Workplace as Soulcraft
Updated: Aug 22, 2019
I grew up with the belief that work was a necessary, soul-defeating endeavor that gradually sucks the life from a person. The goal seemed to be: "save enough money to retire and be happy later." (...if you lasted that long. The risk of pre-happy-later death wasn’t often acknowledged.)
Meanwhile, only unreliable, unrealistic, and/or generally suspect people sought work that was different. My dad would say, “if it was fun, they wouldn’t call it work!” Luckily there was another perspective in my childhood home, voiced by my sister Julie, who countered with her own adage: “I don’t want to work from 9-5 so I can live from 5-9!”
With this family-of-origin backdrop, it was revelatory to have a boss who helped me experience work as a vehicle toward my best self, Bernadine Joselyn at the Blandin Foundation in Grand Rapids, MN. Bernadine offered the usual things you hear about good bosses, like clear communication and constructive feedback. She was also a master at expressing genuine appreciation. (This was actually jarring at first, after years of aloof and anxious bosses.) But most of all, she offered trust: a long leash to figure how and when to accomplish what I needed to get done. She operated on the belief that my own curiosity and conscience led me to do my best work, not her oversight. I felt both free and uncommonly loyal working for Bernadine, self-governing and secure that she had my back. It was an amazingly growthful 5 years.
Bernadine shared many of her own insightful adages that transformed how I approach work and my desire to do good in the world. Here's a great example: “people can be attracted and nudged, but not controlled.” That simple statement peeled off the first layer of a lifelong onion I have named: "all the ways we try to control others to create what we think is better world." Hmmm!
Bernadine convinced me that, when workplaces help people grow, utilize their highest traits, and feel fulfilled, they will be the most productive and successful.
So if your workplace drains you and the people in it, it is wasting resources. It's that simple. If you're a leader, one of the greatest contributions you can make is to examine whether you create conditions that cause anxiety or growth in the people around you. Some people intuitively take it upon themselves (often covertly!) to create bravely humane workplaces. Sadly, they are usually unrecognized and unappreciated for the huge contribution they make to a healthy, productive workplace.
But times are a changin’ (thank you, Millennials!). More employers understand that work can be a vehicle for meaningful life-living…and more employees are demanding it. Unfortunately most people don’t know how to carry out this good intent. Ping pong break rooms and open floor plans only go so far.
That's because we are limited by internal habits that protect our feelings of vulnerability and cap the potential of honest communication and trusting connections. We are stuck in mental frameworks that treat people like parts of a machine. We don't account for our own and others' reality as changing, complex organisms. All of this bogs down energy, momentum and collegiality. We self-limit the possibility of people at work, including ourselves.
But fear not! Organizational cultures can be "attracted and nudged" to create meaning and purpose while driving innovation and productivity. This is what we do well at Blue Dot Consulting, through change modalities big and small, such as: strategy formation, programmatic design and evaluation, half-day "taking stock" retreats, and individual coaching conversations.
Changing culture is a process of ongoing inquiry and there are many entry points...find one that works for you and get started. Meanwhile, here's a hope for us all:
May we all increase the days we feel alive from 9-5 AND 5-9 during our sweet, fleeting chance to ride the blue dot.