Let’s Stop Making the Easy Stuff Hard

When it comes to work, focus on the people.

Posted Jan 14, 2021

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash
Man sitting on a couch
Source: Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Like many people, I have been reflecting on and trying to wrap my head around the past week and the assault on our democracy, what I should do or say, and my responsibilities. During that time, I have been challenged to come up with some words of solace or explanation or even guidance for colleagues and the young professionals with whom I work. The best that I could do was to ask how the other person is doing, give space for conversation, and to listen and to recommit to learning. Because, as we know, the events of the past week weren’t just the events of the past week. They have been building for years, for decades, for centuries. Our democracy was built on a shaky foundation, at best, one that excludes and punishes in the guise of inclusion and opportunity. These are hard truths to face and there is much work to do, by everyone.

It certainly seems less-than-important to talk about work, career development, leadership, or mentoring right now. But the reality is, as shocking as last week may have been, work goes on. A pandemic goes on. Life goes on. As ridiculous as it seems, most of us did not have the choice to skip work on Thursday, just because there was a coup attempt on Wednesday. In fact, for many people in this country (and others), work and life has been going on for a very long time with what feels like daily assaults on their personhood. And that, to me, is an important topic for this moment: How are we treating the people with whom we work, and what does that treatment say about us as humans? More specifically, how are we treating the people we manage and lead?

People spend an incredible amount of time at work, the most time that they spend in any one space other than perhaps sleep. It is, for many people, the most formative experience of their lives. Work shapes people’s values and their beliefs and is where they build some of their most important relationships. Yet, often work is treated as little more than a transactional experience.

Our country has created entire systems and structures to regulate what happens in these spaces, from the federal government down to individual organizations, to ensure that people are “behaving” according to the rules. And while many of these rules have been established ostensibly for the protection of the worker, they also were created by and for white men, as in all of the public spaces in our country, which leaves many people on the periphery or altogether outside of those systems. It’s no coincidence that the bulk of the job losses during this pandemic have impacted women, and disproportionately Black and Latina women. 

Why do people work? At a certain, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs level, people work to get money so that they can provide food and shelter for themselves and their families. To say that people work for meaning and purpose or self-actualization is a particular privilege that is not afforded to most. But, even those who might just be “working a job” to pay their bills do so for a sense of dignity. People work to feel like they are making a meaningful contribution to the world, however small that contribution might be. People work not just to pass the time or because they can’t think of anything else to do. People work because work gives them purpose, a reason for being.

And for most people, that purpose is derived not so much from the work itself, the actual product that is being produced, but from the environment in which that work takes place. Call it culture, call it norms and values, for me, it’s always about the people. The people create the culture and uphold (or disrupt) the norms and values. The people are what make a work environment supportive or toxic. The people are what keeps someone in a job or rushing for the door. And the most important person in terms of that experience for the worker is the manager or the leader.

What is the obligation of leadership? Nothing. Sure, if you’re the CEO or the president of an organization, there are fiduciary and legal responsibilities. But across the board there are no policies and procedures to govern what leaders should and should not do, unlike all of the policies and procedures that have been established for those who are being led and managed. Rarely do organizations provide training or coaching to support people in these roles and to ensure they do them well. Frequently, star individual contributors are promoted into these positions, based on little more than how great they were as an individual contributor. And that leaves a lot of room for interpretation and error, which impacts the individual, the people they manage, and ultimately the organization.

As a country, we seem to be enamored with making the easy stuff hard. Perhaps that comes from the dangerous and entrenched mythology of our bootstrap narrative and the idea that a good day’s work should leave a person exhausted. In my work with young professionals, I frequently hear them talk about choosing the thing that they find challenging over the thing that comes naturally to them, as if taking the easier route somehow makes them seem weaker and less successful. These are lessons they learn early.

People in management roles sometimes ask me for guidance on setting goals, leading teams, giving effective feedback, and mentoring and coaching. And while I pride myself on my skills in these areas, and certainly am by no means a perfect manager, it is baffling to me how hard these things are for so many people. Why? Because out of all the things we do as managers and leaders, this is not, and should not be, the hard stuff.

Managing budget and data spreadsheets can be hard. Giving presentations and leading trainings can be hard. Leading effective meetings and project planning and creating policy and procedure can be hard. I could list a thousand work-related things that can be, and should be hard, depending on your skill sets, your strengths, and your interests. After all, we’re not all meant to be experts at everything. That’s why there are so many of us.

What should never be on that list is authentically supporting people. It should not be hard to show up every day and to treat people well. It should not be hard to think about others more than you think about yourself. It should not be hard to ask people how they are doing and to really, honestly care about the answer. It should not be hard to give people the support that they need, in good times and bad, to help them to grow and to thrive both personally and professionally. It should not be hard to have conversations about career development and supporting people on their paths, even if it means they have to leave.

It should not be hard to give people feedback, both critical and otherwise. It should not be hard to say to people, I stand against racism, sexism, homophobia, and any other form of oppression and while I’m not perfect and don’t have all the answers I am learning and working to get better, and here is how you can hold me accountable. It should not be hard to create and uphold an environment where people feel safe. It should not be hard to say to people, you know, yesterday was a really tough day for our country and I imagine for you, as well, so if you need to take a day, I fully support that, because I fully support you.

It should not be hard to ask people how they are, following a coup or on any other random Thursday, and to really care about the answer. And if you are a leader or a manager and you find these things are hard, then you have some serious work to do.

We have a lot of problems in our country, and they didn’t just start last week, and they won’t be magically fixed next week. We have a lot of hard work to do, as humans. Centuries of oppression and systems built on white supremacy are not going to be dismantled with a conversation, a willingness to listen, and a commitment to learn. But you know what? It’s a start. And it’s actually not that hard.