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work human 2017 event

I recently attended WorkHuman, an HR conference about–as the name suggests–creating a human-focused work culture. Some of my favorite industry leaders, such as Susan Cain and Adam Grant, keynoted, painting their visions for the workplace of the future and sharing the steps we can take to value those we work with. Equally important was the case made for how this approach makes for impactful business. Data shows that when this philosophy is embraced, there are positive impacts on the bottom line.

Despite the numbers, as I listened to the questions people asked, I realized this is something most businesses struggle with. The idea of empathy and being your whole human self in the workplace is often uncomfortable. And it can be confusing, even paralyzing. There are so many approaches–where does a business even start?

For me, it starts with these ideas shared at WorkHuman that challenged my thinking, that pushed me to be mindful and to get a little uncomfortable.

“Everyone shines, given the right lighting.”

I came away from Susan Cain’s session deeply impressed by her statement, “Everyone shines, given the right lighting.” She is an incredibly thoughtful woman, and the author of several books about the power of introverts. Her site, Quiet Revolution, is a great source of inspiration and ideas for balancing different personalities. Can it be hard to find the way to “light” someone? Sure–it can feel overwhelming. I mean, people win Academy Awards for lighting! But putting small mindful practices into place can make a cumulative difference over time. Maybe you know someone with great insights that might get overlooked because they aren’t the loudest or most senior voice in the room. How can you help to light them so their ideas are given a voice?

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.”

This sentiment from Verna Myers was oft quoted during the conference. It stuck with me–how many opportunities are businesses missing because we are not all dancing? Some of the larger corporations at the conference, like Bank of America, have dedicated business units with a sole focus on diversity and inclusion. While most business don’t have resources that extensive, I think we all have opportunities to be more inclusive. Not to manage and drive business by committee, but to be thoughtful about ideas, to provide candid and real-time feedback, and to breed an environment of civility.

Emotional intelligence is the ability to understand your effect on others and manage accordingly, but without empathy and shared purpose, it can drive business in a negative direction. However, these soft skills are becoming harder to find and more in demand. Publications like the Harvard Business Review and Huffington Post write about the difficulties of teaching these concepts, even with clear data that shows improved profits when we do.

Attitudes are contagious, and I suspect these things that are considered soft are easier to model than to teach. We have all been lifted by someone or deflated. And it is a norm to see the negative, what did not work. It takes time and thoughtfulness to recognize the successes, not just to weave them into the accepted company narrative, as a matter of course.  

Recognition was a big push at the conference to help create a human workspace and meaningful peer recognition ranked above other forms, such as from a supervisor. I don’t think this minimizes the power of your boss thanking you for a job well done, but it shows how connected we are to the people we work with on a daily basis. What they think matters to us and helps us to be engaged in our work, proves to us that we are meaningful and valued. It breeds accountability and harnesses discretionary energy that makes a difference in the health of a company. And again, there is data backing this up and showing how the inverse (think Uber) can prevail.

Another keynote was given by Adam Grant, who wrote a book from his research called Give and Take (check out his TedTalk). Adam is a great speaker, but the best part, he brings the data to back up his ideas—he is all about metrics. It’s an investment in time, but I believe a good one, to put in the work up front that sets the tone for candid feedback loops, for taking the fear out of those conversations, for setting clear expectations and always striving to grow and improve, even when it is frustrating or, painful. This work done mindfully in the beginning, sets teams up for success and allows for adjustment along the way—–true agility. The data shows and continues to stack up, it pays off in the end by fostering a more engaged team that creates impactful work for our clients. It’s hard to imagine most people don’t want that type of meaning at work. After all, it is the place and the people we spend much of our adult life with.

Is the Golden Rule good for business?

Michelle Obama was the closing speaker. She is real and human and accessible. Politics aside, I don’t think there was a one of us in the audience that didn’t want to hang out and talk with her all afternoon, listening to stories of how she thinks her husband is cute, or how she tells her girls to cry a river whenever they complain about the press. She spoke of the day she left the White House watching her girls walking out the back door, saying goodbye to the people that had helped raise them, knowing she had to keep her composure and remain mindful of the press and perceptions, when she really wanted a good hard cry.

She was asked if social media hurt and she said yes, it sure does. Her bravery in sharing that level of vulnerability really drove home the idea of being authentic. There is a myth of perfectionism and a fear of failure that are so prevalent in our culture. I know I am victim to it more times than it feels good to admit, but what if we all got a bit more honest with ourselves and each other? Would we foster workplaces where we said we were sorry when we should, we asked for help when we needed it, we gave credit where it was due, we led with kindness, and we said thank you and please? Maybe we could amend the golden rule, adding “and it’s good for business.” I think that’s pretty BRAVE.