This morning I found myself zoning out in a meeting. It had been a long week, I was tired and I had some heavy issues on my mind. For various reasons, I found it hard to concentrate. I felt a moment of panic as I realised I had missed an important update. Just as I was cursing myself for not being at the top of my game, I heard one of my colleagues say, 'Sorry, I'm tired. I wasn't listening. Could you repeat that?".
Now, why hadn't I thought of doing that?
There seems to be an expectation in most workplaces that we are always switched on; always at the top of our game. There is always a target to hit, a pitch to win, a product to launch. We're expected to be at peak performance pretty much all the time.
The trouble with this expectation is that it's not realistic. Peak performance is a wonderful thing, and should be celebrated for the gift that it is, not seen as a base-line. When peak performance is considered the norm, regular human behaviours can been seen as a failure to perform.
No one can be at their best all the time. We have energy dips, competing priorities, money worries and a multitude of personal distractions. For anyone living with a chronic illness or neurodiversity, these challenges are multiplied, and often layered with feelings of shame and inadequacy.
So we put on a big smile when the zoom meeting starts and we pretend that we have it all together. Why draw attention to ourselves by being honest about our state of mind? Hey, it might all be fine, maybe no-one will notice that we keep losing the thread of the conversation. We can wing it, right?
Yes, and no.
Yes, there are times when we must push through, but there are also times when being honest about how you feel can be a powerful step towards creating a more empathetic workplace.
I believe the best way to create an empathetic environment is to lead by example. Are you in a leadership position in your organisation with trusted colleagues around you? If so, next time you feel that you aren't at your best, decide to be bravely vulnerable. Let people know you have zoned out. Let them know you aren't feeling great.
If you are starting out in your career or don't feel like you are in a safe space, this kind of vulnerability may be challenging but you still have options. If you are heading into a meeting and something else in your life is making it hard to focus, try saying to a colleague, "There are things on my mind right now, but I'm doing my best to be present. Can I check in with you after the meeting to make sure I haven't missed anything?". You aren't saying you won't be listening, you are just creating a safety-net for yourself in case you can't be totally focused.
It's through these small moments of authenticity that we bring empathy to the workplace.