The ‘C’ word

By David DeBrot, LSU

‘An organization is not an entity of its own – it is a group of individuals.’

It’s a strength, not a weakness

What is it that separates people with talent and opportunity who achieve quality outcomes from those who also have talent and opportunity but don’t achieve in the same ways? I would suggest it’s the ‘C’ word – care (that is, to feel interest or concern). To care is the god particle of human enterprise – it makes all other individual effort possible.

The quote above is from my former colleague and it continues to follow me around campus, to meetings, during informal discussions and in response to e-mails. It remains with me because of its power in recognizing the potential of individuals to enact real change at any organization, universities included. I also see it in the team I work with – they talk about what they care about and the change they want to see. And a big part of making any change happen is caring that it does happen.

To illustrate – accepting that an organization is a collective of individuals, we can then consider the function of organizations such as universities. Are they able to achieve an identity and culture of their own without the collective effort of the individuals that work there? And, more importantly, can the organization show that it cares without individuals within it doing the same?

My answer to the last two questions is no. Caring is an inherently individual action – at least initially. It is an action which can often become infectious. Cynics, though, make it a bit harder to visibly care. Openly discussing care for your work is often relegated to the lower-ranks of desirable human behavior at work – less desirable than talking well of one’s boss and more than farting in the office. Negativity is sometimes an easier display than care, and this blog post illustrates our avarice for toxic stuff.

But it hurts

Caring about what you do is frequently self-eroding. A quick thought experiment can illustrate this. Imagine you care about something getting done well. Would you put more effort into it? Would you have high expectations for the outcomes of your effort? And if you became even more invested in the outcome and your level of caring increased, would the levels of effort and expectation increase as well?

Your answer, combined with the philosopher Seneca’s view on anger, reveals an interesting conclusion. If you answered ‘yes’ to these questions, consider Seneca’s definition of anger: it is the gap or distance between your expectations and reality. Meaning, if you care and your expectations increase and reality doesn’t match these, then you may be disappointed or angry and hesitate to care more in future.

Caring hurts sometimes, but it can also make ‘work’ a lot less–well–work. It can make your 9-5 more enjoyable, easier to invest in and more rewarding. Rather than occupying a significant part of your day and week with activities whose outcomes you may not have much interest in, the same time could be spent engaging in these activities with effort you genuinely expect to deliver some positive outcomes – be it intrinsic or extrinsic. This could shift your experience of ‘work’ from a (perhaps unpleasant) distraction from things in life you really care about to a spectrum of what you care about, made up partly of your working hours, which can be rewarding professionally, personally or both.

It takes a village

Being able to care does require some tending from others. First, feeling that others above you and next to you also care about similar things – and dare I say it – you. If no one seems bothered about what you’re doing or how well you do it, then your interest in investing more energy will likely decrease. Often this isn’t the case and people do care about what you’re working on, but they are afraid to say so. See this Harvard Business Review article for the commonplace of negativity at work and the importance of appreciation.

Second, we must observe that cynicism is not a norm in our organization. In other words, we need to see that the majority of the people around us can be open, frank and realistic when discussing an idealistic or optimistic future goal or vision without also being expected to snark and nay-say. And when we demonstrate our care for a project or issue, we need others to recognize this.

Third, we must have a good model. Someone who is comfortable speaking about their own care or committment on an issue and attempts to get other people to do the same. It helps if this person is also in a supervisory or leadership role and is aware enough of their own actions and context to avoid causing people not to care.

But what if they just don’t care

  • Don’t waste time caring about people who clearly don’t care. Perhaps they don’t know what they’re doing at your organization or why they’re there. This could be a cause for their apparent lack of care.
  • Be aware of your expectations – if you are contributing a lot more care and effort than others, there is likely to be a gap between your expectations of the outcomes and reality. A healthy trimming of expectations may reduce disappointment later and reserve your energy and care for other areas or projects.
  • Talk with those you are working with about what you do care about as individuals and a group. Language such as ‘invested’, ‘interested’ and ‘matters to me’ can be used if ‘care’ is too touchy feely for you.
  • Ask people directly if they care about something. See what happens. You can always rephrase with ‘Do you want (x,y.z) to succeed?’, ‘Are you interested in this?’, ‘Does it bother you if this doesn’t succeed?’.
  • Caring is a strength not a weakness – be ready for warfare from those who are cynical, consistently negative or combative – The Art of War and The Prince are two particularly useful books for anyone in any organization who may come up against these types.
  • It is often easier to make someone not care than to care. Be careful that you are not willingly doing the former as both are infectious.

If you accept causal determinism, and that caring about something leads to greater effort, then the link between how we act on what we  care about and the results seems to be strong. Given that universities are working largely with ideas and people, it would be hard to confine or measure just how far your care and the results can travel.

If you’ve read this far, it seems you care – at least a little. And now you’ve just got to show it.

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8 responses to “The ‘C’ word”

  1. Carol Witney says :

    Thanks for this article because I care about what I’m doing, and I know lots of other people who do – positive stuff!
    I like the point you’ve made about the gap between caring and expectations. I think it is possible to care greatly and deeply, but to also lessen your expectations in relation to the outcomes – that doesn’t mean that you are ‘lowering’ your expectations – it means you can take risks with your emotions – I think this is healthy. If at first you don’t succeed…..

  2. Ian says :

    Great stuff, Dave. Your ‘C’ word is basically the quality which separates those I like working with from those I don’t.

