Bringing your human side to work

Work-life balance. The dichotomy that follows us around from the ‘70s is still here and as complex and delicate as ever. At the end of each day, we’re told to “disconnect”, leave our work at the office (wherever that office is) and “enjoy the evening”. And every morning, we’re back again in our workspace ready to leave our private personas for the next 8 or so hours. But these two worlds are as interconnected than ever and impact on one another bigger than ever before.
For 69% of us, managers have the greatest impact on our mental health, according to The Workforce Institute at UKG. That’s on par with the impact of our partners, and even more impactful than our relationships with our doctors (51%) or therapists (41%). Studies also show that one of the main factors for life satisfaction comes from interactions that we have with our managers. So, are we truly able to separate our work and personal well-being? It’s safe to say – no.

In the last decade, corporations have made the step forward by working on diversity equity and inclusion values in the efforts to encourage their employees to bring their real selves to work. But what does it take to make our work lives more human?

How we talk

Finding the right words to express an opinion, pitch an idea or negotiate an agreement is part our everyday work lives. Speeches that we hear in townhalls, team buildings or conferences can be moving and inspiring, or they can feel restrained, generic and empty. Words are more than a tool for communicating WHAT we need to do: they’re an even more powerful enabler of HOW it makes us feel about what we need to do.

The power of words is in fact the power of instilling emotion. But too often, we’re left with “big” words that supposed to sound visionary, but end up sounding empty and dare I say – corporate? How can leaders bridge this gap of emotional indifference?

A good place to start is using more informal language. I’ve come to realize that language we use inside the smaller teams while we build even the most strategic work – passionate, pragmatic, tangible – is quite different than when we sell it up the ladder. The language for the C-suite needs to be more neutral, “strategic” and polished. But the change is noticeable with the new generation leaders – the gap between “hands-on work” language and “presentation” language is shrinking. The more we keep it simple, specific and down to earth, the easier it is endorsed further down the line.

Another secret power of informal language is that it’s more emotionally charged. Therefore, it’s easier to bring emotional relevance that is the hook we need from leaders to connect to overall mission of the company, values we should live, and most importantly, personal “what’s in it for me” feeling.

Leaders that we most easily connect to are the ones that speak from the heart. It takes bravery to be open and transparent about personal struggles, learnings and bumps on the road. Because it seems the C-suite is stressed too – UKG survey shows every third C-suite leader says, “I don’t want to work anymore” and it’s even more evident for the younger leaders. Sharing their personal stories of success and failures can be particularly resonating especially with employees at the forefront of the company, probably dealing with similar issues. Instead of purposefully hiding their humanity behind seniority, hierarchy and titles, leaders are starting to realize that speaking honestly from their personal experience can have the biggest potential to inspire and motivate the ones on the forefront. One of the good examples of this behaviour is global movement called Fuckup Nights, global event series where people share their professional failure stories – recalled products, negotiations went sour, you name it. It’s a powerful way to build a culture where failure is embraced as a learning opportunity, not stigmatized as a personal inadequacy.

How we listen

Now to the business of the art of listening. The skill on every learning and development list, however hard to learn and even harder to master.

The ability to actively listen to your peers, as well as direct reports is one of the critical enablers of successful collaborative work. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t tricky. The arena of articulating your ideas in the forum of your peers and leaders, especially in companies with more traditional hierarchical levels can be stress-inducing and complicated to maneuver.

However, the importance of broadening the capacity to embrace and understand different perspectives, coming outside of our cultural, economic and otherwise familiar “comfort zones” cannot be overstated.  It brings value not only for company’s culture but also its bottom line. Numbers speak for themselves: McKinsey analysis from 2019 of more than 1,000 large companies found that top-quartile companies in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity outperform bottom-quartile ones by 36% in profitability.  

In order to get the most productive discussion in the room, all participants need to be ready for “intellectual tension” – healthy exchange of ideas in search for an optimal solution. It’s not only the bringing of the brains that makes collaboration work, but also bringing of the hearts too, with respect to different personal backgrounds and experiences.

In order to do that, two types of empathy need to be fostered: cognitive and emotional. Cognitive empathy involves understanding others’ point of view but also their emotional states. Emotional empathy is concerned with sharing the feelings of others to embrace the individual as holistically as possible. It involves a big effort to practice, but fortunately these are not fixed traits. Leaders can enhance their empathy skills through coaching and training, which can return double. According to a study published in Evolutionary Biology, when empathy skills was embedded into decision making, it increased cooperation and even caused people to be more empathetic. Empathy fostered more empathy. If done right, it instills a sense of psychological safety which cultivates not only engagement and retention, but also has positive effects on ability to innovate, perform and at the end of the day, company’s bottom line.

Walk the talk

Leading by example is leadership at its core. Seeing management not only consider their employees’ opinions, but also expressing their own is inspiring. Stronger than any speech, seeing the humane side of the leader is the most motivational act of bravery.

But how does all the above relates to work-life balance?

At the end of the day, the way we communicate at work, the way we process cognitively and emotionally the good and the bad with our colleagues and managers leaves a huge impact on after-work hours. As the popular saying goes, people may not remember what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel. Authentic human contact and respectful exchange goes a long way. By helping people to feel a little more human at work will make them a lot happier humans overall.

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