Look for the Helpers

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Typically I start these articles on a more upbeat note but the events of the last few weeks in our country have taken an enormous toll. On me. On my family. On my colleagues. And on my clients.  For leaders of organizations, this can be particularly challenging when you are trying to keep the ship afloat and forge ahead while those on your teams may be processing difficult emotions that can sometimes slow down organizational progress.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the value of empathy – and, in many ways, it has opened us up to become more vulnerable (in a good way – more on this later) in the workplace. For two years now, we have had the opportunity to peek into one another’s lives outside of work – to see the children and the dogs and the messy homes – and to invite an understanding of each other as humans, not just “colleagues” or “employees” or “team members.” This humanization of those with whom we work is a key building block of trust, which allows us to create a shared experience with one another, recognizing not only our own emotions but also what others in our organizations might be feeling during these extremely challenging times.

Vulnerability and Connection

First, let me go back to vulnerability for a moment. In an interview I read with vulnerability researcher Brené Brown earlier in the pandemic, she was quoted as saying:

“To be vulnerable is to show up when you can't control the outcome — and you show up anyway...It’s not disclosure. It’s not ‘How many times do I cry at work.’ Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability.  Vulnerability at work means you don't tap out of hard conversations. You hold people accountable instead of blaming or shaming. You don't talk about people. You talk TO people. You don't act like the knower. You are the learner. You're not cynical. You're invested. You're not proving. You're IMproving.”

It's important to make this distinction when we talk about vulnerability. Vulnerability does not equate to being overly emotional or revealing your innermost secrets. Even so, the idea of putting yourself “out there” also puts you potentially at risk for the good of others, and not only is this not natural for most of us, it can also be downright terrifying. Our brains can trigger the same fight or flight response that we’d have if we were to encounter a mountain lion or king cobra on our front doorstep.

Last month, Stephanie wrote about connection as a way to face fear - while it was originally written in reference to speaking at a conference and how that applies to managing teams, it is also globally applicable for making it through those fight or flight “mountain lion staring you down” moments. What I want to talk about today goes one step further, a slightly different fork in the road of human connection.

Fostering a Community of Helpers

One of the sayings that has gotten me through these excruciatingly difficult weeks is from one of my favorite people, Mr. Rogers, who told us, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

Think about your organizations and how your teams have functioned during the last few years. For many, this has felt very different than it was in the past. On the one hand, staying remote can sometimes create siloes or make existing ones even more prominent. On the other, the fact that we are not always together in person anymore makes it even more necessary to reach out that helping hand. Think about how onboarding programs were pre-pandemic. Now, we have large percentages of the workforce who have been hired into and been performing their functions for their organizations without ever having met their manager or other members of their team face-to-face other than on a screen – and their onboarding was conducted via Zoom or Teams as well.

Time and time again, however, I have witnessed a greater degree of outreach by other employees who have been with the organization a longer time reaching out both through and beyond the computer to welcome their new colleagues and offer them help in getting adjusted. Onboarding has become a much more multi-layered, hybrid, and ongoing process, which moves organizations away from a “one size fits all,” “one and done” process and, in turn, fosters community and a more effective workforce that maintains connections and trust with one another.

In times of struggle, looking to the helpers can be a healing balm. This may apply to challenges you are dealing with internally within your organization, or to external challenges that are impacting the well-being of your people. We know now from a Harvard Business Review article that came out in March 2020, along with numerous other studies and writings, that what so many of us have felt during the pandemic – and continue to experience in response to not only Covid but also the horrors of the Uvalde school shooting and the war in Ukraine (to name just a few) – is grief. And that it’s perfectly ok to feel this emotion in its many forms. During this time, we can not only look to the helpers for a sense of calm in the storm, but we can also BE the helpers by being vulnerable, naming our discomfort as grief, and sharing ways we, too, may be having a difficult time.  One statement that really stood out to me in the HBR article was as follows:

“Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger...Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims.”

Where can you find helpers in your organization? And how can you empower yourself to be one? I’d love to hear.

Alison French is the Managing Director of Alto Solutions, LLC. Her work as a facilitator, trainer, coach, and consultant focuses on using kindness, connection, and brain science to bring people and ideas together for learning and success.

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