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Being Human at Work

The small ways we can show up for one another.

Photo by Pixabay

It was a fairly typical day at work.  I had settled down into my cubicle and was eating breakfast at my desk while preparing for the day ahead.  On my calendar was an intro conversation with my new bosses’ boss, who had recently moved into her role.  I had done these meetings with higher ups before and they were usually pretty standard – you basically shared the Instagram version of yourself in an effort to make a good first impression.  In preparation, I jotted down a few highlights that I would share about myself:

  • Born in Canada. (Read: Able to survive cold, resilient)
  • Grew up moving all over and lived in many countries. (Read: Adaptable)
  • Started my career in finance. (Read: Analytical, hardworking)
  • Happily married to my college sweetheart. (Read: Commitment)
  • Just bought our first house (Read: Life is good)

But of course, this wasn’t the full picture.  These were the bullets that weren’t on there:

  • My parents had just announced that they were getting divorced after 37 years of marriage.
  • I had just miscarried what I thought would be my first child. 

Needless to say, the Instagram version didn’t actually match up to reality.  While I was trying to keep my challenges in perspective, I was grieving in more ways than one.  The only people at work who knew about these struggles were a close friend and my boss, because I couldn’t completely hold it together.   Other than that, no one knew.  I thought that this was the way it should be based on what I had internalized about what was appropriate and not appropriate at work.  I had to be “professional”, which in my mind meant keeping my emotions in check and not allowing my personal struggles to get in the way of work.  The show must go on right? 

So I entered the meeting with my notes in hand, shared my highlight reel and tried to channel my excitement about being on this new team.  As the conversation turned from me to the leader, she did something I wasn’t expecting.  She shared both the highs and the lows of her journey.  Yes, she talked about her career and the various stops along the way, but she also shared some personal challenges.  She told me that in the midst of career success, she struggled to get pregnant and that she had a few miscarriages.  She acknowledged how hard that time was for her and how it had impacted her at work.  Following a few years of trying times, she ended up with two beautiful babies.  She also talked about her decision to keep working after becoming a mom.  She acknowledged that it was a deeply personal decision, but for her it helped her be a better mom and leader.  

It’s hard to describe what that conversation did for me that day.  Even six years later tears roll down my cheeks as I write about that moment and that time.  The pain I was going through was intense.  This leader, who I had basically just met, had unknowingly made me feel not alone and had given me hope.  She did it by choosing to be vulnerable.  She did it by choosing to be human. 

Since that conversation and that time, I have tried to follow in her example.  When I share my story, whether it be about my career, about parenting, or about being an entrepreneur – I share both the highs and lows.  It’s not that I want to burden others with my problems, it’s that I want to normalize that every career, every business, every story has ups and downs – that’s just part of life. 

I acknowledge that this approach may not work for everyone.  But there are many other simple tools that you can use to create opportunities for deeper connections and better relationships at work.  For example, a few years ago I was part of a program where leaders from all over the company, most of whom had never worked together before, were put together in small teams and asked to lead initiatives to solve big challenges the company was facing.  We had limited time together, so the temptation was to dive right in and get to work.  The facilitators, however, slowed us down and asked us to start our meetings by sharing a Rose and a Thorn.  This is a very simple and quick exercise where you share something positive or joyful (The Rose) and something that is challenging you (The Thorn).  I wasn’t sure how much people would share, but was pleasantly surprised when a few people got real – sharing some more intimate details around their life.  This simple exercise helped us see each other as more than team mates on some random project, we saw each other as people. It created a level of trust and connection and allowed us to work together more effectively.  One of the things that is great about this exercise is that it allows people to share in a way that feels authentic to them.  It’s an invitation, not a mandate.

There is a lot of work to be done to help organizational cultures shift to allow for more humanity at work, but I take comfort in the fact that it’s not just about grandiose gestures or wholesale culture initiatives.  Sometimes it’s about the small ways that we show up for one another.  Allowing our multidimensional reality to exist at work enables us to forge deeper connections.  Since work is a place many of us spend the majority of our waking hours, let’s take every small step we can towards making it someplace we show up to as our full selves. 

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