photo of Jason Lauritsen on 2015

Jason Lauritsen, Editorial Advisory Board Contributor

A friend recently shared with me a story of an encounter with another professional that had gone wrong. As she described it, she had made a semi-critical comment about the industry in which this person worked. She made a point to emphasize that the comment wasn’t about the individual or their work directly.

Despite that, the other person became upset and had an unexpectedly defensive and emotional reaction.

My friend was surprised by this. She felt the person had over-reacted and taken something personally that was not intended that way. It was almost like I could hear Michael from the Godfather movie, “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.”

When it comes to our work, it is never “strictly business.”

I’m not sure where the idea started that work (or business) and personal lives are separate. It seems so disconnected from reality.

Most of us spend more time working than doing any other thing in our lives, except maybe sleeping. Good or bad, most people spend more time with work than with their loved ones.

But it’s not just about time, it’s about identity. When we meet new people, one of the first things they share about themselves is what they do for work. According to a Gallup poll of U.S. workers, 55% said “they get a sense of identity from their job” compared to 42% who say it is just something they do for a living. For those with a college degree, the percent deriving identity from work jumps to 70%.

Work isn’t something we do, it’s who we are. You can’t get more personal than that. Maybe this isn’t universally true, but it seems to be true for the vast majority of people.

My friend overlooked this. We could probably have a good debate about whether or not work SHOULD be so personal. But debating what should be doesn’t change what is. Work is personal. That’s what makes our efforts towards employee engagement so important.

We define employee engagement at Quantum Workplace as the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their places of work. Engagement is about recognizing the importance that work plays in employee’s lives beyond the widgets we produce or the beans that we count in exchange for the paycheck we collect.

And engaging workplace recognizes that work is personal. It has always been personal. And it is becoming increasingly so as more and more people generate their work product through knowledge, creativity, and ingenuity. If we can create a work experience that both recognizes and embraces that work is personal, the people who work there will feel more whole and productive.

When we embrace this reality, we can start addressing how to evolve our workplaces to work better for humans. Here are a few implications to consider.

1. Feedback is both important and dangerous. Feedback is critical to learning. It highlights where we are doing well and where we need to improve. That’s the good news. The bad news is that when we acknowledge that work is personal, we can anticipate that any critical feedback will feel like a personal critique and likely generate a defensive, emotional response (as my friend discovered). Understanding this can help you reshape your approach to feedback for more impact.

2. Emotions are affecting work, whether you acknowledge them or not. Gary Hamel once described that the purpose of management in the industrial era was to “turn human beings into semi-programmable robots.” In a system that demands consistency and efficiency, human emotion is a liability. Much of modern management is still derived from this same model. So, we continue to tell employees to check their emotions at the door. There’s no crying in {whatever you do}! But, we know deep down this is naïve. Emotions don’t go away simply because you tell them too, they go underground and start affecting us in lots unproductive ways. And, when we ask people to check emotion at the door, we often also lose valuable outcomes that emotions fuel, like creativity.

3. A workplace that’s better for humans requires humans that are better for humans. If work is personal, then perhaps we need to reframe how we treat people at work. In our personal life, when someone is hurting or crying, we typically try to comfort them and we ask what we can do. We don’t admonish them for showing inappropriate emotions. I’m not suggesting that every expression of emotion at work is acceptable, it’s not. Just like it’s not in our personal life. But, when emotions show up at work, we need to be better equipped for how to handle them. This perhaps suggests that we should be training and coaching employees and managers on some new competencies: self-management, empathy, compassion, and appreciation.

As I write this, I recognize my own failings in this area. Even when we mean well and have the right intentions, this is hard work. But, I think it’s the right work. So, let’s get to it.

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