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A Lesson from the Playground: Treat Your Employees Like Children

What can kids on the playground teach you about managing your employees? A lot. (And probably not what you think!)

On Friday morning, I was heading back to the office after some morning errands when I drove by my son’s school and saw the kids outside on the playground. I needed to get back to work, but I also knew this was a rare opportunity to observe my three-year-old “in the wild,” out from under his parents’ gaze, so I turned around and parked in the parking lot of the store across the street to sit and watch for a few minutes. What I saw would break any parent’s heart.

After scanning the playground, I found my Buckaroo standing at the top of the kid-sized slide, fiddling with something intently. If only I had my binoculars with me. That wouldn’t look creepy, would it?

He soon climbed down from the slide and walked across the backside of the play area. I could barely see him at that point — only his head above some bushes. He was just standing there, and I had no idea what he was doing. But all of a sudden, he started half-running, half-skipping across the yard, clapping his hands as he went. What was this boost of joy?

I looked ahead of him and saw what he saw. One of the swings had just become vacant and he was on a mission. Yes! he must have been thinking. It was as if he had just been passing time up to this point, waiting to do what he really wanted to do.

And then… denied.

Before Buckaroo could sit down, the boy who had been swinging reclaimed his spot. I saw it coming just a split second before it happened, noticing that this other boy still had one of the chains in his grasp. To the Buckaroo, though, an open seat was an open seat.

Now he was left standing there, processing. What just happened here?

There was no fight. There were no tears. After a few seconds, he walked away and climbed into a stationary wooden truck we’ve nicknamed “Mater” for its resemblance to the character from the Cars movie.

Buckaroo was mostly out of my sight now, so I was the one left processing what had just happened.

Now I know, this was just a normal, everyday kids-on-the-playground incident — and I also know my son has been on the other end of this situation more than once. Still, as any parent will attest, it hurts to watch your child go from such elation to disappointment. (And if you don’t have children, you can still feel the pain just by thinking back to one of these “playground experiences” from your own childhood.)

An “Ah Ha” Moment

As I sat there in my car pondering this, I was soon struck by an “ah ha” moment:

What if you interacted with all of your fellow humans with the same love and compassion you felt while watching your son from the parking lot today?

After all, we are each someone’s child.

And we all have this playground experience every day.

We all have hopes and dreams and expectations… and we get denied. The deal we were counting on falls through. A co-worker says something that stings. The diagnosis is confirmed. In ways big and small, life just doesn’t unfold as planned. And it hurts.

With no parent nearby to give us a hug and tell us “it’s okay,” we pull ourselves together and keep going. We move on to the next thing. What else can we do?

This is my story. This is your story. It’s the story of each of your employees.

This is the human experience that unites us all.

And it’s made better when you feel the love and support of those around you.

Doesn’t it give you a boost — when you’re going through a hard time — just to know that you’re not alone? To know that someone cares?

You know it does… and you can be sure it gives your employees a boost, too, when you show them that you care about them.

Kindness, Compassion and… Management?

But I can’t do that… I’m the boss… I’ve gotta be tough…

First of all, don’t mistake being kind and compassionate for being soft and easy.

Proverbs 3:12 says, “For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights.” (New Living Translation)

The love that made me hurt for my son on the playground is the same love that makes me teach him, guide him and discipline him.

If you’re concerned about managing with compassion, though, check out a recent post on the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, titled “The Rise of Compassionate Management (Finally).” In that article, Bronwyn Fryer references LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s remarks at the Wisdom 2.0 conference — one of several business conferences focused on the topic of compassion at work:

To manage compassionately, Weiner noted, doesn’t come naturally to most managers. It requires spending the time to walk in someone else’s shoes — to understand what kind of baggage that person is bringing to work; what kinds of stresses she’s under; what her strengths and weaknesses are. In high-pressure environments, such a time investment is anathema to most of us. But such an investment is analogous to the work of a carpenter who carefully measures a piece of wood three times before cutting once: spending such “compassion time” with an employee, Weiner insists, pays off in that person’s much greater efficiency, productivity and effectiveness (and obviates later regrets).

Watch LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s full presentation:

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Are you already leading with compassion? If so, I applaud you.

If not, are you ready to give it a try?

If so, you’ll be joining companies like Southwest Airlines, Google, Whole Foods Market, and Nordstrom — participants in the Conscious Capitalism movement, which is also highlighted in Fryer’s post. Those are companies that are not only known for being “nice,” but also for being quite successful (performing up to 10X better than their competitors).

How do you get started?

Just try to see your employees through the eyes of a loving parent this week and see what happens for you and for them.

And remember the words of author and theologian, Ian Maclaren:

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”