April 20, 2022

Fueled by my never-ending pursuit to keep learning more – or maybe my incessant hyperactivity –, I have taken up the challenge to try to learn Hebrew. As with most languages, you start with the basics: your manners, greetings, and basic questions.


Learning the phrase “How are you?,” caused me to pause. In Hebrew, there is no question that directly translates to “How are you?” Instead, a common way you ask, mah sh’lom’khem, literally translates to “what is your internal peace?” The stark difference between this wording and our simple “how are you” made me reflect on the difference between a surface level “how are you?” versus a deeper “how are you.”


What’s more, I learned from a podcast that common Hebrew responses to this check-in question include “Lo MaShehHoo–” not so great – or even “Kakha KaKha–” so-so. Again, a big difference from the cultural norm I’ve come to know, which is to always answer the question “How are you?” with “good,” or “doing well.” While this is sometimes the best for efficiency, it may miss an important opportunity for compassion and fail to get to what’s truly going on with a person. When I started working with Riverbank, I noticed an effort to lead with compassion by starting meetings with a “check-in” where people share something real that’s going on in their life – good or bad. Colleagues share with each other their true feelings. This reverberates into work with our clients where collecting genuine information is essential for true positive culture change.

Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Nick Hobson in HBR, Compassionate Leadership Is Necessary — but Not Sufficient, cites:


“[Leading with compassion] improves collaboration, raises levels of trust, and enhances loyalty. In addition, studies find that compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent.”


While the rest of their article elaborates on the connection between compassion and wisdom, the authors importantly point out the benefits leading with compassion brings. Albeit, they note, along with Cater, Hobson, and Marissa Afton’s article, too much empathy can inhibit your ability to work, by taking on too much of a colleague’s emotions or impairing your ability, as they coin, to make decisions.


This caveat relates to using non-positive emotions regularly to honestly answer “how are you?” I would hypothesize leaders will have less of a reaction, less of an “added weight” feeling, if people continue to normalize using these more honest responses, relating to Hougaard, Carter, and Hobson’s suggestion to “remember the power of non-action.” They remind us that people do not always need “solutions;” sometimes they are simply airing things. In the context of a “how are you,” this means simply creating space for honest responses, and not prying for further details, or assuming the person needs your help to go from that not-so positive feeling to a positive feeling. Hougaard, Carter, and Hobson frame this as “check[ing] your intention.” Rather than jumping in, think about how you can best be beneficial to that person – it may be as simple as giving the space for others to share and thanking them when they do share honestly.


Leading with compassion could be more than a blog article; it could be an entire book. Hopefully, this article leaves you with a tidbit of Hebrew knowledge – but more importantly, the courage to not always answer “how are you?” with good or okay and to create space for others to do the same.

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