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Compassion is OK in the business world.

History has taught us repeatedly about the power of words, but still we sometimes just don't get it. Surprisingly, writers can be the first to miss the point. I have to admit I am one of those scribes.

I totally underestimated the impact of a column I wrote for the Los Angeles Times, baring my soul over a mid-life career change from corporate communication manager to independent writer/consultant.

I was unprepared for the depth and extensiveness of the response I have received from readers, particularly from people with whom I used to work.

My writing, which was compiled weeks before publication and then put our of mind, was a very personal piece. And, it was one I originally hoped and expected would touch others. But I did not think that it would cause a tidal wave of soul-searching and "atta-boy" reactions from so many former coworkers, including the CEO.

Everyone reacted with a lot of the same passion I put into the essay. I was both thrilled and surprised. I am still trying to figure out what to make of all this attention, which underneath the ego-flattering part, is still very puzzling to me.

The first thing I learned reinforced a facet of organizational life that has always bothered me: Organizations are too often passionless and unemotional. And that, I think, is what has made most of our organizational communication so dull and unmoving for the audiences we try to reach.

For me, I have an easy answer for why I have participated for so long in this drab institutional communication, and it has nothing to do with fear of being fired. I was educated and programmed to always think and act like a "professional." And professionals rarely act or speak with emotion. They are detached, cool, aloof - yes, professional.

In today's organizational climate of shrinking staffs, budgets and a reordering of the very essence of work, we need to start acting, talking and communicating with more emotion. We have to "bare our souls," demonstrating that we feel deeply, care a lot and have opinions.

There are several reasons why this is important to the organizations we serve, although these might not be readily apparent to them, in the current stress and turmoil:

1. Emotions and feelings - not intellectual pronouncements are what move people.

2. If people cannot show how they truly feel and think, they will never trust the people leading them. (They will pretend they do, but they will really distrust them even more because of the lack of truthfulness in the work environment.)

3. Winning teams are emotional and share those emotions among team members.

A common response among the people who took the time to react to my column was that it was "very touching." It moved them because they could tell it was written straight from my heart. I convinced them that I really cared, and they, in turn, showed they connected with me.

We need to somehow make more room for the "heart" in our communication. Organizational leaders want teamwork, but they too often seek it by speaking and acting dispassionately. They want employee "empowerment," but they don't make it easy enough for people to talk about what it feels like when they are not feeling particularly powerful. Further, they want creativity, but without the administrative messiness of gut-wrenching disagreement and debate, both of which are companions of the creative process.

I have seen both the good and bad examples within organizations and in various mediums of communication. In both cases, people rarely make a conscious effort to be either particularly emotional or particularly circumspect.

Leaders of organizations invariably will try to be extremely formal or the direct opposite. There is no middle ground for them! They never simply try to be themselves, and if they are hurting, or mad, or glad, act it, feel it.

A means of encouraging more real emotions - not staged ones - is to put leaders squarely in the middle of the most honest people in any organization: line workers. These are the hourly wage earners who punch clocks, can't make personal phone calls on company time, and can't take time away from their jobs during the week to get a hair cut or buy a new blouse. In other words, the real people who show their emotions without any hesitancy.

I have personally watched senior executives actually open up a little and exhibit true feeling when they spend quality time in half- or full-day sessions with the workers.

Conversely, if you add a videotape camera - even with casual clothes and lots of "workers" - usually the leader nevertheless will come across stiff and unemotional because the camera too often will inhibit the workers. In the broadcast realm, you need to "catch" the workers and the executive "on the job" in their respective work areas to get them to loosen up. Avoid studios except for professional communicators.

And in writing, don't let senior executives review and edit communication in which you want them to express emotions. Take a risk. No one is going to be fired for trying to do a better job at connecting with employee audiences.

I leave you with one small example of the "editing out" of emotional connections:

I recently wrote a short personal note for some senior executives who were honoring hundreds of middle and lower-management (and a few non-management) employees for their long hours and good results over the previous two years at a U.S. $3 billion-annual-revenues company. A small gift of less than $50 value accompanied the brief note. It was intended for each employee and their loved ones. I decided to have the execs express some emotion that everyone can connect with ... so, I wrote the following:

"Because we know that your many long hours of work require a lot of love and understanding from the people closest to you, we want you to share this small token of our appreciation with them. Thanks to all of you...."

The execs (or a sharp-eyed staffer) chose to change one word. And, it happened to be the most powerful word, emotionally, in the brief note. You guessed it: Love!

The note given to employees talked about "patience" and understanding of loved ones ... still a good word. And, yes, probably more literal and accurate.

But I ask you, what is the universal emotion that people of all backgrounds and cultures relate to? It is not "patience." And I am damn sure of that!

RELATED ARTICLE: 'Sleepless nights and cold-sweat days'

As I stare uneasily at my reflection in my home computer screen each morning, it is a constant reminder that today's economic statistics take on a real, human dimension when one becomes their victim.

No longer are they dry numbers about joblessness and economic torpor in Southern California. They represent my blood, my tears. For the first time in 27 years I have no employer, no office to which to go.

The irony is that I am finally doing exactly what I have longed to do all my life. After a forced "early retirement" at age 51, I am independent and self-employed. But I come to this independence as the result of a macro-economic phenomenon over which I have absolutely no control. It carries an incalculable mental strain.

A few months ago when my good-paying job was eliminated, I remember coworkers looking at me (as an upper middle management employee among the company's a "top 100") as if I were a walking cadaver. Their eyes were filled with pity.

I felt lost, unwanted, used, worthless. And worst of all, I felt like I had no real identity anymore without the company affiliation and a high title. It stung me right in the gut.

I began a full-time work career in 1968, the year national news magazines carried cover stories proclaiming "God is Dead." At the end of 1994 - after 27 years of continuous employment - those same national news magazines now declare "The Job is Dead!"

But luckily for many of us, the age of "independent consultant" is just beginning. So now I hope to help companies make up for the shortage of middle management that the current economy is causing. In theory, fewer jobs at banks, aerospace factories and utilities will mean more small business providing services larger companies no longer want to provide for themselves.

I went through many sleepless nights and cold-sweat days before adopting a basically sanguine outlook on my situation. Within a month of my job being eliminated, a long-time, close personal friend died in Chicago. That reminded me of life's unpredictable, fragile duration. During "severance" negotiations with my employer, my wife, who has been very supportive, began to have reservations about our financial situation. I experienced two consecutive days of the first clear, deep depression I have ever suffered. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had no viable options.

But dreams rarely include the "marketing" part of successful, one-person businesses. Consulting is first sales. And I have never viewed myself as an astute salesperson. Everybody, it seems, is a "prospect" for business. Few, however, turn into paying clients.

Nevertheless, today I sit in my converted guest room in my home, a makeshift office hoping to become the real thing. I am close to a combination phone-fax-answering machine that is fresh out of the box. My computer and laser printer are poised for work. A mini-copying machine is close by, plugged in and freshly dusted.

The future is unclear, but I know one thing. What happens will depend entirely on me - no corporate hierarchy or fickle executive.

If only the phone would ring.

Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times, February 1995.

Richard Nemec worked 22-plus years in corporate communication; now he is a full-time home-based free-lancer in Los Angeles.
COPYRIGHT 1995 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:includes related article
Author:Nemec, Richard
Publication:Communication World
Date:May 1, 1995
Words:1634
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