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The Importance of Care in Business

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I remember a time I spoke at a CIO conference, during the dot com bubble when hubris was in full swing. I was talking about the important role care plays in the workplace. These guys looked back at me with an expression like "what did you have for breakfast?" Once I used the word "care," I felt I had lost my audience. Who needs to care when you are king of the mountain, as these high-tech whizzes thought of themselves in those heady times?

The bubble burst, the economy shifted somewhat, and then, of course, we were awash in the global financial crisis. But the importance of care in the workplace has not changed, because people are people, no matter the context. When you recognize that business organizations are "complex systems," rather than "machines," a different view of the workplace emerges: it is the strength of connections between people that makes an organization resilient, adaptable, robust, and successful in traditional bottom line terms. Caring about others is a connection strengthener, and is therefore good for business.

Care is not usually thought of as a power word, but it is a power action. When our interactions are filled with genuine care, not only are our connections strengthened, but also our relationships are enriched. We all look for and long for security in our lives. Security at all levels, from personal to global, resides in the strength of our positive connection to others. Our power and control in life is in our ability to "care-nect." At some core level we all know that we are interconnected, that we depend on each other. Caring about others is therefore a way of caring for ourselves.

I know from my own experience that "care" is a foreign concept in many workplaces, but in others it is part of what defines them. One such place is Hunterdon Medical Center in New Jersey. When I visited I was instantly stuck by the level of connectedness the nurses felt for each other. In a meeting, I would notice them communicating silently to each other through their eyes or in subtle expressions. Their attunement to each other was palpable. Their support of each other -- practical and emotional -- was unquestioned.

Linda Rusch, former VP of Nursing at Hunterdon told me a story that illustrates the depth work relationships can reach when people care-nect with each other. Like a crystal breaking reveals the lines of connection, this is a story of disconnection that exposes the depth of the connection between co-workers.

The nursing staff not only worked together, they played together. Every year they would go away on what they called the "girl's soul trip." Even though nurses cover for the vacationing nurses, Linda felt that the manager and the assistant manager of any one ward should not both be absent at the same time, as this puts too much responsibility on others if problems crop up.

It turned out that on this particular soul trip the manager and assistant manager of one of the wards were both planning to go. "I was upset about it when I found out," Linda told me. When the ward manager saw that Linda wasn't too happy with her choice she said, "OK, Linda. Help me. Tell me what to do." Linda refused and said she must make her own decision. "I was telling her she was a grown up," Linda explained. "I wasn't going to demand that she not go. But she knew how I felt." When Linda came to work the following Monday, she learned that the manager had decided to go on the trip, in spite of Linda's concerns.

The nurses' soul trip took place in Bermuda that year. The manager in question was splashing away in the water when suddenly she realized she wasn't having fun. She felt herself being propelled out of the water by a force beyond her, sobbing as she ran to her room. Everybody gaped. They had no idea why she was so upset. Once in her room, the manager called the hospital. Linda was pulled out of a meeting and was told the manager sounded horrible and to call her right back. "I thought that something terrible had happened." When Linda got on the phone, the manager was sobbing. "I can't believe I did this. I can't believe I disappointed you. I can't stand knowing you don't think highly of me."

"For me, that's all it took," Linda told me. "What mattered to me was that she felt bad enough to call me, and cared enough about how I felt. I said, 'It doesn't matter. What matters is our relationship. And you know, our relationship has just grown. It's on another level because your care for our relationship compelled you to act and you called me.'"

Care is a soft skill that many corporate and political worlds could usefully develop. And it starts with each and everyone one of us. During the holiday season, people tend to express more care. Let's make it a daily practice. Each and every one of us has the power to model the power of care and positively impact the circles we move in. Strengthen your relationships, expand your world of connections by living care-fully. Be a care-nector.