Three cornerstones of emotional interaction at work
Most of us are quite lost when it comes to developing relationships at work. What should I say? What should I not say? Where should I stop? What is safe for me to mention, what is expected for me to give?
When it comes to sharing personal matters with our colleagues, things become even more blurry. Can I confess the hardship I'm going through with raising my second child into how it affects my work? I don't want to mention my Mum's sickness, yet I need to explain why I need more time at home for a few months, what should I do?
In those blurry lines lie the culture of a company, and between them the capacitiy of the group to hold a safe space for each of its members. Google reported that having a psychologically safe environment is the number one key factor of performance among their teams. We'd better get a look at how to do this!
A workspace performs best when people are allowed to be fully themselves, valued and respected for who they are (not what they do, more on that further down). Only then can they take risks, the same risk-taking ability that is at the root of high performance.
To walk skillfully among the minefield of bringing up personal stuff at work, a clear distinction between what is personal, intimate, and affective will help. How does it look like ?
We need personal connections to cultivate strong bonds
For us to be able to express fully who we are, there is an absolute need for personal interactions. We need to perceive and understand who our colleagues are, deeply, truly, without a mask. Their strengths, their sense of humor, their vulnerabilities. Etymologically, personal means "pertaining to the self". It means being you in the way that makes you unique, in the way that only belongs to you. The particular effort you may put to welcome a new member of the team. That tone in your voice when you say hi in the morning. Your little sparks, just as much as your little quirks.
The personal zone is an absolute essential to create and maintain a striving team of connected individuals. We can be personal with people we just met, we can be personal with our boss, we can be personal with a client. None of it puts us in danger if done right, rather the opposite: it fosters human-to-human connections that are at the basis of group resiliency. Personal connections just means being you with authenticity, and that's an absolute need for a healthy group. All organizations must strive to provide the conditions for people to feel safe to fully express who they are, so that personal connections can naturally occur and develop.
Intimate is our secret garden : we chose what we show to whom
Yet personal does not mean intimate. Swimming in the personal zone means talking about ourselves truthfully, honestly, with authenticity. It does not mean entering the private zone. I do not need to know the details of my colleague's love life to connect with him or her. Worklife offers many situations in which I can see my colleagues be who they are, there is no need to go further. What I need to connect to them is to feel and understand their humaneness, in its vibrant and colorful expression. If people want to go intimate, that's great. If they want to build friendships, that's really awesome. But such relationships are not necessary to build healthy bonds at work, and shall not be forced, expected, nor imposed.
We can share authentically without disclosing information that we are not comfortable with sharing. For us to be safe in a group, we need to learn how to respect ourselves and stop at the threshold of comfort. Never say something that may embarrass you. And this, of course, means to always respect the limit of others. Never force to enter their secret garden, for it's a place you can only be invited to.
Affective : the danger zone we must strive to avoid
Affective discussions or behaviors are those that have in them something like : "if you do this, if you say that, I will love you. If I say this, if I do that, they will love me." In such situations, appreciation or love is conditioned by a person’s behavior.
I was surprised the other day when witnessing my Dad talking to my little 2-year old niece in such a way: "I really love you because you just put the dirty paper in the trash bin, you are a very good girl!". His intention was good: encouraging her to contribute to family life. But conditioning his love to her actions is exactly how we foster behavioral patterns that are detrimental to the development of a being.
"I appreciate you as a person because you always respect deadlines" may sound like a positive thing to say as a manager to a team member, but is in reality a highway for catastrophe. The underlying message is "If you don't respect deadlines, you are not worthy of my appreciation". Imagine that one day, that person, for a very good reason, can not hand in the assignment on time. She is then facing the risk of having herself denied, as a person, while the reason of the delay may be totally independent of her own will. The psychological stress she would be undergoing is tremendous, and cannot be held for long without triggering compensation mechanisms that will eventually backfire.
As a collective, we must learn to bring awareness to these affective mechanisms. They are everywhere and we all fall into them more often than we realize.
Working with this framework collectively will help develop a high level of consciousness and foster strong bonds within a team. Simple things like a red buzzer or an absurd gesture can be used as markers of the danger zone, to avoid falling into it. Try it out and let me know how it goes!