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Empathy and Compassion

Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.

– Lloyd Shearer

About fifteen years into my career, I thought of myself as a strong manager. I had progressed up the ranks and was responsible for an entire telecom equipment manufacturing facility, leveraging Lean with a great group of people

Then the demand for our product went off a cliff. One day, the vice president I reported to visited from headquarters, gathered all two hundred of us in a room, and proceeded to say, “My spreadsheet says this operation is no longer viable, therefore I am shutting it down.” Then he left and went back to his office 250 miles away.

In all honesty, I knew the closure was coming. I had taken part in many meetings trying to figure out an alternative, but demand really had dried up, almost overnight. Management had little choice but to make the tough decision to close the facility.

But the decision did not need to be communicated this way.

Understandably, my team was very upset. They knew times were tough, but they didn’t know this decision was coming so fast. They didn’t want to hear that a spreadsheet had determined their fate. They wanted to hear how difficult it was, at least for me, to make the decision. And they wanted some understanding and recognition of how hard it would be for them and their families.

Unfortunately, things would get worse before they got better. The next day was September 11th, 2001. In one day, the world changed and we became even more fearful, while still processing the previous day’s announcement that everyone had lost their jobs.

Our site leadership team’s response was a bit different from corporate headquarters’ response. We had long thought of our employees as part of our family, and we were empathetic and compassionate. We became completely transparent about the process, what had happened, and what we could do to help the employees until the closure date. We made special accommodations for some, helped others with their job searches, and simply listened, mindfully, to everyone. The employees recognized this and realized they could trust us, and that we would work for their best interests. Although it didn’t change the eventual outcome, we were able to execute a complex facility closure in a professional and human-centered manner. Many of us remain friends and even colleagues to this day.

The lesson of this experience helped me several times later on when we had to make difficult but necessary decisions that negatively impacted people. By treating people like people (as I would like to be treated), truly listening to them and understanding their needs and fears, we made bad situations better. Most of all, we created trust in our organization’s leadership.