In the critical days after the BP oil spill, I saw a picture of a large group of people who showed up on a beach to help with the cleanup. They were turned away because they didn’t have the training to help. They felt frustrated and helpless standing on the sidelines. They went home feeling a loss of hope that the crisis would be resolved well.
Many people feel the same way in their organizations. They feel frustrated standing by while their leaders struggle making decisions and implementing urgent initiatives to help with the continuing problems in the current economy. Why won’t they accept help?
I learned from visiting a Maasai village in Kenya that when people have each other, that’s really enough. The natives–many of them had earned college degrees in Nairobi or abroad but returned home to live in huts with their tribe–taught me the best way to live through difficult times is to face problems together calling on everyone to chip in with hands, minds and hearts.
Our leaders think they need resources. They think they need the proper training and experiences to consider input on a decision. They think they need a broader perspective than the teams of people doing the work.
When people are asked to be creative, when they are asked to contribute ideas, when they are asked to chip in to help with the survival of something that affects their livelihood, they feel trusted and respected. Their brains open up with good ideas.
When they are told to stand by until their leaders can figure out what to do, they feel disrespected and helpless. Over time, they lose interest and disengage. Productivity falls off. Innovation dries up. Then they are “reorganized” as if this will solve the problems. No wonder most people don’t like change.
The same is true for our communities and families. When people are asked for their ideas and contribution to something that is meaningful to them, they rise to the call. If they are left out, they sit back and complain.
In reality, most people look for better ways to do things all the time. No one writes these small changes down. No one gets thanked for these contributions.
I’m not talking just about people at the lower levels of an organization. In my leadership classes, the middle managers feel used, abused and exhausted. They get to be imaginative and brilliant in class but have little hope they will be able to make any significant changes back on the job. They are like the volunteers on the beach wanting to help but told to go back to where they came from.
So what can you do?
As a leader, acknowledge that most of the people in your organization or community have similar goals and desires. Quit trying to control everything. Ask for ideas and help moving into a better future together. Cultivate collegial instead of competitive atmospheres where people enjoy being creative and productive with each other.
As a participant, continue to offer to help. Work to deepen your relationships with your colleagues. Help the people around you manage their anxiety and helplessness by focusing on what is in their control to achieve. Don’t give up.
For everyone, push away from your computers and have real conversations with people you can touch. Sara Konrath of the University of Michigan found that college students today are about 40 percent lower in empathy scores than their counterparts 20 years ago. Konrath says, “Empathy is best activated when you can see another person’s signal for help.” The Internet isn’t just affecting our brains. It’s affecting our hearts as well.
We can bring back hope for ourselves and the people around us by creating the sense that we are all in this together.
Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D. is the author of the Amazon bestseller Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction and Outsmart Your Brain. She is a professional coach and leadership trainer who works with a variety of companies and coaching clients around the world.