When my son, Zak, was 10, we were on a soccer road trip with his teammate Luke, and they were talking over a fast-food lunch. This is what I overheard, “Hey, did I tell you that I was elected as the fourth-grade class executive?” Luke said.
“Man, you’re lucky. We don’t have class executives.” Zak was highly impressed.
I couldn’t resist joining in. “Luke what exactly does the fourth-grade class executive do? Do you run the fourth grade?” I asked.
Luke shook his head. “I don’t really run the fourth grade. My job is to go to dances and other school events and make sure all the fourth graders are happy.”
I could do nothing but laugh at Luke’s job description of an executive. At age ten, Luke saw his job as being responsible for the happiness of the entire fourth grade.
That point of view continues as we grow up and enter the workplace. Managers, executives and other leaders are expected to keep employees happy, build their morale, and find ways to motivate them.
We call this “caretaking” — trying to manage or take responsibility for another’s emotional response to a situation — and it typically shows up in two types of workplace conversations:

  • Conversations that attempt to reassure and protect

  • Conversations that prescribe and direct

In the face of difficult circumstances, we often hear managers say “Don’t’ worry, just keep doing your job. We’ll figure it out, everything will be OK.” This may seem compassionate, but such reassurances are debilitating in two ways:

  • It’s an attempt to impugn the other’s real experience.

  • It let’s the other off the hook for participating in resolving the problems at hand.

Being told everything will be OK might make sense when you’re 10, but as a response to an adult facing a difficult situation at work or in life, it has little relevance. In the harshest of lights, such reassurances are a lie — no one has a crystal ball when it comes to the future.
The other difficult issue is that when managers and leaders tell others not to worry the reaction may be  “OK I’ll just do my job and hope for the best.” In difficult times, is this the attitude needed from folks at work? Or would it be more productive if they were engaged, literate and facing the difficulty with resolve, perseverance, and optimism?
What’s a Leader to do?
Take the other person seriously. Show understanding that their experience – whatever it is – is real for them and legitimate to them. Encourage conversation about doubts, reservations, concerns and fears. Realize the other is an adult.
Take their side, out loud. Articulate their position so they know you understand it. Validate their experience and talk about your own anxiousness, concerns and fears about the situation. Don’t have any? Talk about your denial!
Talk directly and openly about the details of the situation. Answer questions fully and directly – no spin – don’t soften the blow. Make visible the choices people have about how they see the future. Maintain goodwill in your demeanor and tone.
Viktor Frankl writes in The Doctor and the Soul, “But the human being who sits opposite me at this table decides in every case what he ‘is’ during the next second, what he will say to me or conceal from me.”
We all choose what we make of a given situation, recognizing this is fundamental to true leadership and management.
Remembering this helps me remember I can’t make all the 4th graders happy.