I’d like to share a story about what can happen to us when we are thrust into uncomfortable situations.

Whenever I lead a course, part of my responsibility as the instructor is to create a safe space where people can learn and grow. Sometimes growth comes from pushing in uncomfortable ways. In many of my leadership courses I talk about social and emotional intelligence and how important it is to recognize the habits and the triggers that affect human behavior. I can always tell when participants are listening intently, but how do I–and they–know they are learning?

Here’s one strategy I use. In a recent class I told the group we would be tackling case studies–but I didn’t tell them how.

Without any advance notice, I called out four names and asked each one of them to join me at the front of the room. I handed each one a single sheet of paper with a unique case study. I gave them a minute to read the description of the challenge they were responsible for solving.

“You will be team captains,” I told them, “and your task, one by one, is to pick the people with the skills you feel can best help you with solving the challenge that you hold in your hand.”

The mood in the room changed immediately. We all could feel it. I’d introduced an element into the room that raised the stress level. But that was the point, so we proceeded.

The first captain made her first pick and then the second made her selection. When we came to the third captain he hesitated. He looked down at his paper, at some other notes he had in his hand, and then he stared at me. He was reluctant to pick. He couldn’t do it.

Then he said something like, “Are we really doing this?” I responded, “Yes, we are. It’s your turn to pick.”

Here’s what unfolded and why it matters.  

Several people immediately felt anxiety and even some dread (my words, not theirs) with the process of picking and of being picked. The smiles were replaced with burrowed brows. Postures slumped and no one wanted to make eye contact with each other. People started to fidget in their chairs and one person even blurted out. “I hate this. I know I’m going to get picked last.” Another said, “This feels like elementary school all over again!”

We shifted from a team with a shared experience crafted carefully over several days, to a collection of individuals grappling with the implications of when and how they were picked.

This is perfectly understandable. No one likes to be picked last. But what I wanted to illustrate with this experience is what happens after we pick; after some people have celebrated and others have retreated.

Roughly two hours later, I led a debrief with the participants. I asked them to share their experiences with me. Of course, the “dodge ball moment,” as one of the team captains called it, came up fairly quickly.  In fact, that statement came from the one team captain who had been the most reluctant to pick. Let’s call him John. 

“Why did you make us do this?” John asked. “Yeah,” several others chimed in. “It made us uncomfortable, just when we were getting comfortable as a team!”

Then someone spoke up. Let’s call her Pam. She was the last person picked.

“You know,” Pam said, “I’d like to share something. When you announced the assignment and I saw that you were really going through with it, I felt apprehension. When I was the last person picked, I wondered silently why. Was it because my peers didn’t think I had anything to contribute?”

Pam was steady in her delivery, but I could tell everyone in the room “felt” uncomfortable with the very fact that she was expressing what we’d all witnessed.

Then Pam said. “During one of the breaks, John came up to me and he did something that I thought was very sweet. He told me that he hoped I didn’t come away from this experience feeling like I didn’t matter or that I was somehow valued less than others. He didn’t know it, but he was showing me that he cared about me.”

With her story, Pam changed the entire mood in the room—closer to the sense of unity and camaraderie that existed before the exercise. With her words, she made my point.

Through the challenge, my goal was to demonstrate the importance of leading despite your discomfort with the context. When you find yourself in situations and in environments that make you uncomfortable, it is likely it’s making others uncomfortable too.

As a leader, what can you do and then what do you do? That was the dilemma I hoped to introduce through the experience.

Here are some of the major takeaways I offered to the class.

For me, there is an important distinction between listening and learning. Listening conveys your willingness to hear me out. Listening is a prerequisite for learning, but listening alone is not sufficient. Actions suggest you learned what I taught you.

Many of the students listened politely to me each day, and they understood what we covered before the simulation. But we knew from Pam’s story that John acted on the basis of that understanding and his actions made a difference.

If others didn’t translate what they’d heard into practice, why not?  Did they feel they didn’t have the tools or the permission to handle that discomfort? Remember, you can still make a difference in someone else’s life with seemingly small acts of leadership.

Demonstrate empathy through your actions, not just your feelings. We’re often taught that empathy involves the ability to see the world from another person’s perspective; to be able to stand in another person’s shoes.

True. But empathy also requires a willingness to act based on what we see. Seeing alone is not enough. Empathetic leaders allow their actions to become an expression of what they’re observing in others.

No one likes to be picked last. But it’s the “captain’s” job to make sure everyone on the team understands their value and feels motivated and empowered to contribute.

About the author: Dr. A.J. Robinson is the founder and CEO of Symphonic Strategies, a firm that specializes in collective action, leadership development, and systems change. He’s a strategist, teacher, and activist for policies and practices that elevate. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Excellence in Public Leadership at the George Washington University and is an adjunct faculty member at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

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