Lessons From Behind the Scenes
Amidst the pressures of working in a crisis, Esther gets her first dose of reality and reluctantly initiates a courageous conversation with a colleague.
It has been close to six months since I’ve written about the unusual utopian culture at ROHEI. There was a resounding round of applause and appreciation from all of my colleagues. They loved it and were clamouring for more of such writing!
Ha! As if!
Reality was, yes, many of them said that the article perfectly described their personal experiences too when they first joined this community. (Who knows how many cups of free drinks they were offered!) (If you didn’t chuckle at that, read the previous article mentioned above.)
However, quite a few of them were quick to point to me that there have been lots of challenging times at ROHEI too where people disagreed and relationships were strained. And it took a lot of self-control and humility from all parties to resolve the conflict. I was not surprised to receive such responses from them because seriously, where there are people, there are problems. It’s just that I haven’t had the chance to experience them up till that point of writing.
Well, you know what they said about being careful with what you wish for? Shortly after the publishing of that article, I experienced my first dose of reality at ROHEI. It was an uncomfortable and frustrating time. However, that was also the first time I had the chance to see the value of culture in crisis.
This year flew past so quickly and I felt compelled to write this article lest I forget the lessons learnt from the past few months at work. So here is my compilation of the various “cultural practices” at ROHEI and an elaboration of how they showed up at work, especially during the heat of the pandemic in Singapore.
“ROHEI people are so irritating!” I half joked to my colleague, Wen-Wei, over a video call. He wanted to check in on my well-being. Well, he got what he wanted. I told him I was not being well.
I shared that one of our colleagues, Gabriel, has been asking me to do tasks that were not listed in my contract, and I was feeling torn about not helping him because I really wanted to be a team player. But it was not doing our relationship any good because I felt being taken for granted. By the time I was done griping about my predicament, we have exceeded our session by one hour and I was emotionally spent. I imagined that Wei was probably mustering all of his energy just to neutralise the negative chi that was coming his way.
And just as I was hoping for words of empathy from him, he did one better. In true coach style, he gave me a homework, “Esther, could I get you to have a Courageous Conversation with Gabriel?” And he proceeded to give me the recommended steps to do so. (Yes, apparently, there is a specific way to do this.)
Now, I must admit that when I first heard that term “Courageous Conversation”, I laughed (inwardly, not at Wei’s face on my computer screen) because it is really just a trashing it out session, isn’t it? Do we seriously need to give it a fancy schmancy name? “Courageous” conversation… Telling my mom that I forgot to tell her I am not eating dinner tonight, after she has toiled in the kitchen for 3 hours, now THAT is a courageous conversation. But talking to Gabriel about my feelings, that’s just plain troublesome, especially during the crunch time at work.
A little side note on the reality at work then: When the government implemented various measures at workplaces to keep the pandemic under control, ROHEI was not spared from the turmoil. Being a learning and consulting company, all of our face-to-face sessions had to be re-designed to suit a remote learning platform. The entire organisation was spread real thin because suddenly, roles changed drastically at all levels. Many had to take on new roles while figuring out how to evolve their previous roles to suit the new environment. It is like a scene from a thriller: Your pilot was shot dead, and the controls were thrust to you, now you have to fly this beast and the lives of all other passengers are in your hands! So you muster all the aviation knowledge you have gained from the movies you watched and you pray that you all make it to that runway. (Who knows where that is!?) Oh please let there be a runway in sight soon!
Yes, that was the environment at work at that time. And here was Wei, telling me to have a courageous conversation with Gabriel. Seriously, Wei? It would have been easier if I were to just bury those unpleasant feelings and pretend like they never happened. And besides, Gabriel seems to have stopped sending requests my way. So, all’s good.
But why is it that whenever I see Gabriel during virtual meetings, my heart feels uncomfortable? Almost sour. It felt like things weren’t like how it used to be. Almost like there is now a stain and strain on our relationship.
Argh! It got to the point where I could not feel authentic around him anymore. That frustrated me. At that moment, I remembered one of the 10 Questions to a Courageous Conversation that Wei had asked me before — “What is your preferred future?”
I replied that I would like to be at peace with Gabriel once again. Alright, that settles it. One day, I had the Courageous Conversation with him.
We started by exchanging pleasantries and I could feel my anxiety mounting. ‘How would he perceive me after this conversation? What if things get strained after this?’ At that moment, I understood why having this conversation takes courage. It takes courage to risk the status quo.
“You know,” I began, “in the past few weeks, you have asked me to do things that were not stated in my contract, and it felt like I was being taken for granted when you sent those tasks my way, one after another…”
“Oh man, Esther, I seriously wasn’t taking you for granted. And I definitely don’t know what is stated in your contract,” he interjected apologetically.
“I mean, I would have been more than happy to help if you were really swamped, but the way those texts were phrased, I couldn’t tell! In fact, it almost felt like you were just pushing responsibilities to me…!” I blurted out, shocked and aghast all at once.
I can’t believe I just said something so provoking. I felt terrible and yet, that was the story in my head that I have been playing on repeat about Gabriel. If only I could re-do that scene!
Then came his reply.
“Actually,” said Gabriel, “I was really really swamped at that time. I was almost like a zombie during that period due to the lack of sleep. Everything was changing so fast and I had to meet so many deadlines within a tight timeline. On usual days, I would not have asked you to help me with those tasks, but at that time, you were the only other person I could ask for help, because everyone else was also swamped.”
My heart ached when I heard that. Poor guy. He was trying to fly the plane the best he could and here I am, accusing him of not serving me drinks during the flight while I was seated at my economy class seat.
