carefully examined; kindness is a nebulous concept, without a clear set of actions behind it. It’s passive—you can be kind without actively doing anything, just so long as you don’t do something unkind. Like, don’t hurt small woodland animals. Don’t purposefully steal your co-worker’s lunch from the office kitchen. Don’t tell the person in the cubicle next to you that her new haircut makes her look like a sea urchin. All of these behaviors are kind. And the ugly truth is that, often, we are (even unintentionally) the most kind to people whom we view as being like us—in other words, those with whom we feel a sense of being kin—without extending effort towards those we see as different or “other” than ourselves.
The issue of our kindness towards those we view as our kin, versus those we don’t, is particularly problematic from a DEI perspective. A 2020 Gallup poll revealed that approximately one third of Black adults experience microaggressions—subtle expressions of racism, hostility, or discrimination. In some cases the perpetrators of these behaviors may be unaware of their biases, or the impact of their behaviors, thinking that they are being kind when they tell a person of color that they’re “very articulate,” ask to touch their hair, tell them “you aren’t like the other Black people I know,” or otherwise treat them with condescension. These microaggressions make the workplace a toxic and uncomfortable place for marginalized identity groups (minorities based on race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation), contribute notably to employee attrition—not good, in a global talent shortage—and set companies up for a slew of lawsuits. Clearly, teaching kindness isn’t a sufficient answer to this problem. So what is?
Increasing research shows that empathy provides a far better path to creating an inclusive and equitable workplace that leverages diverse individuals’ talents. While they are often confused, empathy is different from kindness. Empathy is a many-pronged approach to valuing a whole person. It involves:
Popular misconception is that empathy is feeling sorry for everyone, or being “nice” to everyone, or sort of abstractly thinking, “Oh, that’s so sad” about someone else’s problems. These simplistic and inaccurate descriptions just obscure understanding of this important concept, and allow those who remain ignorant about empathy to continue behaviors that may be creating an uncomfortable workplace for their colleagues or teammates.
Research supports the business case for empathy, with a whopping 90 percent of employees stating they’re more likely to remain in an empathetic company, and to be correspondingly engaged and motivated to do well at their job. And 87% of their CEOs realize that empathy levels within a company have a significant impact on that company’s bottom line. Yet, while 92% of these same CEOs are sure their companies are very empathetic, only about three quarters of their employees agreed. There’s also a persistent racial empathy gap that is well-documented: problematically, people struggle to feel empathy for those of different races from their own—that is, people they do not view as their “kin.” These findings only underscore the importance of teaching managers and team leaders to interact empathetically with their respective teams or subordinates, and to model these behaviors consistently for other employees within their respective workplaces.
This isn’t to say kindness isn’t important—after all, if the play Hamlet teaches us anything, it’s that if you’re not feeling kind, everyone’s going to end up either stabbed behind a curtain, drowned, or in a duel with poison-tipped swords. So obviously, that’s a must-miss, two-thumbs-down, no-family-fun situation. But in the era where settling workplace rivalries with a fight to the death is usually frowned upon, at least by HR if no one else, taking an empathetic approach—both to managing conflicts, and to daily interactions—is a professional “must do.” We’ll be talking more about this in future posts, but for now, learning about empathy (and considering how to train your people to be empathetic) should be a priority for forward-thinking and reflective managers and team leaders.
It’s summertime (at least in the northern hemisphere), and that means the weather is hot, “summer fridays” and vacations are happening, and–for many people–patience is at a low. This is actually a documented phenomenon: many people are familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and its implications in the cold, dark, winter months, but are unaware that the summer months bring a different summer SAD with agitation, anxiety, restlessness, and irritability as its symptoms. Part of this is because heat and humidity inherently make a lot of people grumpy; there’s also something particularly grating about being stuck in a windowless conference room, or behind a computer screen, on a beautiful day that would be better spent outdoors.
With that in mind, we turn to the topic of bad meetings. Obviously, bad meetings aren’t just a summer thing–no one likes them, irrespective of the season. But when people are dreaming of the beach and bemoaning the limits of indoor air conditioning, a meeting that makes everyone feel like their time is being wasted can yield a particularly destructive blow to manager-team relations and to overall morale.
