Some twenty years ago, I came across a phrase – “the taboo on tenderness” – coined by a not very well known early psychoanalyst, Ian Suttie, in his book The Origins of Love and Hate, published in 1935. Although I didn’t find the book particularly aligned with my approach, the phrase stuck with me. I instantly knew what he was referring to, and what has become even more pronounced now than it was in his time. Especially in the context of the modern, especially corporate, workplace, where is tenderness allowed in? We are expected to be “rational”, meaning composed, making decisions based on logical, operational, goal criteria. We are expected to be civil and friendly, without revealing the true nature of our experience and without expressing genuine care for another’s.
Within this climate, the idea of collaboration gets translated into a mixture of division of labor, careful negotiation of turf, conflict avoidance, and ritually consulting people without really listening for what’s important to them.
Not my idea of collaboration.
Within this climate, also, efficiency is equated with minimizing the time spent time on connecting with others – whether it be discussion, asking for support, or inviting participation. The focus is narrow – how to reach a decision or take action in the shortest possible time.
Not my idea of efficiency.
Here’s how we have defined efficient collaboration on our website: “Skillfully coordinating decisions and actions while conserving resources like time, money, morale, and effort.”
Unlikely though it may sound, tenderness is actually crucial for avoiding waste of these resources. Tenderness builds connection. And connection – just the right amount – is necessary for efficient collaboration. What you want is just enough connection for the task at hand, no more and no less.
Picture, for example, a meeting where someone becomes very upset at what was just said. If you drop the overall purpose of the meeting and shift focus entirely to hearing that person out, you’re going for more connection than needed. Your time and energy are dissipating, no longer focused on the goals that brought the two of you into this conversation. You’re likely losing the attention of others in the room, too, since confusion and restlessness tend to arise in us when we focus our attention on any activity (in this case, connection) without knowing why.
On the other hand, if you ignore the person and pretend that everyone can stay focused despite the upset, you’re going for less connection than needed. In reality, people are distracted and perhaps a little anxious, and they’re burning up the effort that it takes to manage themselves internally without showing their humanity.
Now imagine allowing some tenderness in this difficult moment, while still holding the shared purpose paramount. You might focus on the upset team member for a couple of moments so they trust they are heard and can start to settle, along with everyone else in the room – and then move on. Just enough connection. Exactly that amount is what is efficient.
A little tenderness can go a long way. Last week in my teleclass “Collaboration in the Workplace” we talked about bringing tenderness to our own and others’ struggles, before even choosing how to respond to a challenging moment. One student, let’s call her Carla, wrote afterwards:
This morning at work, I had been feeling shy about asking a colleague to collaborate with me on a task that I felt she might think I ‘should’ have been clear about by now and able to complete alone. Thanks to the awareness of tenderness, I was able to silently offer that to myself as well as to her.
This is exactly the step that, internally, orients us towards collaboration. It is the “potion” that allows us to truly humanize everyone while giving us courage to take a step into more vulnerability. Note that the offering of tenderness was both internal and silent. No overuse of resources here.
Then Carla approached her colleague. The results? Here are her words, again:
I then discovered that yes, she was also feeling vulnerable thinking that I may have been judging her for not ‘sticking to the original brief’. A great easing and trust unfolded between us as we regrouped to confirm what our shared vision was for the project.
Both were humanized. Trust increased. The final result? Greater clarity about the shared vision and, most likely, a more focused and shared commitment to the goals of the project. Isn’t this exactly what we would want?
Teleclass update: We are getting ready to start Part 2 of the Collaboration in the Workplace teleclass series. The next section is “The Building Blocks of Interpersonal Collaboration,” so this is a great time to jump in if you’re interested in building connection, trust, and efficiency into your work relationships. The course begins December 4 at the NVC Academy.
Image credit: “Remember” by Tim Pierce, Flickr, CC BY 2.0.