Author:  Laiza N. Otero, MSOD, Organization Development Consultant

Our actions and words matter, at all times. And unless we walk around like an annotated book, everyone we encounter will interpret our actions and words differently according to their mental frameworks of the world.  Furthermore, others’ interpretations go beyond what we say or do to what we do not say and do not do.  Given this, it is critical that we check-in with each other to ensure or create a shared understanding of what is happening around and among us — especially in our roles as leaders, whether at work, community, or home.

As a leader, we explicitly and implicitly set the tone, culture, and norms of our organizations.  Others take their cues from us as to what behavior is permissible or not, often times without us even realizing what is happening.  That was the case last December with my 4-year old daughter.

On Thanksgiving morning, my father passed away from a sudden heart attack.  My daughter and he were close, and delivering the news to her was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life.  Just as I felt my world fundamentally change forever that day, so it did for my daughter.  It was her first lesson on grief – what it is and the process of grieving.  I was intentional and careful with the words I chose during our conversation, and I aimed to create a safe and welcoming environment for her to express her emotions then or in the future.  She asked lots of questions – from the metaphysical to the daily operations of our lives (e.g. who is going to pick me up now from school now or take me to my favorite bakery?).  I provided as many answers as I could.

A couple of weeks after, I observed that she did not talk about him or what happened very much or at all.  This concerned me, and while I put her to bed one evening I decided to inquire into this.  I asked her how she was feeling and reminded her that she could talk to any of us whenever she missed her Abuelo.  To my surprise, she responded by asking me whether I missed him.  Puzzled, I said yes and that I missed him every second. “Well, I didn’t think you did,” she said quite definitively.  The comment floored me, and I knew I had to proceed with caution. I asked her why she thought that and she answered:  “I saw you when someone asked you how your day was and you said it was good.”  A sudden wave of understanding rolled over me at that moment. She had interpreted the interaction as an indication that I did not miss Abuelo and that she should not show her sadness. From her perspective, she could not understand how I could feel both good and sad at the same time.  With images of the movie Inside Out running through my head, I explained how joy and sadness are not mutually exclusive emotions.  Yes, I was sad because I missed Abuelo but I also felt joy after a good day at work helping people or spending time with her; the one did not negate the other.

Today, we’re in a better place. We check-in more often, and she feels comfortable talking about Abuelo and includes him at the top of her drawings as a “fairy angel.”  I am more aware of what I say and do when I am with her, as well as when I don’t think she’s around.  It is important that I model the kind of behaviors, norms, and culture I wish to see and for her to develop.

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