A few years back I was in a very intense season at work on a hard and complex project. One Friday afternoon, I could foresee another working weekend and was navigating a lot of emotions – exhaustion, and self-doubt being the most prominent.

I was in a meeting with 2 fairly senior leaders in my organization where I felt safe and seen. At the end of the meeting, one of them picked up on how I was feeling and asked me – “How are you really doing, Neha?” and tears trickled down my cheeks and I shared how I felt that everybody else seemed to have it all together with this project and was thriving but I am finding it hard to navigate it all and here I am entering another weekend likely because I am not competent and need more time than other team members.

They both paused and held space and exercised their power as leaders in one of the most beautiful ways I have experienced.

One of these leaders said to me – “Neha, you are given the task to lead this because we know you can do this and we believe in you. This feels hard because it truly is not because you are doing something wrong. I know how much it hurts to work on a weekend especially when you have little kids in your life. Here is my cell number – if you need to brainstorm or think through anything, know you have permission to text and call. And as a small token of gratitude for your family, I want you to take everyone out for dinner and expense it to my department.”

She checked in on me over the weekend and asked me for pictures from our family dinner. On Monday morning, she made sure when she didn’t see the expense report, she reminded me (more than once!) until I turned it in.

She then messaged her manager who sent me the most thoughtful note acknowledging my contributions and thanking me for putting in a few more hours this weekend as we navigated this rough season.

I share this story because it is a model of leadership we don’t celebrate enough – one with care, compassion, and the ability to make others feel seen and heard. None of these humans were my direct or skip-level managers but they chose to care because we were on the same project in the same organization. The leader who checked in on me over the weekend had several hundred people on her own team but she made space in her head and heart and on her calendar to dedicate a few minutes to me to be human first.

And as someone benefiting directly, I can say that I did my best work on this team because I knew I belonged, I knew people had my back even when things didn’t fall in place, and that there were humans willing to invest in me and honor all parts of my identity.

There will always be seasons at work when we expect more from our employees but when we start with care and lead with humanity first, we can often make choices that honor the full person without compromising on business outcomes.

And if this story resonated, and you aspire to be more like the leader I share, I highly recommend checking out Minette Norman and Karolin Helbig‘s new book – The Psychological Safety Playbook. It’s full of practical ideas and tips on creating safety for the people around you.

Photo Credit: Des Recits

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