The workplace is a mess. Over 50% of American workers are disengaged and frustrated. And despite their best intentions, each disengaged person stands in the way of progress and their own success. They are miserable. They make their colleagues miserable. And they risk being left behind as the workplace changes around them.
Some corporate programs attempt to address our disconnection from each other directly, through conversations about trust or emotional intelligence, for instance. No doubt these are important, but there’s a problem with this approach. If people are feeling insecure or unsatisfied, talking about caring for and about others is a very tough sell.
Based on my experience in corporations and working with elite special forces personnel, we first need to feel secure about four key needs.
To be engaged. Boredom, untapped talent, languishing skills, monotonous tasks, and a job that doesn’t demand and stretch our best will never be fulfilling or produce great work. And unfulfilled workers cost billions of dollars in productivity, even as they work more hours. While we each have a responsibility for our own engagement, employers must facilitate that ownership through education, development, and regular conversations about maximizing talent.
To belong. Each of us needs to be aligned with the mission of our organizations and to feel like we fit in with the people and how things are done. We don’t have to agree with everything or everyone, but we should feel good about how we disagree, how we arrive at decisions, and how we support each other.
To make a difference. Even in the most team-oriented culture, each of us has a unique contribution to make. For our work to be meaningful, there must be something that would not have happened without US. If this isn’t our experience, we need to get busy and think of ways our contributions can make a difference to others on our team. We should start with asking them.
To have a future. This means caring about the worker more than the job. Leaders should know which skills and capabilities are likely to be needed in the years to come and require and enable their people to prepare—even if it guarantees the worker will someday leave the company. If a leader doesn’t have some idea of what’s coming, then I’m not sure where they are leading.
With these big four needs met, we are much more likely to treat each other with respect and dignity, and to be open to other perspectives. We are much more likely to care and to be curious about the people around us, rather than judging them based on stereotypes. An experience of personal relevance must come before conversations about compassion or trust can have a meaningful impact.
Compassion in the workplace starts with the self, specifically a flawed, but resourceful, contributing, confident, resilient, and relevant self. This “self” stops being part of the problem of disconnection and can take an active, productive role in making our workplaces humane, productive, exciting, and inclusive.
Yes, the workplace is a mess. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.