Recently, I was gifted with the presence of one of my nieces and my nephew for an overnight visit to my home in Sioux Falls. It was a last-minute request from my brother on a night when the children had no school and I had no shortage of project work.
I prepped blankets and freshened pillowcases before their 8:30 p.m. arrival to send the not-so-subtle hint to a 9- and 14-year-old that bedtime was fast approaching. But before I could get to that, in her most heartfelt manner, my niece asked if I would please straighten her hair.
My niece is a beautiful girl with a gorgeous deep-brown complexion, big, vibrant dark brown eyes and one of the best smiles I know. She has thick, healthy, tightly coiled hair. Sometimes she wears it in braids or twists and other times she adorns her head with fashionable extensions. That night she wanted a woman’s help with her hair, and I happened to be the one present.
Many people are familiar with the flat iron. It’s a basic clamp tool that people use to straighten their hair with pressure and heat. There is also a lesser-known tool called a “hot comb.” It’s literally that – a (very) hot metal comb warmed to about 500 degrees. When I was my niece’s age and my mother “pressed” my hair for special occasions, I sat there as still as can be with ramrod straight posture and fear in my eyes. Even the briefest accidental touch was to be avoided.
Though I’ve styled my hair with every tool and implement imaginable since I was 14, I don’t typically help others with their hair. But my niece was begging for me to please, please straighten her hair. I looked at the clock, sent her upstairs to wash and blow-dry her hair and reluctantly began to gather my tools.
My niece doesn’t have her hair straightened often. I said, “What do you want, just a slight press or straight straight?” Of course she wanted the latter. I said, “Just so you know, I do my own hair and I’ve only once straightened someone else’s hair. I don’t want to accidentally tap you with this hot comb.” Her posture instantly became ramrod straight. Over the next hour, I would say things to her like “cover your ear with your hand, please” or, “I’m going to get very close to your scalp now.” I informed her every step of the way and kept asking, “Are you OK? Do you feel anything?” And I taught her the proper method to ensure the comb wasn’t too hot.
When I was done, I sat her in front of one mirror and held another mirror behind her head so she could see the entire effect. I glanced at the clock. It was past 10:30 p.m. I thought to myself, “I have so much to do tomorrow.” And then she turned to me and said, “Thank you. I now know I can trust you with this, Auntie.” And she beamed her beautiful smile and skipped around the house enjoying her freshly styled hair.
I keep thinking about this. I keep thinking that the reason I was so instructive with her through every step of the process is because I was half-scared, too. I didn’t want to cause her even the most minor discomfort. Normally in my day, I don’t comb another person’s hair with enough heat to cook a wood-oven fired pizza.
A clear sense of a project’s potential danger is incredibly healthy. It helps us proceed with a necessary degree of caution. It motivated me to slow down and educate my niece every step of the way. And it reminded me that I was working on her head, not my own.
These lessons are vital to all of us as we work with other people to develop something new. Whether temporarily transforming one’s hair texture from healthy coils to shiny straight or reorganizing one’s job duties or changing an organizational structure, a bit of caution is vital. Change happens at the intersection of people, processes and projects. Caution matters with all three.
Sometimes highly experienced people can get to racing when they know what needs to be done. Whether we are leading change or just along for the ride, we need to take a moment to acknowledge that it is often important to yield. When we are working with teams, we are often “styling someone else’s hair” and it’s imperative each person works to avoid “the burn.” Here’s how:
- Inform in advance wherever possible; use your turn signals.
- Create processes for ongoing feedback; encourage “red-flag” mechanisms.
- Listen to diverse groups and individuals at all levels of the organization.
- Instruct mentees and others who may be less familiar with processes.
- Consider hiring a facilitator for your next strategic planning project to help you take additional care from an outside perspective.
And at the end of the day, the beauty of knowing that your colleagues know they “can trust you with this” is reward enough for the journey.