It was a usual weekday morning. As I woke up to my 7am alarm, I reached for my phone, pulled down my notifications on my iPhone, skimmed through all of them, and went straight to my work messages. This had become a daily morning ritual for the last few years. I went through all the direct messages first, then group ones. There was one from my summer intern Steve. It was unusual for me to see pings from him so early in the morning.
Hey Krithika, I know our 1:1 isn't until early next week but I was wondering if we could set up some time to chat? It's about something personal but has been affecting my work.
It was my first time being a summer intern manager, and I was not sure of what to expect with a request like this. I replied back saying we could meet later that day in the office. He blocked my calendar for the first available time that day. I was a bit concerned, but also quite curious.
Steve was a cheerful young college grad who always greeted me eagerly when I walked to my desk every single day. He would gather the team for lunch every day, and was often the source of amusing college stories or fun things to do during weekends.
But today was a little different. We entered the meeting room and sat down (we've been going to the office most of this year). There was some awkwardness, and a lot of tension in the air. Steve didn't look his usual chipper self. I asked him what was going on.
I don't know where to start. I have been having a lot of anxiety about how the internship is going. I have been clinically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. But lately I feel like it has been getting the better of me. I have doubts about whether I deserve to be here.
I listened. I could tell that it was taking Steve a lot of courage to open up in this conversation. He continued.
I question if computer science and tech is even the right field for me. All the other interns talk about how the unsaid expectations are to stay ahead of their goals. We also chat about how we're just expected to show up and just code and finish our milestones. I'm not a coding monkey. Sometimes I feel like I'm lagging behind and no matter what I do I can't beat that. And it's those days that my anxiety gets worse and it affects my performance in a negative way.
In that moment I felt very thankful that he had been vulnerable with me. I couldn't see why a competent college grad like Steve who was on track to achieve all his milestones in his internship, showing so much promise would feel so inadequate about himself. But at the same time, so many of his questions and self doubts mirrored my own that I had when I started off in my career.
Some of the best managers I'd had in my career had all been deeply empathetic people. People who with a lot of tact trod the line of listening, and also being open about their own experiences of growth, without being overly intrusive or sharing too much. What a wonderful skill! In that moment, in my meeting with Steve, in my first stint as a people manager, I tried to remember the collective tone of all those wonderful mentors I'd had in the past that had not only put me at ease in my moments of self doubt, but had also eventually helped me grow. I tried to emulate, and pay it forward.
I tried to empathize, and tell Steve about all the times that I had felt the same way but had managed to use certain coping mechanisms when I struggled through my own challenges- impostor syndrome, grief, insecurities of not coming from a traditional computer science background. Most importantly, I was able to tell Steve that he wasn't alone. And no, he wasn't a coding monkey. Instantly I could see that he felt understood. His posture was no longer tense.
With the prevalent hustle culture of the Silicon Valley today, we often tend to look at people as resources who can get things done for us. We're often reporting up to someone above us that is setting goals for us to achieve. In all of this, we sometimes forget that we're people. Yes, we can try our best to compartmentalize our personal lives from our work lives. But the truth is that our intellect and our emotions often influence each other. I know so many people by their own admission who derive their sense of self worth just based on the how their work day went, and how productive they were. On the other hand, I big events and traumas in our personal lives could very well seep into our productivity in the workplace. Both of these are negative feedback loops. While we cannot break it because it is so systemic, we can at least acknowledge it and be empathetic.
As people who have people reporting to them, we can set precedent that it is possible to achieve goals, innovate, build great products and teams while being human about it. You may stop me, and say "we run a business, not a charity". And I agree. We as leaders don't have to compromise on our business goals in the process of creating more empathetic, open spaces to work where people can bring their most authentic selves. When we start to show empathy towards the people who's cooperation we so badly want, we start to show them that they are not just resources, and that they matter and their work is valuable. This has great potential to break the negative feedback cycle of unsatisfactory work diminishing peoples' sense of self worth.
As people who work in fast paced teams, we can do our part- manage upwards! We can communicate our needs to be seen as entities beyond our intellectual capabilities. When we do so with responsibility and accountability, we gain our teams' trust and start to build connections. In today's world of Zoom meetings with cameras off, by offering our vulnerable selves we show that we're equal parts of thinking and feeling- not coding monkeys.
Intern's name has been changed, and conversations paraphrased to protect their privacy. Thank you for reading!