As a result, here are 7 things you should AVOID in meetings if you don’t want your team scrolling on their phones under the conference table (or, if remote, back-channeling about how pointless the meeting is) and being annoyed about how many better things they could be doing with their time:
1. No agenda: For some reason, there’s always one manager who thinks they can “wing it” and comes into meetings with no plan, no clear agenda, and on action items. Sometimes this is because they’ve forgotten, or run out of time to get organized; other times it’s because they think whatever the meeting is about is obvious and doesn’t need an articulated plan. However, that almost never works out well. In order for meetings to stay on topic, get where they’re supposed to go, and have everyone understand what the meeting is going to be about (more on that in a few minutes), having an agenda is crucial.
2. Weird ice-breakers: Ice-breakers can really go either way. Sometimes they’re a fun, amusing way for team members to get to know each other, and they facilitate better cooperation and coordination as a result. Other times they’re overly touchy-feely, bizarre, unnecessary, and seem totally disconnected from anything that’s going on. Team members who know each other well, for instance, don’t need an ice-breaker that acts like they’ve never met or talked before, or forces a level of familiarity that no one is ready for. Questions like “the most surprising place you’ve ever cried” or “the Kama Sutra position that best describes your role in this company” are way over the line of making people feel uncomfortable, without actually creating useful workplace connections. Basically, ice-breakers that would be a good drinking game at a party are too touchy-feely for all but the closest teams, and if they’re that close already, they don’t need an ice-breaker. Don’t be that creepy manager!
3. Loudest voice gets all the airtime: This is a problem in classrooms, board rooms, school board meetings, karaoke bars, and really every situation that has a lot of people vying for a chance to be “on stage.” There’s always someone who’s got a loud voice and outsized level of confidence (that is in no way correlated to ability or productivity) who dominates meetings. If you’re a manager, don’t let this happen, because it means smaller voices–who may have valuable insights to offer–are getting drowned out. If you’re a manager, make a point to prioritize hearing from those smaller voices: “Any other ideas about this issue? X, I know you’ve worked on this some–what are your thoughts?”
4. People are rambling: This is often a problem that arises from the exact same culprits as the issues in #3. When there’s someone who gets the floor and goes off, talking at length and not necessarily in a productive direction, it’s up to a good manager to put a halt to it. Learn the art of politely cutting people off: “Thank you for those insights, Y; they’re very helpful, but I’m going to stop you there because we need to make sure we hit these agenda items.” (This is yet another reason your meetings need an agenda!) An offshoot of this: “Buzzword BS,” when someone wants to sound smart and drops a lot of needlessly jargon-y, overly complicated buzzwords that only serve to confuse and obfuscate (good SAT word!) people’s understanding–with no actual gains as a result.
5. People aren’t leaving clear what they need to do: Here’s a bad sign–if your employees or your team wind up having a meeting after the meeting to figure out what just happened, or to try and get someone else to explain to them what they need to do as a result, your meeting objectives have not been met. The whole purpose of meetings is so people can learn information and then implement actions. So if this isn’t happening, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. This is another benefit of having a clear agenda and list of action items, and checking for comprehension or questions at different junctures throughout the meeting to make sure everything is clear.
6. Nothing changes as a result: This is an offshoot of #5. If a meeting occurs and the action items don’t take place, either because no one knows what to do, knows how to do it, or (in the worst case) wants to do those things, then the meeting objectives have definitely not been achieved. Make sure before the meeting ends that it is abundantly clear who is doing what, when, with whom, and how. And, make it clear what resources, supports, or people they should connect with if there are issues accomplishing these tasks.
7. Not minding the clock: This is pretty obvious, but there’s nothing that annoys people more than being told “this meeting will be 30 minutes” and having it run 45 minutes, an hour, etc. Doing this conveys that people’s time isn’t valuable, in that you (as their manager) are not being considerate of it. Again: Have an agenda–knowing what items have been covered and what’s left will help you stay on task and finish on time.
With any luck, you can avoid these pitfalls and have smooth, efficient, quick, productive meetings where everyone leaves knowing what they need to do know, and no one feels creeped out and/or enraged. Because hey, we should always be striving to avoid creeped-out, enraged feelings (creepa-rage?) at work–it really gets in the way of the team vibe.
The Girard Training Solutions team includes experts in Learning and Development, Management Development, Facilitation, Learning Experience Design, Project Management, and Graphic Design.