If you’ve ever been to an interview, you’ll know to prepare an answer to the What’s your weakness? question. You may have been given advice to include how you turned your weakness around into a strength.
You may have also been given a hint not to talk about a real weakness (like crippling anxiety before presentations or losing sleep after bad meetings) but to choose something a little more palatable and that ultimately looks good, for example: “taking on too much”; or “finding it hard to say no”…
The perversity of a work culture in which this is normal is disturbing.
I was reminded yesterday, at this year’s British Medical Association Public Health Conference (themed on mental health), that weakness is still a taboo in our work culture.
While we acknowledge “challenges” in the economy and politics, we seldom examine the impact of such work cultures in a frank way.
It’s too painful to dig into the alienation inherent in the 21 st century human experience of work, let alone mention words like failure, isolation, confusion. Any doctor would rather stick a needle in their eye, as would anyone groomed in the industrial, competitive work cultures we know all too well.
Leaders who could influence by example and help reform work culture are not immune to this unfortunate squeamishness either. They’re often locked into the phenomenon even more deeply… (See a previous piece about The Great Man Myth.)
WHAT’S THE THREAT?
The fact is that it’s natural for a human being to feel weak every now and again: after hard work, we need rest; after intensive thinking, we need play; after continuous concentration, we need to daydream; after a period of uncertainty, we need comfort.
Whereas weakness is intrinsic to the human experience, feeling vulnerable, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily and is defined by a fear of attack…
We talk about developing resilience among employees forgetting that resilience is a response to the perception of a threat.
But what is the threat exactly? Why do people and organisations feel vulnerable in the first place?
In a climate where people are asked to “achieve more with less” while their safety nets are shrinking and their future looks increasingly uncertain, the stress of falling through the cracks is intensified.
So leading and succeeding in a typical organisation is fuelled by a continuous sense of vulnerability – a fear of being left behind.
A fear of being perceived as weak.
A fear of being fully human…
What’s the way out?
THE TRUTH (AND A LITTLE COMPASSION) WILL SET YOU FREE
Some of the most inspiring leaders we’ve known in the past century like Gandhi or Martin Luther King did not create impact, let alone withstand the trials and tribulations of their work, through rigid strength or self-protective posturing.
It was their ability to be real.
They didn’t pretend there were no problems – they faced them head on.
But they didn’t give into toxic cultures that were unjust and victimising.
They had an ability to see and tell things how they are; and a gift for being empathically attuned to the situation, others and themselves.
They were compassionate in their fight.
The answers to the big questions we face, as the nature of work continues to change and uncertainty grows, will need to be worked out over time, with courage, compassion and care.
Clients sometimes ask me: how do you know when and towards whom to be compassionate?
Should you excuse others’ bad behaviours?
If you’re compassionate towards yourself will that make you lazy or increase your risk of failure?
These are important questions to explore. I don’t have all the answers for your particular situation right now but here are a few things I’ve learned:
1. Compassion is a clarity of understanding that we’re all on the same boat and none of us is getting out alive
“Imagine you are walking in the woods and you see a small dog sitting by a tree. As you approach it, it suddenly lunges at you, teeth bared. You are frightened and angry. But then you notice that one of its legs is caught in a trap. Immediately your mood shifts from anger to concern: You see that the dog's aggression is coming from a place of vulnerability and pain.
This applies to all of us. When we behave in hurtful ways, it is because we are caught in some kind of trap. The more we look through the eyes of wisdom at ourselves and one another, the more we cultivate a compassionate heart.” – Dr Tara Brach.
2. Compassion is a practice
When people ask me if I’m happy, my answer is that happiness is a practice. Similarly, we have to continuously cultivate compassion and the ability to open up in difficult times. Again. And again. And again…
3. You are the first beneficiary (not the last)
Remember to put your oxygen mask on first. Compassion isn’t about rescuing. It’s about doing the right thing at the right time.
4. Compassion can be counterintuitive in times of stress
The impulse to push harder when we feel we are failing is engrained. But ask any athlete about the importance of rest before going further. Our habitual defences would rather isolate us when what we really need is consolation, reassurance and soothing before facing what needs to be done.
Compassion isn’t patronising sympathy nor horrified anxiety at the scale of the task. It’s not about feeling sorry for yourself or single-handedly taking on the world’s ills.
The feeling of being uncertain from time to time about your future, whether you’ve fulfilled your potential and what to do next is universal.
You deserve a break, understanding and a little help as you find ground in this big world, as much as the next person.
Have a great week,
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