By Fiona Logan
Many years ago, while working at Greenpeace, I was introduced to the phrase ‘bearing witness’ – a concept that has remained with me and underpinned my leadership philosophy ever since.
My interpretation of this Quaker concept, embraced in principle by Greenpeace, means that although you can have an intellectual understanding of an issue, until you experience it first-hand, you will never truly understand or appreciate it. You cannot truly grasp water pollution until you see effluent being pumped into a river; you cannot understand deforestation until you see the scarred landscape; you cannot fully comprehend whaling until you see the inhumane slaughter of the magnificent creatures. To take an informed and authentic position, you must first experience it.
Bearing witness can be a challenge for senior leaders in the workplace because you often work through others, to delegate authority and empower people, with the risk that you become removed from what your people truly experience, think, and feel. By the time feedback reaches you through a management chain, especially in larger organisations, the news is either very good – or very bad!
At Insights, we help people better understand themselves and others, and build stronger relationships that can help unlock personal and business challenges. Because of this it is essential that we build deep and lasting relationships with our people – and with our diverse range of customers around the world. As a leader, to me, bearing witness can mean several things:
Walking in the shoes of colleagues. When we were struggling across multiple finance and customer relationship management platforms across our global business, we launched into a centralisation and upgrading of our enterprise processes and systems. In order to appreciate the magnitude of the challenges our sales, client services and finance teams were facing, I spent several days shadowing, listening and observing the workflow. This helped me to develop existing and new relationships, but it also helped me to understand what the team was feeling and experiencing. This meant that I could empathise with them, better understand what was needed and ensure they were sufficiently supported and the project ultimately better directed.
Ensuring new colleagues immerse themselves in your products. In the busyness of everyday life, it is too easy to talk about how brilliant a product is without having ever experienced it in a meaningful way. All new starters experience our flagship solution, as part of their onboarding. This helps our people better understand what we do, how and why – so that they can take that an informed and authentic position into their work and into the world.
Going deeper with customers. Having the opportunity to speak directly to customers, to understand first-hand the business challenges and how your product can help them to be more connected and more productive is pure gold. During the pandemic the bearing witness concept was behind our decision to supercharge our already deep customer intimacy by asking, “What do our customers need from us right now?” This has resulted in thousands of unique pieces of customer research to help inform current and future innovation and product development.
Being open and honest with your community. Bearing witness means not taking decisions on anything you can’t explain to people, looking them straight in the eye. From the beginning of the global pandemic, through regular live conversations with our colleagues, we laid everything on the line, no matter how difficult. Bearing witness to the experiences of our people has helped us gain a regular snapshot and work together, more intimately, on the decisions we have taken.
As a leader, you’ll experience a myriad of issues and at times, you might not know what people are truly thinking and feeling. However, bearing witness has always helped me seek to understand and enabled me to make authentic, empathetic decisions.
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