The Journey From Caring To Intolerance

You might ask, “Wtf, what has triggered Bruce to rant about this topic?”

It’s simple really, a minor event that no one should have even had a second thought about, as the action and reactions should have been instinctive. It’s just that the opinions were at polar opposites and resulted in a divided team. Of course, no two people will necessarily share the same reaction in each situation, but what the current macro crisis and a particular micro crisis caused, was a fundamental split on instinct. In fact, right down the middle. One group holding on to the caring model, the other to an intolerance setting, all with self-justifications of their own positions.

It is however a good case study in:

  • There’s no ‘right’ answer to anything, only an answer that is right for you,
  • Overthinking situations,
  • Boxing at shadows that may or may not exist, i.e., fear and self-doubt,
  • Assumption, and
  • How crisis distorts perception and action.

Obviously the self-induced and possibly imagined crisis that we are currently allowing ourselves to be put through is leading to all sorts of abhorrent behaviour from people and organisations. Some are in self-protection mode, some are in opportunistic grab-what-they-can-while-they-can mode, others are in survival mode, and many if not most are at least apprehensive and defensive.

A mate of mine who works in health at a senior level tells me the hospitals are virtually empty. So much for them breaking under the burden of Covid, while mental health services have demand levels at four times the capacity.

In short, we are all going nuts, and thus bad behaviour abounds, creating more bad behaviour as we move from being caring to being intolerant hard bastards.

I guess many of you are confronting these issues and the uncertainty, self-doubt and divided teams struggling to re-discover collective instincts around all sorts of stuff.

So, what follows is a Gilligan Sheppard story. It will expose self-doubt, crisis, bitter arguments, and at the end, understanding and respect. You will all have these stories and maybe even the time to reflect on the learnings so that each day and each crisis is handled better.

You may also consider that six leaders are not busy enough to be wasting their time on this crap, but as you get to the end, you will perhaps feel that it was an important discussion on core values and ended with relationships between myself and a senior team member solidify through robust combat. 

What I took from it was pride in the team’s capacity to think and explain their instinctive responses, and the courage that they had to argue strongly opposite views. These sorts of discussions should be embraced, and it is these sorts of ethereal discussions on minutia (and what others may think is crap), that bind your people together and make your organizations even more resilient. It is the boundaries that test ‘reason’ that define who you are, what you believe, and what your values are. In one word – instinct.

The crisis

We all know Auckland is locked down and New Zealand’s borders are closed, that is the crisis, not Covid. This is out of our control, and we are all in the same boat.

The second level crisis which many are suffering, is labour shortages across the spectrum, particularly in the mid-level skilled workforce, the 25 to 40 year olds – the ones you trained and are now valuable. Of course we can do something about this, and many employers have bent over backwards to make their team feel safe, provide benefits that meet their needs and try to generally demonstrate that they care and recognise their people. Some do more of this than others, some do less or worse very little.

We have all read about the coming resignation tsunami, well most of us know it hit New Zealand around March this year and has gained momentum. I hear endless stories about employers who, thought they care about their people, are seeing their talent leaving and can’t understand why. Then second guess themselves as to why they bother with all this touchy feely shit. Why do they bother doing anything other than paying them, driving them to perform, and telling them to shut the fuck up with their whining and moaning? They feel that employees don’t give a shit about employers who try to look after their team.

Then the tsunami hit us at the beginning of July, just before lockdown. Over the course of a month five people left (so you will notice a few empty desks and some new faces). The usual thoughts went through the leadership team. “Why do we do all this good stuff? Let’s just stop.” “What are we doing wrong?” “My god we are useless.” Self-doubt. Then came the fear of how will those that remain cope with the increase in work while we rebuild the team? Then of course it moved to resentment and a sense of betrayal.

I as a CEO, certainly felt all of this, minus the resentment. But the sense of being a failure was real. Leaders who lose team members on a journey deserve to feel like failures.

We all eventually got to the point that the 25 employees remaining still believe and still have confidence in us, and many were prepared to go beyond what we expected, in recommending friends to us as possible team members and committing to cover for our clients. Confidence and pride returned.

So far in this tale I think you would have experienced similar events, travelled that journey, and felt what we felt. But now we get to the instinct rift.

One of these departing team members joined another firm and she did not wish to go into the premises during this lockdown period. They were relying on their new team members having remote access and stable wi-fi, as we all are during this time. This ex-team members’ building had lost wi-fi coverage for some reason. She asked our practice manager if she could come in, and the practice manager asked the team leader who approved it. These two felt it was the right thing to do. Their instinct, based on their understanding of our values. No thought, no analysis, just what felt right.

For god’s sake who in their right mind would let an ex-employee back into their premises to work for a competitor? Are we the dumbest soft dicks ever born?

What would you have done? Would you have said “Sure” for some non-articulated reason, or would you have said, “Piss off you betraying little sod, you have lost your privileges the day you left”?

In due course her attendance was noticed by other leadership team members and the following debate ensued. Here is the journey in their own words, edited for sensibility and flow. Mine are ascribed to me.

Although you may have had good intentions, XX left GS so her issues are her own and her new employers. I was surprised she still had a key when I saw her last Thursday in the office.”

“I only said yes because I thought it was the GS thing to do.”

“I appreciate it is difficult to know where to draw the line with some things. My thought is that it has already been offered so let it go… I may be wrong and not doing the GS thing.”

“I would not have agreed at all. I understand why you did, and maybe it is the GS way, but if it is, that needs to change.”

