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Working Across Boundaries: A Connection to… Tenderness?

Posted on February 14, 2013 by: Lisa Koss

Today is Valentine’s day.  Perhaps for this reason, Gordon Marino wrote an article for the New York Times about the loss of “an offshoot of love” — tenderness.  The article points to the dearth of tenderness in our society — or at least the mention of it — and he argues:

“If a primary aim in life is to develop into a caring and connected human being (admittedly, a big “if”), rather than, say, thinking of oneself as a tourist collecting as many pleasant and fulfilling experiences as possible, then surely a capacity for tenderness must play a role.”

I began pondering the connection of tenderness to a second concept — empathy.  I consider empathy as an underlying competency to effectively work across cultures.  Why?  Because without the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes — to approximate their experience — much is lost.  Empathy, for example, allows us to connect to others in such a way which results in more insight into a situation, identification of barriers, improved collaboration, smarter strategies, and more informed decisions.  And our clients have identified the need for leaders who can operate more empathically across boundaries.  Leaders are clamoring for more collaboration across functions, hierarchies and geographies.

Admittedly the word “tenderness” into a business conversation is a very “soft” word.  Most (all?) business groups prefer settling on sentiments of showing respect towards others.  But respect, as the author points out, is a “chilly sort of feeling — if it is a feeling at all. Respect is a fence that prevents us from harming one another. But strengthening the ties that bind and make us human requires something more pliant, more intimate.”  Being empathic requires “I-can-see-myself-in-you”, and the simultaneous recognition of self, and “other”, is a momentarily intimate act.

And our collective human experience bears out that leadership must be both strategic and intimate.  Without a certain intimacy in our relationships, most will lose a sense of meaning in their work. People essentially become tools, or treated as solely strategic levers to achieve business goals.  We can often be, in sum, overly strategic.  Emphasizing this dilemma with executive groups who struggle in this area is the first step.  Developing the skill is a completely different matter.

And so I’m left pondering if building empathy is so difficult because the topic is too far from our mental models for how business is done.   As the author points out, the word hardly is even used in society, much less our offices.  On the other hand, perhaps this metaphor of tenderness could provide a conceptual gateway, at least, to the topic of developing empathy.  It is not hard to understand that tenderness involves increased sensitivity and, according to the author “as though the ego and all its machinations momentarily melt away.”  Surely this would represent an element of enlightened leadership.

Gordon Marino’s article:



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