Seth Godin had a great post recently about Caring.    The most important two sentences are:

If you want to build a caring organization, you need to fill it with caring people and then get out of their way. When your organization punishes people for caring, don’t be surprised when people stop caring.

I’ve been in tons of situations where I have felt that I have had the caring beaten out of me.  Sometimes it’s been clear up front that the success of the organization or project is separate and apart from whether I care about  the long term success of it or not- there’s just a job to do.  If you are working at any job that just requires a body to be there, there’s little room or need to have anyone to care about the job they do.  My problem has always been that I care very much, every day, not only about the quality of my work, but at my ability to help others and the organization achieve excellence.  I find it hard not to notice or think about ways we could do things better, avoid common problems, and make the whole process of the work better and more responsive.  What’s difficult is developing a way to express opinions about improvement without it sounding like a criticism.

The problem with caring is that when you care, you can’t help yourself.  You want to do something meaningful and get good results.  Not caring doesn’t seem to be an option.  This means when you say something to a boss about their project or process, they will hear your caring, but it may sound like dissatisfaction or whining.  You have to be able to learn to express caring to others in a way that makes it palatable and your investment in success overrides their defensiveness about “You don’t think my project’s perfect!”

Let’s take this out of the business context for a second, and into my role as “boss” as a Mom.  When I help my kids review and edit their writing, it can be a really touchy subject.  As someone who has just finished writing a book, I understand how sitting and typing out your thoughts and feelings brings them to life, and when someone else starts editing them, it can feel like they are editing you. All the energy and emotion it took to construct those sentences, and someone else has the audacity to think they can improve on it?  Yet, there are all times when we could be more on point, more concise, and outside input helps remove our blinders and look at our work from an audience’s perspective.  To diffuse the natural defensiveness and reluctance when editing stuff with my kids, I try to approach things in the least aggressive way possible such as:

  • I like your idea here, but I don’t understand everything- could you add more and give me more about what you mean?
  • If you read this aloud, it sounds like ” [example]” . I think if we could change the punctuation, it would separate your ideas a bit more and make them easier to grasp.
  • You have a good start here, but it seems like you could make a more powerful case if you added more in this section.  Are there more facts you can add to support your opinion?
  • I read over this paragraph, and I’m a little confused.  Could you help me understand what you were trying to say?  Can we say it that clearly in the writing itself?

The basic trick here is not to avoid critique, but to deliver it in a way someone else will hear you and be able to act on it.  Likewise, when you care about a project, it is, by definition, invested with emotion.  You want to get things started and you want to dig in.  You want to do your part and see success in the end.  But if your enthusiasm for making things work is met by a brick wall or resistance, you gradually learn that your input is not welcome or valued.  You gradually start to give up.  You gradually have all the caring beaten out of you.  And then, you move into the default position of punching the clock and doing “whatever” because it’s clear they are not interested in you trying to make a real difference, they just want to check a box and move on.  You may stick around for a bit, and exercise your caring at home or on side projects, but getting you to care again about work is going to be hard, because they’ve already told you time and again that isn’t how this place rolls.

Having the caring beaten out of you is worse than never caring at all.  Investing time, effort and feeling into a project makes you feel like you have some ownership in its end success. It raises the bar. Having caring met by nothing but indifference or hostility will make you less likely to put your hand up or speak up in the future, or worse yet, decide you simply need to move on to a place where caring does matter.

Admittedly, for business owners and project managers, caring employees can be a real pain in the rear end.  They always seem invested and enmeshed in things, and sometimes, it’s hard to get them to care just a little less, or  not to feel burdened by explaining to them why you want a job done a certain way. They always want to raise the bar, as Seth said in another great post.   Their “innovation” may not be as great as they think, it could be a disaster when seen in the aggregate or in the light of day.  But you have to take the time to really listen and evaluate what the caring folks are saying.  Perhaps rather than shutting them down,  you can meet these well meaning and caring folks with more of the following: “That’s an interesting take.  I think we’re going to move forward as we had planned, but I value your opinion and input”  rather than “Just do as I’ve asked, no more and no less.”  Or maybe even:  “I’m not so sure- can you give me a more detailed outline of what you mean?  Have you considered these other things we have to weigh against your proposal?  Maybe we can find a good middle ground.”  By treating the people who care with a little more acknowledgement of good intentions and a little less “You’re crazy” you will buy loyalty you could never actually pay for.

Having the caring beaten out of you is about the worst feeling ever.  It leaves you feeling hopeless and futile. But caring, when met with an open mind, can lead to great things.  Both parties win, short term and long term, as long as everyone feels like they heard and valued in the end.