“I’m really sorry if the tone of my text messages sounded impersonal,” he continued. “It is something that my fiancé has given feedback on before too, and it is something that I’m still working on… So thank you for telling me about this, I really appreciate it…”
Can you believe this guy? Apart from appreciating me for my piece of “truth”, he tried to make me feel better by revealing something so vulnerable! I was floored by his humility and kindness towards me, for he knew how hard it was to initiate such a conversation in the first place.
Today, when I see Gabriel, I feel camaraderie and respect restored, and best of all, I know that our relationship just got strengthened because of the conversation we had. It truly does take courage to care enough about a relationship.
And yes, Gabriel gave me the blessing to share this story and even make known his name — a further testament of the authentic culture here at ROHEI. (Possibly also because he does not fancy being identified as ‘X’ in the article.)
I am thankful that at ROHEI, Courageous Conversations are initiated. And I am also thankful that these sessions have been used as opportunities to honour each other, to develop self-awareness and these are so valuable for personal growth. Hey World, it really is not just a trash-it-out session, okay? (I don’t know why I’m addressing the world now, but you never know who’s reading this!)
Ascribe Good Intentions
I first heard the above phrase during one of our weekly staff meetings, and I thought, “Ha! Yet another novel term from ROHEI. They have ‘seasons’, ‘journey’, ‘SHUCA’… I really need to start keeping a log of them all.” But beyond the novelty, I saw the value of this principle, especially when the work environment got intense.
You know how misunderstandings are common in communication? Well, they multiply in the remote working environment, because now, you have lost all of the various platforms and opportunities to clarify them. That water cooler spot where you catch up with each other to talk about what’s going on at home? Gone. The cubicle/desk you share with your colleagues that allows them to see how stressed out you are with work? Non-existent. And the lunches you go for together to talk about, you know, stuff? “Hello” virtual lunches, a far cry from sharing food and sitting at the same table with others.
Fact is, we really do communicate non-verbally most of the time, just that we do not realise it. And now that almost all of work has gone virtual, we have become poorer in our communication.
That incident I wrote about X earlier on? Turns out, if we were in a face-to-face setting, that tension would not have happened, because his requests would have come in person, with a tone and a facial expression to match it. I would have been able to sense his duress and need for help more acutely, rather than feel like he was just pushing responsibilities away. A text message over the Internet frequently fails in these contexts.
That is why ascribing good intentions towards others is so crucial, because it helps to keep the relationship in a healthy zone until a Courageous Conversation could be held.
‘Maybe this person said this because she wanted to do what is best for the organisation, but it was just not communicated in a way that syncs with me.’
‘He said this earlier on, but now he is doing something else instead. Perhaps he just needs more time to get his plans sorted out. Let’s give him some more time.’
‘Why didn’t she smile back at me when I greeted her warmly? Ah well, perhaps she had a rough morning. Let’s give her some space for now.’
Now that last one, is an example of the how wide is the category that this phrase is applied on. Because sometimes, even if we cannot see any good intentions there, it would help us (and others) if we could just show some empathy towards others and cut them some slack when they do not meet our expectations (and boy, do we have expectations!)
I find that the practice of ascribing good intentions have quelled many of the noise and unhelpful (and likely untrue) stories that I tell myself whenever I am confronted with something unpleasant. It is also a strategy that helps me to keep my peace with the world and the world with me. This is at least until I have the chance to talk about the matter with the individual directly, which leads me to my next point.
Celebrate Publicly, Correct Privately
When I heard this phrase uttered casually during one of our meetings, it was a far from casual experience for me. In fact, it was cathartic, because it reminded me of all the times that I was celebrated and corrected publicly. While, yes, it did draw me and the community I was in closer, because we all got praised and scolded together, but those moments brought stress that could have been avoided too.
‘What would people think of me now? How do I go about acting like everything is normal, when I have just been scolded in front of everyone. Where can I go to have a space to process all of what I have been admonished for? If I go to the toilet, people would feel sorry for me and think that I’m crying (I most certainly would be!) but I don’t want them to feel sorry for me. I want to act normal and oh gosh, I just wish I can be alone right now.’
I don’t know about you, but I don’t like being scolded in public. And when I heard that phrase “celebrate publicly, correct privately”, I teared up. I teared for the damage that my esteem suffered from those years of public admonishing. I teared for the various insecurities I suffered due to the guidance of people who were just as broken as I was. And worst of all, I teared for the various times I scolded those people under my care, publicly, thinking that that was what was expected of a leader, to show that you are in control and that you have power. In truth, it was the most powerless thing to do, to shout at others into submission.
At ROHEI, I haven’t gotten the chance to see this in action. Obviously…! But I see the effects of it in the way people handle mistakes. They would frequently say things like, “Let me talk to A about this directly (i.e. privately).” And this has created a culture where people feel safe to just own up to their mistakes, knowing that we are here to honour and encourage each other along this journey.
(Random thought: How do we respond to children when they misbehave in public?)
Inclosing, it has not been a bed of roses at ROHEI, but it has been a heck of an experience watching the fundamentals of their culture put into practice. If you haven’t noticed, I still find myself frequently referring to ROHEI from the perspective of an outsider looking in. Partly because I am still getting to know the various quirks and dynamics of this organisation, but mostly, it is because I feel that it is so surreal to be able to work here.
If anyone says that a company’s culture can be easily created based on the kind of people you let in, I will tell you that it is that and so much more. Having low self-interest, loads of humility and the ability to be self-sacrificial, doesn’t sound like much fun for the individual, but these are what would see us through the seasons at work. These will stand the test of the “real” world. May we all come out of this pandemic with a stronger culture and be even better versions of ourselves.