One day last August my Dad called to tell me that my Mom had cancer and it was serious.
When I got off the phone I was in shock. I mumbled to my coworkers that it was bad news and I didn’t know what to do.
With hardly any input, they booked me a one way ticket to San Diego. Transportation was booked to and from each airport, all on the company card. No need to worry about communicating my absence to my clients; my teammates would take care of it.
I had been working at Undercurrent for just six weeks.
The Undercurrent team. Photo by @sandrawhyhong
Before coming to Undercurrent I worked at the nonprofit Invisible Children. My coworkers felt like an extended family. We went to absurd lengths for one another: four A.M. rides to the airport; friends of friends sleeping on our floors and couches as needed; letters of recommendation; over-the-top low budget birthday celebrations; donations to each other’s Kickstarter/Indiegogo/GoFundMe campaigns.
I was a writer there and it was my dream job. My coworkers were my closest friends, and the work itself was full of mission and purpose and hope.
Despite all of this, after nine months as a volunteer and two years on staff, I was burned out, depleted, and confused. I was still committed to the mission, but tired.
Telling a friend about my confusion, I explained that my employer truly cared about me: they wanted me to be happy and healthy and advance in my career. My friend patiently explained to me that Invisible Children, Inc, wasn’t actually a person. It couldn’t feel the care and compassion that I was ascribing to it. My managers and colleagues did care about me and want the best for me, but the organization had a separate mission: to end a war in central Africa that had child soldiers at its center. That was the explicit and worthy purpose that the organization was accountable to.
That made sense to me: People can care about people, but organizations can’t.
After leaving Invisible Children I got a job at Undercurrent, a 30-person strategy firm in New York.
The shift from the nonprofit world to the management consulting world was jarring and my year at Undercurrent forced me to reconsider my conviction that organizations can’t care about people.
Undercurrent (R.I.P.) was different than most companies in that we were a self-organized company, not a top down company. (Specifically, we were a Holacracy, if you want to godown that rabbit hole.) We didn’t have managers, just teammates and sometimes team leaders. Seniority was recognized and respected, but it didn’t confer extra privileges. As part of this setup, the employee handbook was written by employees, for employees. Anyone could contribute to the handbook, whether new hire or senior strategist. And the handbook was updated monthly. We added, changed, and removed policies as our business grew and changed.
When my Mom got sick, the instances of kindness and empathy I experienced from the people at Undercurrent were myriad and nuanced. But it wasn’t just the individuals — I had a feeling that Undercurrent as an incorporated entity was showing me kindness and empathy, too.
The contents of the care package Undercurrent sent me when I was at home with my mom.
This feeling came into focus when my Dad asked me who we should thank for all of the allowances I’d been given while my mom was sick. The CEO? The senior partners? My mentor at the company? The colleague who booked the plane ticket? The folks who took on extra work while I was out?
The closest I had to an answer was everyone, and no one person more than another. My colleagues were just acting out the spirit of the policies that we had woven into the handbook and our culture. Because of that, it was like every single individual had the power to decide to pay for that initial flight home and give me eight consecutive weeks off of work and rearrange my project load.
It was like the decision had been made long before I arrived at Undercurrent. Every action was an extension of Undercurrent’s values and policies. Just as a computer acts out the instructions it was programmed with, so too was Undercurrent behaving according to its programming, like it had an artificial emotional intelligence.
While the specific kindnesses that Undercurrent showed me aren’t feasible for every organization, I do believe that people can create policies and mechanisms so that an organization mimics empathy. If that’s true, then empathy can be scaled. More than any formal framework like Holacracy or sociocracy, the key is hiring empathetic people and giving them both the freedom and mandate to bring their empathy with them to work. Too often as employees and employers, we check our human feeling at the door.
My mom died five months after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. I worked remotely from San Diego for several weeks at a time, and spent an extended Christmas with my parents and siblings. Thanks to Undercurrent, I didn’t have to choose between keeping my job and taking care of my mom in her final months.
Today, I am the Director of Communications at Planetary, a boutique web development company that builds awesome web apps to simplify complex information.
Now that I’m at Planetary, I mean to repeat the experiment and see if we can practice empathy at the organizational level. It’s hard to know what shape that will need to take, but I think it begins with asking each other “how are you?” and then sticking around to hear the answer. The team is smaller, and half the team is remote. These are challenges, but I’m excited — not to mention determined — to work them out because in the throes of grief and gratitude, paying it forward is the only thing I know to do.
Thanks to everyone who helped make this piece better. Looking at you, Jordan Husney, Mike Arauz, Clay Parker Jones, Aimee Groth, Krista Morgan, and Matt Ström.
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