You Can “Say” Team, But Do You Feel It?

Soccer Practice. Courtesy of woodleywonderworks.
Soccer Practice. Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks.

Does life get in the way of your workplace productivity?  Typically, it’s the opposite.  Your personal life determines how you show up.  When colleagues talk about life, and make their work meaningful to their lives, that’s when they become a team.

This is a great story from a colleague of mine from graduate school.  Alyssa Burkus describes the time she was working on a project for an organization (, and started seriously to consider an offer to work for them full-time.  During a team check-in about people’s weekend she announced to team members that she had achieved a milestone anniversary in surviving cancer.  There was an outpouring of sympathy and support.  She felt it.  She had found her tribe.

If you listen closely in your own workplace, you might hear other moments like these.  Some moments are better than others.  When people “have a specialist appointment” how much time do we give them?  When people have a death in the family, do they tell us, and do we have their back?  When two people talk about their kids having learning disabilities, how long are they allowed to talk?  At my current employer I had to delay my start date because there was a minor complication with a scheduled surgery.

The reason these scenarios are powerful is that many personal topics are simply more important than work.  As an employer you don’t so much own people, you just borrow some of their time.  When employees develop a sense of self-respect and a pride in their contributions, they willingly rise above what is expected from them in the job description.  I love going above and beyond for people whom I respect, and who have respect for me.  This feeling is stronger when employees forget about their salary, which is the dream of every well-informed compensation team.

The ability to have these conversations is part of a healthy workplace culture.  It turns up in employee surveys as a determinant of workplace engagement.  It drives turnover statistics and the amount of steam people put into discretionary effort.  Missteps in these areas are often at the root of conflict, harassment, and grievances.  When an employee expresses physical or emotional discomfort, the degree to which others care and take action is a major factor in accident claims, absenteeism, and long-term disability costs.  With equity and inclusion the emerging practice is to bypass categories and go deeper into individual perspectives.  With employee communications, people mostly read the personal stories.  And the best source of information for leadership development in the eyes of the employees who are following your lead.

I do a lot of math about workforce analytics and I can confirm for you that according to my calculator, emotions are the boss.

I think the reason vulnerability and compassion are so powerful is that it’s really hard to fake it.  You can tell when people mean it, and you can tell when people don’t.  As Alyssa puts it, “…this isn’t a call-to-action to start creating ‘meaningful moments’ initiatives, where the word from the top is leaders need to be more personal, or where HR tracks ‘connection point KPIs.’” It’s about authenticity.  Perhaps we need to develop metrics to guage that.

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