Chiggers, mosquitoes, piranhas, and cats.
These are all things that bite, in increasing order of size.
(I know. He looks cute, but rub that oh-so-soft belly fur, and you’ll… get bitten.)
Chiggers are tiny – very tiny, invisible-to-the-naked-eye tiny – insects that live in the grass, can move from said grass to your waist in 15 minutes, can’t be seen (I know, I said that already, but it bears repeating), bite you (not really, but believe me, you don’t want to know the actual process), and within 24 hours you have a really itchy welt that lasts for up to a week. (Yes, I’m bitter about chiggers.)
We all know about mosquitoes. At least you can see them, hear them, and swat them. Just don’t try sleeping with one in the room; as the Dalai Lama said, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
Piranhas – now there’s a biting critter. But the ones I want to talk about are what a past co-worker called “piranha minnows.” He coined the term to refer to those niggling little tasks that nibble away at our time, as small as a minnow, but as voracious as a piranha.
And cats… anyone who’s ever been part of a cat’s life knows that there are cats who are okay with having their bellies petted, and there are cats that are emphatically not okay with it. Our cat, whose picture you see here, is okay with it – until he’s not.
Why am I talking about things that bite ?
Because they all have parallels in work and leadership.
Stick with me here, because although I’m taking a lighthearted approach, this is serious.
Chiggers are microaggressions
Unless you’re a member of a group subjected to microaggressions – people of color, LGBTQIA individuals, women, and so on – you don’t see them.
But for the people who do see them (are subjected to them), they accumulate. They’re distracting at best, and painful – and even infected – at worst. For those who are especially attractive to chiggers – well, by summer’s end, we can be covered in literally dozens of actively itching bites. Similarly, microaggressions accumulate and fester in the experiences of people who attract them simply because of who they are.
Mosquitoes are micro-managers
You know the type: the managers who have to know what’s going on every moment of every day – especially if the team is remote and working virtually.
These managers are driven by a lust for control, not a lust for blood. But like a mosquito, they are distracting and difficult to live with.
Piranha minnows are niggling small time-consuming tasks
Maybe they’re things we ought to delegate.
Maybe they’re things those micro-manager mosquitoes inflict upon us.
Maybe they’re things we should actually not do at all. (Would anyone notice?)
Whatever category they fall into, they take painful chunks out of our time. And they can, in our sense of overwhelm and frustration, lead us to become … cats.
Cats are those unpredictable team members and bosses
Sometimes managers and leaders are available and present – and sometimes they’re cranky and distant.
Sometimes they, or our team members, are happy and engaged – and sometimes they’re annoyed and disconnected.
Sometimes your team is collaborating, high-performing, and on track – and sometimes, yes, it’s like herding cats.
And I’ll bet that sometimes you are an unpredictable cat as well, depending upon what’s going on at work and in your life.
So now what?
Obviously I can’t give you detailed solutions for all these situations in this article.
But there is one tool that will serve you well, no matter what the situation: empathy and awareness.
Empathy to understand what’s going on for the people around you. (This is not about taking on anyone else’s emotional load, nor is it about agreeing with them; it’s about understanding, even when you wonder how someone can be acting as they are.)
Awareness to recognize how your own actions may be affecting others. Are you a chigger, a mosquito, or an unpredictable cat? Are you taking on piranha minnows that don’t belong to you, or could be delegated – or dropped?
Why am I calling it one tool, when I’m clearly talking about two things?
Because they’re inextricably connected. You can’t have empathy without also developing awareness, and you can’t be aware without developing empathy.
Compassionate leadership is key to retaining and engaging your people. And, as one reader of my LinkedIn posts commented, “being human and genuinely caring about people” is where the best moments of leadership come from.
Here are a few of the posts I’ve written about empathy. All links open in a new tab.
What IS empathy, anyway?
Five common myths about empathy
Is empathy important for leadership? (includes a video on the three levels of empathy)
The three levels of empathy (if you’d rather read than watch the video)
And if you’ve never seen the cat-herding Super Bowl ad … watch this! Cat herding video!