I Human

 boot-and-hearts-crop

Picture by David Howell

Many of you who know me, know my crazy sister. There are many reasons why I call her crazy, but  I’d like to share one in particular. A few weeks ago, she  called me, all nonchalantly. When I asked her what was up, she replied that she was lying on the ground, in a forest. This led me to asking why she was lying on the ground, in a forest, and she replied that she had been thrown from her motorcycle while riding a trail and it hurt too much to get up. After a deep breath on my part (because if she’d been in danger of dying there probably would have been more shrill crying or at the very least, sarcasm), I asked her if she needed me to call someone. She said no, her husband had driven to the entrance of the trails so he could direct the ambulance to her. She just  didn’t feel like lying there alone, so she called me.

You can watch the Youtube video here. The crash happens around 3:30. The person she’s talking on the phone at the 6 minute mark is me.

All this reminded  me of a story she told me while giving me a motorcycle tour of Vancouver. She said that there was a belief that the gear that some motorcyclist wore (dark visor, full helmet, dark body armour) might actually increase motorcycle accidents because the rider looked less human and more robotic while wearing all the gear. As a result, other drivers weren’t as careful around motorcyclists that didn’t look human.

There is some research to support this. Monsters in Metal Caccoons discusses that when we are in the interior of a car, we feel protected and isolated. We are also in control of the car and so we become “enhanced humans”. Cyborgs. In turn, drivers start to dehumanize other drivers, seeing them as just the car. This is why road rage becomes easier. We are more likely to swear at the car in front of us than if a fellow pedestrian cuts us off on the sidewalk.

What does this have to do with leadership? My sister’s story got me wondering, what are other ways that we disguise people’s humanness? We may not have the distance provided by a car or a motorcyclist’s body armor, but I think everyone can probably identify a time when we treated someone as a thing, instead of a person. When it was easier to dismiss someone’s concerns as trivial rather than trying to address the problem.

To borrow Jessica Hagy’s style of illustration:

empathy-distance

For example, a problem employee offered up an idea and my first instinct was to shoot it down because I didn’t see any value to it. This employee consistently had trouble implementing useful solutions. I only realized my mistake when I looked him in the eyes. Looking at him forced me out of my head, out of the category I had shoved him in and forced me to consider the situation from his point of view.

The problem employee had been labelled as difficult and not having a clear understanding of the company’s mission. But really listening to his idea, understanding how he came to it, showed that he did understand what we were trying to accomplish, he was just going about it a different way. He needed guidance on how to evaluate his ideas, not someone to do the evaluation for him.

Some people might argue that if you spend all your time empathizing with your team members, then it becomes impossible to offer guidance or corrections because now you are their friend. The problem is that they see empathy and assertiveness like this:

empathy-assertion1

when instead, they could be seen like this:

empathy-assertion graph

Empathy and assertiveness are not mutually exclusive. Empathy is about perspective-taking, and understanding the issues from someone else’s point of view. It shows that the other person’s point of view has value whether you agree with it or not. It’s about respect,  which is probably one of the most important things a leader can give to their followers.

So whether we are driving in a car, working the reception desk or leading a team through a project, it’s important to recognize everyone’s humanness, the things that make them worth more than a just a robot.

At the same time, it’s important to watch out for logs lying on the path.