‘Never judge someone unless you have walked a mile in their moccasins,’ was a constant mantra from my father when I was growing up. This critical lesson was instrumental in establishing my approach towards life and shaping my leadership style. I looked up to my father (and still do), so, I would take this phrase quite literally and spent many an evening shuffling around the house in his big brown moccasins. Honestly though, this is a standard saying in our family and a value that has also now passed down to his grandchildren which we all try to live everyday, or at least remind each other of it when we steer off track.
One of my earliest moments when I knew I had truly embraced this philosophy was in high school. I was dragging my feet to get my driver’s permit. My parents couldn’t understand why, I rarely shied away from a challenge. When pressed, I finally shared, ‘Do you remember last year when we were driving near the high school and that young girl cut you off? Dad, you got really angry. What if that was me, and I made a mistake because I was still learning?’ Quickly we both realized we didn’t know the circumstances in that young girl’s life that caused her to rush, maybe she had just gotten some bad news and was rushing to the hospital. I like to remember that he paused and smiled because at that point he knew he had taught me well. From that day forward, he was much calmer behind the wheel of the car because he would apply his philosophy towards other drivers.
If I am honest and look back even further, my parents were teaching me this philosophy in elementary school when I would come home crying every day. I was being chased around the school yard by the same group of boys that I had considered my friends. At the time, it felt like they were picking on me. My father simply said to me, do you really think they would bother calling you to say wear sneakers rather than your clogs if they did not think this was a fun activity and actually liked you? Hmm, I hadn’t really thought of it that way. I was looking at it based upon how I felt. When I put myself in their sneakers, I got it. This wasn’t so bad after all!
Throughout my life, my father often helped me through difficult situations when someone had hurt me. He rarely judged. He would simply remind me to put myself in their shoes and not take it personally. When I understood their point of view, it was easier to forgive and not hurt so much.
Empathy: that feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.
Ah, that was what my parents were teaching me, to have empathy for others. This is a core tenant of my Catholic upbringing; the Golden Rule – ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ How do you know what is the right thing to say or do if you don’t know that person? Thus, pairing this with my father’s mantra constantly playing in my head, I would ask questions. I have always wanted to understand what people are thinking or feeling; how they approach things. If you can understand someone better and share their experiences, through empathy you can then give to others. It provides a foundation for trust, as well as creating an opportunity to learn new ways to approach and experience things. I guess my questioning approach is a way of trying on everyone else’s moccasins.
Applying this premise to work
Even in the work environment, I would often put this philosophy into action. When a team member was not performing at their peak, my first question was always, ‘Is everything alright? Do you have everything you need to be successful?’ When I have asked this question over the years I have learned a lot about my team members; sometimes basic things, ‘I am just having a bad day’ to extreme situations, ‘My child, mother (fill in the blank) is ill’ or ‘I was just diagnosed with cancer.’ That quickly puts things in perspective. On the flip side, I have been told, ‘Kath, to be honest, I don’t believe you have explained the requirements well, nor set the expectations fairly and that’s why I am not doing well.’ I have also learned the person really didn’t enjoy what they were doing, they weren’t happy, period.
It is not our natural tendency to share these personal experiences, we have been trained that it shows weakness. As a leader I always felt it was important to give people the opportunity to share. I wanted to understand what was going on so I could potentially help. However, without asking the question, you may make inaccurate assumptions. (We all know what happens when we ASS-U-ME!) If you think about it, none of these explanations indicate that the person is incapable in the role. There is something else going on. Thus, the approach needs to be different, perhaps offering time off, changing my own behaviors or even helping the person find another, better opportunity for them.
This philosophy, core to my management/leadership style, created a team environment. Just as I would ask them to share, I was open as well (as if you couldn’t tell from these blogs that I am an open book!). Over the years it has helped diffuse some very difficult situations. Rather than taking things personally it helped us to work together and solve problems. I believe this really drives loyalty within a team and relationships; understanding each other’s stories, goals and preferences helps create respect and substance to work better as a team.
There is no bad intent
I learned an even more valuable twist on this philosophy later in my career. We were going through a major change initiative which impacted numerous teams, functions and personalities. As most of the people did not report up to the same person, it was critical to influence the change rather than deploy a command and control approach. Frustrations would flair, other groups wouldn’t necessarily step up and help, it felt at times people were looking to undermine any progress. Finally, the Executive stood up in the boardroom and clearly articulated, “No one wakes up with bad intent!” Ding – the lightbulb went off and this brought back my father’s mantra, “Never judge until you have walked a mile in someone else’s moccasins!” This valuable lesson I had learned as a child had an even greater work relevance.
Going through change is never easy, people are resistant. However, it is important to understand what is going on in others’ heads. If you stop and ask people, ‘What are you scared of? Why do you not want to do this? What would make this better?’ you will get a plethora of invaluable insight. Now you can change your approach to explaining the change. You can preface it with the WHY to help people understand. It helps people get over the hump by telling them what’s in it for them.
This really transformed me even further – when someone irritates me, now my first thought is, ‘if no one wakes up with bad intent, what is going on? What am I missing? Can I change how I am explaining something?’ This has really helped me with my relationships, especially with my husband, Ralph. He also subscribes to this philosophy, so when either of us reacts in a way that would not expected, we ask the question, ‘What’s going on? What did I miss?’ It changes the dialogue from an accusatory, angry, frustrating exchange to one of exploratory, sharing and understanding. Trust me though, although I may now know how he is feeling, I may still not agree with his logic. However, that is a different topic for exploration another day, hehe.
If I look back over my life, I believe this philosophy has helped me forgive quicker, build stronger relationships and get things done faster/easier. Like my father, I try not to judge, I like to find the good in everyone. When I can proactively approach a situation with this philosophy it has served me (and those around me) well. Unfortunately, it is not always that easy, and those who know me know, I can quickly snap, get frustrated or even shut down if someone irritates me. Nowadays I will look back and realize my misstep and apologize. I am working to avoid these situations by approaching every interaction with the question, ‘what’s the story of your moccasins?
So, the next time someone irritates you, I hope I’ve inspired you to stop and think, “I wonder what size their shoes are?!?”
“Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something.” – H. Jackson Brown, Jr.