For the last three months, Hong Kong has been in great turmoil: Petitions, rallies, violence, injustices, and lots and lots of spilled over emotions, from streets to schools to work to homes. Counsellors and psychiatrists had been seeing an acute spike in asks for mental support. It felt like the whole city was sick and stuck.
In the workplace, some teammates were experiencing emotional traumas, some started not showing up at work because of exhaustions or participations in these activities. As mid-level managers, we were faced with these emotions on a daily basis. We were also being directed to translate, transmit and execute orders from upper management and the company. At the same time, we remained the face of management and the company in the eyes of the employees.
It has been challenging. We were spouses of our spouses, parents of our children, children of our parents, and citizens of Hong Kong. We could relate to the actions and viewpoints of some but not all. We agreed with some company decisions but not all. We understood some things, but not all things. When our own unresolved struggles were forced to be exposed, our choices seemed significantly consequential and intimidating.
Do I choose to become just another employee, and project to my staff, “I am just a messenger.” Or do I try to relate, and let my own emotions potentially run amok? Do I try to help the team separate work from politics and personal life, when clearly, in this day and age, where gender equality, work life balance, immigration policies, pet policies and company values seem to be no longer separable? When do I lead, when do I relate, when do I correct? Do I or do I not make my stand known?
I remember a conversation I had with a younger manager who wanted to join a particular petition in the middle of her shift. Her role in the rallies had been a medic. She participated in the “struggle” by providing medical aide to injured young protestors, journalists, and even policemen. She normally would be at the front line, in the midst of the violence. She was also very frustrated with the company, because the company had not made any stance in the matter.
As her mentor, I had the mandate to remind her of her responsibilities, and the consequences of whatever actions she chose. I also had the responsibility of trying to keep the store running, with as many teammates on hand as possible. This put me in a difficult situation.
After I explained (regurgitated) the standard spew of responsibilities and consequences, she remained silent for a few seconds, and without eye contact, she asked, “Do you support me?”
“Yes I support what you choose to do.”
“Why don’t you join us?”
“What do you mean, joining you now to go to the rally?”
“Oh I need to make sure those who are here get the support they need here in the store. You know, we still have to make decisions base on the situation and safety of our teams and customers …”
“You don’t support HK.”
These moments of truth always tested us to the core. Particularly, they pushed us to wrestle with values that spread across the spectrum of relatability and authenticity. For many of us, our reactions were a crapshoot. The likelihood of us having a second chance to aim again was low. As a result, the consequences could be long lasting. What made these decisions of ours even more deadly, was we seldom had feedback of where our darts had landed. Teammates didn’t, or did not know how to accurately tell us how they felt. We could only gather inconsistent bread crumbs of their feelings towards us.
At work, I have led through layoffs, social turmoils and other massively chaotic and emotional moments. Along the way, I have picked up a few things.
First, in the grand scheme of things, this too shall pass. This doesn’t mean I get to be careless or to think that whatever I do wrong will not matter. In fact if I embraced the reality that these events are part of the journey of my own growth, I could treat these as practices, and not just as the “match” itself. If I imagined all these tough conversations as the practices, and if I ultimately wanted to win the match, I should then challenge myself to practice as hard as I could. This means I should dive in and try to be relatable AND authentic. I should probably try to take some risks, because playing it safe, won’t get me to grow.
My friend once told me this story about lobsters. Lobsters are these mushy creatures that live inside hard shells. As they grow, they will get to a point where they need to grow out of their current shells. They will need to experience immense discomfort during this transformation. Throughout their lives, they will have to endure this repeatedly. As the storyteller, Rabbi Dr. Twerski summarized, “Times of stress, are also times that are signals for growth.”
Second, tough moments like the conversations I had to have about the current situation in Hong Kong, were indications of my rapport with my teammates. If our rapport was built on top of a scaffolding of what cuisines we liked and where our last vacations were, it would crumble the moment it was stress-tested. Therefore it is of utmost importance that I work hard on building deep connections with people, constantly. The ambiguity and fickleness of personal values and believes are meant to be fearful, because they offer the opportunity to destroy relationships, but they also give us the chance to forge mutual respect and acceptance. It is a choice we all get to make when it comes to any relationships. The choice to “stay neutral” or not to be political at work, is out-dated. In today’s age, choosing not to engage, will backfire, when you are forced to engage.
Finally, I try to keep this statement by Ken Chenault close to me. “A leader’s role is to define reality, then give hope”. If I choose to practice as hard as I could to relate, in order to grow and to win the match of forging mutual respect, I need to approach it with an intention to be useful.
There is a place where realities can be defined objectively. The sense of hope that we aim to provide, will subsequently become an opportunity to put forward our true selves and believes. Finally, if our goal is to make the other person feel hopeful, we have to be relatable. I find this statement very helpful, because it guides me to sequence the conversation differently. It convinced me that it is possible to be objective without being apathetic, and to be empathetic without being irresponsible.
How do you do all that? Well, that’s the practice, I suppose.