The Fragility of Humanity
In the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, we all experienced what I would describe as the first wave of empathy, a series of spontaneous, often emotional responses by business leaders throughout the country around the need for social justice. I was inspired by the depth of their observations, almost more philosophical than corporate. One in particular struck home with me—a warning by Apple’s Tim Cook that we all must resist the temptation to return to “normalcy” at the expense of ignoring injustice.
In the days following Floyd’s death, I struggled over how I should respond. I am by nature an optimistic person. How was I going to balance my belief in the goodness of humanity with this demonstration of evil and prejudice? Then it dawned on me. Healing begins with understanding. I had to take it upon myself to learn more—by connecting with Black friends and colleagues, to listen to their perspectives, and to see the world through their eyes.
This is what I might call the second wave of empathy—a time to move beyond the initial shock and to begin positive conversations. As I have been working through this, I’ve picked up a few observations along the way. I wouldn’t say they are comprehensive by any means, but they may prove helpful for those stumbling through this journey like me.
I found these conversations work best when you expect the unexpected. You can’t script these. You need to go with the flow. These communications really resonate when they are seen as authentic and being authentic just means being yourself. Avoid saying things like “I understand how you feel.” The whole point of these discussions is to develop that understanding. No one will take offense to you when they know you are being honest and caring, no matter how awkward that makes you appear.
One thing that really took me by surprise was how emotional these conversations could be. We ask people how they are doing all the time, mainly as a way of greeting. We don’t always seek out genuine, heartfelt responses, and sometimes they can be overwhelming. People are hurting. People are frightened. Most of all, people just need human contact, especially in the face of the current pandemic. To benefit from these conversations, I found I also needed to reciprocate emotionally, listening and connecting along the way. At times, you want to give a hug, almost as much for yourself as for them.
These conversations are also about earning trust as quickly as possible. I tell everyone the same thing. I can’t solve everything, but I do want to make things better, so I want people to reach out to me. As a senior leader that may be a daunting ask to make to someone who may be lower in the organization. But the power of permission may be one of the greatest tools in our arsenal as leaders. People need to know that we care enough to put their needs first.
No region in the world has a monopoly on prejudice; social injustice has been a global pandemic for a long time, spreading political, religious and human inequity everywhere. As the chair of the ITW Global Leaders’ Forum, which brings together executives from the world’s largest telecom wholesale carriers, I’ve made it a personal commitment to encourage diversity and inclusion within our industry. Our recent report on gender diversity is only a starting point for addressing these other issues more broadly. We can do better.
Many of my recent conversations have highlighted the strength and stoicism of those who face the challenges and frustrations of prejudice every day. They believe the final answer lies in dialogue and awareness, not social and civic discord. In one of my favorite songs, “Fragile,” Sting uses the murder of an American engineer at the hands of the Contras in Nicaragua to reinforce the fragility of humanity and the futility of violence:
“Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could.”
Let’s keeping talking. I promise to never stop listening.
This blog was previously published on LinkedIn on June 21, 2020.
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