Leadership advice

‘Are you OK?’ Great bosses ask then act

Advice from Jill Geisler, Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Fellow in Women’s Leadership

A few columns ago, writing about resilience, I advised managers “In addition to asking ‘What are you doing?’, ask “How are you doing?” 

When I write things like that, I sometimes question myself. Isn’t this just stating the obvious? Who wouldn’t know this? 

At the same time, I’ve learned never to assume that managers are automatically equipped with ample supplies of empathy.  Or that their organizations necessarily value those who are. 

That idea was hammered home during the Freedom Forum’s Power Shift webinar I led Wednesday.

It featured the leaders of 11 of the country’s top associations for journalists, all talking about taking care of journalists and journalism – with tips and insights. 

Irving Washington, executive director and CEO of the Online News Association helped me put the program together. When it was his turn to share, he talked about sending an email to ONA members a few weeks ago. It had one simple question:

“Are you OK?”

One reply was a jaw-dropper:

“You are the first person to ask me that question, including my employer.”

I believe it’s not an aberration.

I’ve taught and coached too many journalists – including managers – whose bosses had plenty of passion for journalism, but insufficient compassion for its practitioners. 

These supervisors operate from seriously flawed theories that sometimes sound like this:

  • Your paycheck is your thank you
  • This is a tough business; you know what you signed on for
  • I’m your boss, not your buddy
  • Don’t bring your personal problems to work
  • I hate whiners
  • There are plenty of people out there who’d jump at the chance for your job

These usually emanate from results-driven managers who focus on meeting business goals. Period. 

If success means stepping on toes or living with higher-than-average staff turnover, it’s no big deal.

I’d like to think I’ve described a breed of boss that’s nearing extinction, replaced by those whose emotional intelligence complements their journalism chops. 

Because these leaders – the ones who can easily empathize and encourage, even as they uphold high standards and hold people accountable – are more likely to have healthier teams at any time, but especially today.

Their crews may be strained, scared, tired and getting testy with each other. But when their leaders ask, “Are you OK?” and show they care about the reply, bad times feel less daunting and the good times are far more rewarding. And people are more willing to slog through uncertainty while creating quality journalism.

To care about the reply to “Are you OK?”  is to do something about it. Listen for what’s said and what’s unspoken. Confirm what you think you heard. Remove obstacles. Settle disputes. Praise the underappreciated. Rebalance workloads. Neutralize bullies. Build confidence. Or tell someone to worry first about their families – or even pets – and their work second. 

Because life isn’t normal right now – and neither is the manner in which we are working. 

On any given day, someone on every team is challenged in a new way. They know it, sometimes painfully.

Do you?

Now’s the time to unleash the power of empathy.

We can’t help the journalism and the journalists if we’re not prepared to ask:

Are you OK?


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