“She chose to leave and go somewhere else – one of the benefits of GS, is that we love our staff and treat them like family, going above and beyond – but she is not employed here anymore. If she has internet issues – that’s her current employer’s problem, not ours. She needs to accept her choices. This is another example of being taken advantage of the more I think about it.”

“I disagree with you all, it is the GS way. XX did ask in advance, she didn’t just take the opportunity and I would have agreed if I was asked. They’ve been a good employee; we departed on good terms, and they certainly haven’t lost my trust just because they have decided to move on.”

“For me it is not a trust thing, nor is it not on a good terms thing. She made the decision to leave, to go to another employer. This results in maintaining a good relationship, but not the employer support she would otherwise get. Based on her choices, she should go to her current employer for that support, and have them provide a solution for her, or if they could not, they would need to adjust accordingly. Why could she not go to their offices? She made her choices. She needs to deal with it and live with it.”

[Bruce Sheppard]: “XX first port of call to solve her problem should have been her current employer, not us, she may have done that we don’t know. XX has not betrayed us, she has simply made a choice, if we behave well through this, we create future positive thoughts that may or may not come back to us. YY and ZZ, you did the right thing, instinctively you helped someone out because you could, you gave trust to XX and lived our values. Do not beat yourself up on this.”

Post making a clear decision, rare for me, the debate goes on:

“Are you making a decision Bruce!! If you are let us know! I feel so F’n strongly about this! I do not under any circumstances support her coming in whenever she wants!! Why don’t we put a sign on the street saying free internet!! There are solutions for no internet – you can get data sticks which her employer can pay for!!”

[Bruce Sheppard]: “Yes I am making a decision; GS helps its own and takes the opportunity to help our competitors as an opportunity to collaborate if we can.”

“You and I are not on the same page. I just want that on the table. She is NOT our own. We back our employees, and our employees only.”

[Bruce Sheppard]: “Well, it would be indeed unfortunate if we agreed on everything wouldn’t it… it would be boring, we might also be seen as a little cluster of two dominating everything, and others might feel left out. Your view is a valid perspective, the issue is, do people think we are soft dicks? And do we care about that or not? I do however care if our team who stay with us think we are too soft. So, the key issue is to work out who you respect and care about. I do care what you think.”

“To get respect you need to respect yourself as you do. GS needs to respect itself. What we offer our team has intrinsic value. She felt like she could ask us, because of what her experience of GS is, but she made the choice to not be part of that, which has consequences.

If in a relationship someone has broken up with, but keeps letting their former partner into their bed with no value for the wider relationship, what self-respect do they have? This is the same.”

Unusually I did not have the last word.

As you can see, the full gambit of divided opinions and emotions. But everyone felt free to say what they thought to each other and that was good.

As the dust settled, I thought, how come what was so obvious to me, to some of the others was not obvious at all?

The simple answer to that is we never had the conversation and tested our instinctive beliefs in a crisis. While unpleasant, crisis is the opportunity to build cohesion, test boundaries, solidify instinct and build awesome teams.

And sometimes you get a jewel. A jewel that salves your self-doubt, a jewel that reminds you to remember those that are still with you and restores your confidence to keep going.

This came to me later in the day:

“Hey Bruce,

Just saying, we may disagree on many fundamentals recently more than before, but I do respect you very much.

In fact, me feeling strongly on matters, especially those that are well thought through, is because you are a mentor that teaches people how to think generally, rather than think like you, and also you have taught me to say how I feel and stand up for my viewpoint. While I have an opinionated and impassioned personality naturally, you encouraged me to be confident with it. So really you created this monster!!  

But in all seriousness, it’s important for me that you know I have the utmost respect for you. You are the person I would go to regarding decisions I am confused about, and your advice to me matters more than most. You are the person I have learned the most from, and even in disagreeing with you, I continue to learn.”

This discussion, while heated and sometimes emotional, is an example of the frontier of a philosophy of where trust overcomes fear. Essentially trust only exists if all feel that they can safely argue their points of view and be passionate about it. While conflict can create fear, if you are strong and have courage, trust can overcome fear, and the conflict becomes a positive event where all learn. Decisions, however, must get made. When they are, there is a journey to trusting the decision, i.e., trust the consensus. This comes from respecting the views of others and allowing those views to be tested and being open to refine your own.

Without trust it is awfully hard to build confidence. Without confidence, innate competence often doesn’t emerge. Without talented people having the confidence to express and trust their knowledge and beliefs, and have these tested by healthy conflict, mistakes happen.

Mistakes create risk, and so does unsupported, untested trust. This is the balance in business that is hard to achieve.

Do you trust processes that you enforce, that in effect reduce innovation, creativity, and individual confidence? Or trust and enable individuals to think and apply judgment?

There is no right answer to this conundrum, and trading off the extremes creates boundaries of uncertainty, in itself, a risk.

Is your business predominately a ‘rules and process’ driven culture? Or is it an individual trust and judgment culture?

Processes can support and improve the capability and enable trust, the balanced model. Do your processes enable or restrict talent? How does your team perceive your processes and rules? Do they feel supported to deploy their knowledge, or restrained?

The operating premise of every organisation is different. Where they balance these tensions is where they collectively sit on the trust/fear spectrum. Core beliefs guide behaviour and rarely change, however, they get defined, refined, and perfected at the margin.

Challenging the frontiers of beliefs, and enabling constructive conflict, builds trust. I hope this example gives you the courage to embrace crisis, travel the journey and come out the other end stronger.