    But I guess everyone cares about something or other. Perhaps the issue is when the thing they care about is getting through the day with a minimum of effort or complication (i.e. caring only about themselves). I’m reminded of something someone said to me one day when I was describing to him–very energetically–the many shortcomings of a course we were teaching. “Relax” he said, “it’s just a job.”

    Teaching is not just a job. When what we do has so much bearing on the lives of the individuals we teach, surely it becomes a wholly moral exploit and we must, therefore, strive for excellence.

    As you said, caring hurts sometimes. But stupidity hurts more (apparently ; )

    Thanks again.

    • LSUvietnam says :

      Ian – thanks for those points. Agreed – everyone must care about something, and it is the case that what we do in universities does matter a great deal. I suppose the frustration for many is that unis can be very adept at making us forget this point by focusing our energy on the administrative structures, and staff needs rather than those of the learner.

  3. englishteacherjoel says :

    David, I’ve had your post on my mind for a few days, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot as a I start out on a new phase of my teaching career.

    I think you’ve made a valuable and productive connection: the concept of “care” provides an excellent tool for thinking about what constitutes true professionalism. What I especially like about it is that it challenges us to constantly reflect on our daily activities and praxis — to think about our daily activities, large or small, as if they were precious things. In fact, I think that the substitute terms you offer (invested, interested, matters to me) approximate it, but do not capture it completely. It’s true that care moves us into the realm of the “touchy feely”, but I think this is appropriate when it comes to things that we think of as being part of who we are, part of what defines us. Invoking “care” (and “caring”, “careful”, and therefore “careless” along with it) challenges us to value our choices, our focus, our actions as if they were treasures in the making. Do my daily professional activities reflect who I really like to think I am? Do they reflect what I value about myself and how I behave in the various circles I inhabit?

    At one time, I thought of my work life and my “real” life as being quite separate things: the work domain and the “real life” domain. This was certainly the least satisfying, most intellectually unfulfilling part of my adult life. Only when I became emotionally connected and intellectually curious about the nuances of my daily activities was I able to nullify that unfortunate separation. In short, I began to care. This movement led me into deeper study of my field, and with it, a kind of satisfaction that I’d never known before. I hope that my care can have benefits that go beyond myself and have positive effects on my organization, but I think that the beauty of care is that it can be self-fulfilling. It can become its own source of nourishment. (This is not to say that it cannot benefit from the influence of others who care, however!)

    Anyway, as I said, I was thinking about care and I thought of Paul Cezanne, the painter, sitting all alone in his room, all those years, painting fruit, bowls, tablecloths. I love the idea that these are things that people see and handle every day, but rarely fixate on – don’t much care for. There was enough in the corner of one room to fascinate a brilliant mind during the most creatively productive and influential phase of his career. Look carefully at any of those paintings for a long time, and you are faced with the meticulous care for color, space and design that are all played out in a meditation on household objects. I like to think that I can bring that level of care to what I do, and I hope that I can surround myself with others who have that level of devotion.

    Again, thanks for writing on this fascinating topic!

    • LSUvietnam says :

      Thanks for your comment – an interesting observation and reflection piece of its own. A powerful suggestion you just made – that ‘intention’ is at the root of care. In other words, continually asking yourself ‘Why am I doing this? What do I intend to happen or change?’. It’s worthwhile to consider this because as Sir Ken Robinson (of TED fame) says – ‘Many people’s lives are just getting on with things’ (and without much intention or investment – care – behind them).

  4. Cheryl DeBrot-Erwin says :

    Thank you for your article, David and drawing emphasis to the importance of the “C” word. Having practiced Respiratory Therapy for more than 35 years, I consistently observed the difference made in the delivery of health care between those who “cared” and those who did not. How? The level of a health care professional’s level of caring was exhibited by their attention to details. Over 30 years ago, I was a Clinical Instructor. I used to teach my students that it was rare for true “sudden death” to occur in the hospital. More times than not, patients were beginning to “get into trouble” and the staff didn’t recognize it because they weren’t paying attention to the details. In otherwords, the picture was being painted and no one was seeing it. The results would be the patient would be found not breathing and/or without a pulse, and a “code blue” would be called. The outcome in the majority of cases was death.

    I left Respiratory Therapy in mid-March of this year. I am now in my second year of a Ph.D. in Leadership in the School of Church Ministries at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. When my professor clearly demonstrates that he cares about how I am doing personally and in my learning, I feel much more motivated to do my very best. I help lead a ministry to widows in our local church. The “mantra” I want to always have imprinted in my thinking is the old adage, “They don’t care about how much you know, they only know how much you care.” I think this is especially true when one is a leader of any organization, regardless of the size.

    The interesting thing about “caring” is that I believe it’s best communicated by personal interaction, not e-mail, texting, etc. Is the art of personal communication being lost in the current young generations of young adults and children? I would be interested to know what those of you who are in this age group think.

  5. Karen Madoc says :

    I enjoyed this article very much as well as the thoughtful (and thorough – thanks Joel) replies. This really helped me understand how I work and that we don’t need to apologize for caring but need to be aware of some rules and boundaries and to know our limits. A hugely meaningful and encouraging piece.
    Caring in my job is part of my community with other teachers and I find caring practice is best supported by team work whenever possible.
    Also, don’t assume that another person doesn’t care if their caring takes a different form to yours or they have different timing to you.
    Being a caring practitioner, especially in a multicultural environment, means making no assumptions about others and letting them construct and tell their own stories.

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