• Ariana Friedlander

Everyone's Swim is Different - Living, loving, and leading during COVID

We live near the wild and scenic Poudre River, which is home to many white water rafting adventures. Our first time rafting on the river everyone in the boat except myself and a friend went overboard at the biggest rapid on our trip. 

For me, it was a little scary but mostly exhilarating. Everyone that took a swim told a different story.

"Each person's swim is different" our new raft guide explained as a few rafters did not to get back in the boat.

It was true, some people bobbed along the top of the river while others ate dirt, were repeatedly pushed down and fought hard against the current to reach the banks. While everyone that swam had something in common, their experience and how it impacted them differed greatly.

This story came to mind as I was recently speaking with a friend, I assumed the last 7 months had been stressful for her as a manager. "Things have been better for me and my team since COVID...we're getting to work in the ways we've always wanted to...it hasn't been stressful for me as a manager."

As a manager, working remote instead of in the office enabled her to give her team what they’ve always wanted - flexibility, freedom, and autonomy. It just so happens that her management style fits perfectly with her team’s realities during COVID. She's more outcome-oriented and willing to let her team figure out the best ways to complete their tasks. 

This experience rings in stark contrast to what I've heard from other managers I've spoken with. They're struggling with remote work. Or they're team can't work remotely and they're having difficulty getting everyone to follow the new safety protocols. Or they're not able to fill open positions and keep people on their staff. For other managers, this has been a very stressful and exhausting time. Working during COVID is a source of a lot of stress for many leaders

In a way, living and working through COVID is creating this shared experience for us all. It's like, we as a world, are on a giant white water rafting trip. And sharing in the challenges and struggles of this experience can create tight bonds and build community.

At the same time, everyone's swim is different. COVID is impacting everyone in unique and different ways. And we cannot assume that our experience is exactly the same as someone else's.

This is why, in conversation, it is so important not to quickly draw comparisons or assume that someone's experience is just like yours.


Another manager I spoke with explained some of the differences she saw among her team members. After being allowed to re-open, the staff came back with very different experiences of lockdown. Some had made more money than ever before in their lives while on unemployment and paid off student loans. Others couldn’t qualify for unemployment and were near destitute. They had to coach their team through understanding these differences and to encourage empathy towards each other. 


Assuming that other people's experience of this pandemic is just like yours is a blindspot. Blindspots make it hard to listen to connect with others because we are too busy identifying with our own thoughts and feelings to empathize with what the other person is saying.

Instead of building the relationship, these critical conversations make others feel excluded and misunderstood. As a result, trust erodes. And when that happens problems fester instead of getting addressed and resolved because people do not feel safe expressing their ideas. 


One HR manager I spoke with recently said, "we need our managers to be practicing compassion now more than ever and some just don't get it."


The problem is, that these particular managers do not understand why compassion matters in the workplace because such an approach is in complete opposition with what they've experienced their whole life. They've got blind spots too. And unless they have the support and space to explore their own blindspots they will continue to let these assumptions guide how they show up. 


I've seen problems compound for managers during COVID, which just adds to the stress for many. There are disruptions to the ways we work. There is uncertainty around what normal is and when or even if we will ever return to the way things were. Then there's the marketplace being turned on its head. There are fulfilling job responsibilities while homeschooling children. And if you're really unlucky there's a natural disaster like a wildfire or hurricane.

COVID has resulted in a complex tapestry of problems and challenges for leaders to navigate right now but not all of them are relevant to every one of us. The only way to adequately address and resolve each and every one of these issues is to first recognize and move beyond our blindspots. To stop assuming that everyone has experienced COVID like us. To acknowledge that everyone's swim is different. And with that, you will build the foundation of trust so you may have the open, honest, direct and co-creating conversations necessary to thrive despite these times.


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