The competitive advantage of caring

What do you really want? is a weekly conversation to help you figure out what you really want and how to get it at work and in life.


grayscale photography of child and toddler while walking

Helping others is where civilization begins. And this changes the way work is happening.

Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.

-- Ira Byock, in his book The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life (Avery, 2012). Emphasis added.

Too many workplaces are like the animal kingdom — everyone is only looking out for themselves. People (and especially leaders) ignore anyone who isn’t immediately valuable to them. Just look for people treating others like objects to be used instead of people to be cared for, and you’ll know civilization (or as we commonly call it at work, culture) is lacking.

But, when people begin to care about each other, we see a number of wonderful behaviors and outcomes.

So, what does it look like to “heal broken femurs” at work?

  • Listen early and often to users. Observe what they do. Care about solving their real problems.

  • Get to know your coworkers (which does actually lead to better outcomes, like 35% fewer complications and deaths from surgery).

  • Celebrate professional and personal wins.

  • Never push a 1:1 multiple times.

  • Make sales a conversation vs only trying to convince. Help your prospects and they will treat you well in return. (thanks JaRell McIntyre)

  • Create leave policies that put people and family first.

  • Compensate employees fairly.

  • Share information as freely as possible, both at the company level and the team level. Information scarcity used as a way to build power destroys many teams.

  • Do things that don’t scale. Especially early on.

  • When you’re networking, don’t think “can this person help me?” but think “how can I help this person?” (thanks Steve Arntz)

  • Put barriers around your work, especially if you’re a leader. Your family and your team will thank you.

Caring is both the right way to treat people and a powerful competitive advantage.

With more information available than ever before, people want to work for companies, leaders, and managers who won’t leave someone with a broken femur to fend for themselves.


What have you been learning about? I ask this of my kids every dinner and love to hear from other avid learners. Today I’d especially love to hear stories about how you’ve seen the advantage of “caring for broken femurs” in your work.