In one of my recent coaching groups with mid-level managers, each of the managers shared one strength that they use in their position. This was followed by the other managers also sharing a strength they saw in that person. I’ve including this activity in many of my coaching groups, and am always reminded of how powerful it can be. This group was no exception.
Although some workplaces have employee recognition programs and rewards for successes, few manage to make people feel truly seen. Typically, a few employees are recognized while the majority aren’t. Even those who are recognized are more rewarded for what they do, not who they are.
This narrative is infused throughout the majority of organizations I’ve worked with. Employees are expected to perform, produce, and achieve. Although these expectations are reasonable within a work environment, the problem is that they take precedence over recognizing the humanity in each person. Employees become objectified and part of a machine. People’s gifts, feelings, strengths, and experiences are minimized or ignored altogether. Employees feel like numbers, cogs in the wheel, expendable pawns who are supposed to sacrifice who they are for the benefit of the organization.
Again, my point is not that organizations shouldn’t expect results or performance. My point is that they shouldn’t come at the expense of their people’s humanity. And, ironically, when people’s humanity is recognized, they will be more likely to produce results and perform at a higher level.
The participants in my coaching groups have this experience when doing the above activity. Many have never had anyone tell them what their strengths are, including their colleagues who work with them every day, sometimes over a period of years. Although these exchanges might be part of a performance review with a manager, most performance reviews are exactly about that – performance. Managers will praise accomplishments, outcomes, and products. Few recognize the unique strengths that each person offers.
Participants in these groups also share how awkward and uncomfortable it can be to hear their colleagues acknowledge their strengths. They’re used to hearing criticism or how they can improve. Noticing this discrepancy is often eye-opening for them, and comes with a degree of sadness at how focusing on the negative is actually more comfortable than being acknowledged for the positive. However, their gratitude and the impact on their self-esteem ultimately outweighs their discomfort. Many come away feeling a level of fulfillment that they rarely experience in the workplace. They then leave with palpable energy that they bring back to their work.
Even more ironic is how adults spend one-third of their lives at work but almost never make the time for these conversations. Think about how many hours each week, each month, each year we bear witness to the people around us but don’t take the time to acknowledge them. We witness their growth, their struggles, their successes, their breakthroughs, their triumphs, and their failures but rarely reflect what we see in them. Instead, we act like they are invisible, that who they are doesn’t matter, that their value is solely in what they can do for us or how successful they make us look. We go through the motions, without taking time to truly connect and appreciate one another.
Instead, we have the opportunity to bear witness to our co-worker’s humanity. We can share what we see, what we appreciate, and how they impact us. Many clients, after doing this activity, recognize how they seldom, if ever, do this for their people. After experiencing the power of being witnessed, and having the opportunity to witness their colleagues, they see the potential in making these conversations part of the “new normal.” And, when they do start having these conversations, notice how the effects begin to ripple throughout their organization. For those who might be skeptical or wonder if this “soft, touchy-feely” stuff would actually work in your organization, the answer is yes. Whether it’s in a non-profit, government, or military-industrial organization, I’ve seen the impact and success first-hand.
We all have this opportunity. You likely see the strengths of the people around you. The difference comes when you move from seeing to sharing. Doing so takes minimal effort but provides maximum reward. We all have strengths – even the co-workers I’ve felt the most challenged by have strengths. Talking about them lets in a ray of light that can open the door to new possibilities.
That is the invitation: to take a moment to acknowledge the people you work and see almost every day. To affirm the humanity in each person. To not pretend that, just because you’re at work, your humanity should be checked at the door. This is how we begin to revolutionize leadership – by daring to create the “new normal” that we’d like to experience.