As a wish for 2022, Grégoire Bonnat, co-founder and CEO of Padam Mobility, shares some thoughts on caring (“bienveillance”) in a business context. Just like environmental impact, it has become a central theme in the professional world… without us always knowing what it really means and how it can be applied at the workplace. What about your company, how does benevolence manifest itself?
All of us care
For some time now, 100% of the candidates we interview for jobs say they are looking for a caring company.
A quick search on social networks and media interested in the professional world confirms that the “benevolence” of companies has been the subject of discussion for about two years. This is certainly a good time to bring this notion back to the forefront: the upheaval of work organisation due to Covid and the massive shift to teleworking, tensions on the job market and competition to attract talent, not to mention the theme of “caring” which is gaining ground in a media agenda filled with anxieties. All this generates the desire for everyone to find a caring company, and for companies to speak publicly about this subject.
This is the point where we are a bit confused. We don’t expect there to be a standard definition of friendliness, but still. At Padam Mobility, there are employees who don’t feel comfortable addressing a colleague or doing a round of greetings every morning. Others stand out more for their caustic humour and wacky ideas than for their “calmness” and “politeness”. And we certainly don’t ask applicants to want to be canonised one day. That said, at the end of 2018, Padam Mobility enshrined benevolence as one of its four values that guide our work and that we take into account when selecting staff. Are we missing the point?
The holy grail of the “startup spirit”
Perhaps we should start with the “why”. Indeed, the likelihood of a company behaving benevolently is low if its leaders and top management are not convinced of its value and benefits. This is also true for other values that a company wants to promote.
Creating a caring environment seems inevitable for start-ups as if it is a systematic part of their raison d’être. Yet they do not seem to be in the best position to do so. Start-ups are often gambling for survival because their market is not yet mature or because many competitors are fighting for the first – and sometimes only – place.
There is also no reason why a “mission-driven” company should automatically be more benevolent. Develop a miracle solution to reduce CO2 emissions in the atmosphere: If you don’t have a viable business model yet, you will have to work hard until you do; if you do, there is a 100% chance that many other competing companies will launch as well. The pressure may be even greater because, in addition to the financial commitment, you also have to save the world.
The additional exogenous pressure that young companies can feel does not make them benevolent. It gives them additional reasons to want it, because it becomes a question of survival. We are ready to face a storm if we stick together, if we know where we are sailing … and if we know that the storm will pass. For the company, investing time, brainpower and even money to bring charity to life means finding the energy to move the mountains it promised to move, while valuing its teams rather than burning them out.
What is benevolence?
So what is benevolence? It is necessary to go beyond the vision of purely formal benevolence, which – depending on one’s preference – would directly equate to kindness, empathy or over-protection of staff. For us, it all starts with the ability to listen.
The first step is the willingness to listen, i.e. to value the teams’ well-being and their ideas. In the vast majority of cases, and apart from certain stories about toxic leaders or managers, this is not necessarily where things get stuck. All organisations know that teams that feel good are more effective, more loyal and often find the best solutions to their problems themselves.
Then you have to know how to listen. As an individual, this is something you have to learn. Not everyone has the same way of expressing themselves, and an unprepared manager can easily miss what a colleague is trying to say (or write). It is not a question of giving courses in psychology, but of training managers to be aware that some people will be more comfortable with a certain type of listening. Some quite powerful methods have been developed to train managers (at Padam Mobility we have used Processcom but it is not the only one).
Some employees may expect an empathetic ear, responding to a need for recognition of a difficulty for which there may be no immediate solution. Others will want to be sure that the manager or company has understood and recorded their problem, has the facts to describe it and will think about it when making future decisions.
As a company, listening therefore has a lot to do with training its managers, including leaders, as well as having the different channels to allow people to speak out about their difficulties in different contexts.
… and act
The journey does not end there. The manager is not a shrink who is paid to help his employees write down everything that is wrong or could be better and record it in notebooks! The company takes care of its employees by solving their problems if it can. Or by giving them the autonomy to take opportunities to make things happen themselves. Caring through listening is followed by action.
The first way is to dare to change, to be agile. It requires a lot of discipline to question things that have worked before. This is especially true for young companies that need to change, to change the scale, to solve problems that did not exist before, to realise that the working conditions for self-fulfilment are not the same with 10, 50 or 200 employees.
There is a second option for the company, which is not to change anything in the face of the expressed need. There can be fifty reasons for this, economic, logistical, contradictions with operational constraints or even with certain rules of coexistence (office life or teleworking). It can also happen that a problem should be dealt with but it is decided that other problems have priority. In this case, a company that wants to be benevolent is obliged to be transparent.
Saying to an employee “of course I understand your problem and I will solve it” is nice, but it is only nice if it is done afterwards. If not, it can lead to serious losses of trust later on. In this respect, the ability to define and communicate priorities is both one of the most important and most difficult characteristics of caring.
Concrete ways forward
There is no miracle solution, benevolence has to be worked out every day. And the answers often come from within the group.
Does someone feel unheard: is a process missing so that he or she can have more influence or, on the contrary, should a process that is too rigid be discarded? Is an organisational problem wasting some of the work further down the chain? Do employees get feedback on their work so that they can improve and feel recognised? Is there a lack of connections between certain teams or a lack of tools to facilitate communication or, on the contrary, a saturation – or slackturation 😊 – of information?
Beware of going too far and falling into the trap of a caring parent who protects his employees from all difficulties until they get bored. It is extremely rewarding to be confronted with a difficult situation and to handle it with flying colours, provided of course that the working conditions are good. Not to mention that a manager who tries to protect a colleague from difficulties can put himself in danger by overworking himself and weaken the whole organisation by obstructing the development of skills. Benevolence makes it possible to be demanding: When the machine is running well, it is so much easier to ask everyone to do their best, to solve new problems, to take on new challenges.
It is up to each company to create its own image of beneficence; its employees (and its customers!) will be the best judges of authenticity. This may result in completely different rituals.
A “caring” job interview can be a very good situation that allows both the applicant and the company to assess whether their skills match the requirements of the job. This way there are no nasty surprises later on. In another job, on the other hand, it could be an assessment that focuses on the learning and interpersonal skills of the applicant, who is a junior candidate but will subsequently be trained. In any case, it is important to be transparent about the conditions and tasks of the job in order to start with a high level of confidence.
A good meeting can be a meeting where you make sure that everyone has their say and which ends with a clear, documented decision that is shared with the rest of the team. Or a meeting that doesn’t take place because its subject can be dealt with in writing in ten times less time.
A caring annual review can be harshly objective about the facts, the results achieved, the problems encountered, and optimistic about what the future holds. And of course, the manager could spend more time listening than talking…
Our good wishes for 2022
In your company, this goodwill may take a different form, and that’s fine. Don’t try to force the use of first names on all your teams or make them read Simone Weil if that seems inappropriate. But keep your ears open. We hope that in 2022 you will read fewer blog articles about benevolence and start looking for that authentic benevolence, yours!
This article might also interest you: Retrospective: A Look back at the 21 Highlights of Padam Mobility in 2021