improve workplace culture, rebuild community and love our people

How to improve workplace culture: Love our people

Posted in Managing staff & processes
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How do you improve workplace culture? After a tough year with lots of remote interactions, most practice owners are focused on strengthening their workplace culture. This year’s emphasis in most practices is the year of rebuilding the community. 

The foundation

I believe that the foundation of a healthy workplace culture is the owners’ love of their employees. From this vantage point, then how does one improve the workplace culture? Can the leader of an organization learn to love better? I believe the answer is yes.

But before we get into how to love better, let’s consider the standard prescriptions and see what they can do for us.

Standard methods for building a strong culture

Previously, I have written several posts on how to improve your workplace culture. There are many valuable ideas here that work. Here is a partial list:

The “how to’s” are essential. In other words, at times we need more effective ways to appreciate employees. For example, we need celebrations, parties, gift cards, and promotions. Indeed, a robust, consistent way to highlight successes and honor our people is imperative. 

A clarifying quote

“The person who loves their dream of community will destroy community, but the person who loves those around them will create community everywhere they go.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

What is Bonhoeffer getting at here? At a minimum, he is highlighting the power that love has for building community. In other words, love is the engine for building community–the essential ingredient. We will come back to this point.

But he is also giving us a warning. Specifically, he suggests that even our dreams about the community can interfere with the true expression of love. Thus, the dreams about improving workplace culture can become the enemy of a loving community. We may want a strong workplace community, but still, get in the way of it by our wrongheaded approach. 

So how do we properly express love for our employees? 

I think the answer is to focus on another dimension–the motivations that govern our choices as a leader. 

Leaders’ metacommunication

Let’s firstly examine the metacommunication behind our community-building efforts. As therapists, our employees are clever, intuitive, and insightful. They are constantly “reading” the meaning behind what we say and do. They correctly believe that this deeper meaning is the most critical dimension of any communication. Furthermore, central to human interaction is an attunement to a speaker’s motivation. 

My take on our efforts to improve a workplace culture is this. Our success will be limited if employees cannot perceive the leaders’ underlying motivation of love. They need to feel that we love them as people. Yes, we may care about their contributions to the organization. But they want to know that we notice who they are as a person, not just for their role in the organization. 

The tests that illuminate our motivation

For example, every day we have many routine exchanges about our lives:

  • What did you do last night?
  • How was your weekend?
  • You look tired. Is everything OK?

Why do we ask these types of questions of each other in the workplace? Each of us is trying to connect our outside lives with our work lives, but just a little bit. We inherently want to share the context of our lives with each other, but we know we have work to do, so only go so deep. 

As the boss, we need to enter into these conversations with genuine interest. We need to show that we value this sharing and connection. By doing so, we are confessing that our heart contains more than just thoughts about work. We care about our people as significant people in our lives. 

And yet, frankly, the more demanding the business becomes, the more challenging it is to make the space for these “smaller” interactions. We get caught up in our “big” plans for the day and miss the important messages our people are sending us. 

One spiritual author wrote it this way:

“The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’, or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination.”

From a 1943 letter from C.S. Lewis, included in Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C. S. Lewis

Our author is pointing at an important truth–that the life we live is mostly about our manner of handling things as they come. Our plans and our frustration about the inevitable disruptions in our plans play a secondary role. Accepting the limitations of our control is crucial. 

Other significant tests

Moreover, how we implement our organizational policies communicates to our employees. For example, when an employee is not feeling well or has an ill child, we may release them to go home. But are we resentful? Do our employees experience our frustration? Unquestionably, our attitude will be noticed. And at times, our subtle tone will be the more powerful message. The wrong attitude can undo the right decision. 

Every time an employee has a struggle that is affecting work, we have an opportunity. And when we put the employee’s needs before work needs, they note it. Additionally, how we handle these challenges in an employee’s life and our subtle attitudes about these negotiations shape our employees’ view of us more than the event itself. 

Joys of loving those around us

Our employees gain much from our expressions of love. And yet we have much to gain as well. Accordingly, leading an organization is both about what we are doing for others and what we derive from our efforts. In addition, there is a natural bonding that comes from working shoulder to shoulder with other like-minded teammates. Everyone benefits. And at times, genuine friendships grow out of these project-driven relationships. 

Sorrows of loving those around us

Of course, the other side of our genuine investment in work relationships is the pain that occurs when disagreements or departures emerge. In truth, nearly all the practice owners I consult with have complicated stories of their pain and sadness about broken employee relationships. I have many as well. We have many conversations about how to recover from the sense of betrayal. 

So what do we do? On the one hand, we agree that loving colleagues is the best way to go. But on the other, we accumulate these scars from relationship disappointments. Furthermore, we struggle to decide how much of our pain is due to our out-of-whack expectations versus our employee’s responsibility. 

I have written more about this challenge here: How to overcome employee betrayal: 5 steps to love resiliently

For now, let’s strive to improve our workplace culture by loving our employees. We can work on managing our injured hearts in another post.

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