Hayley’s life had not been easy. Difficult pregnancies, a child with cancer, and her sister’s death had caused people in her life including work to gather around to support her in all kinds of ways. So when I asked her to tell me a story about a time when she felt loved at work, she had many examples.
But the story she told me in my research was, by comparison, silly and minor in her estimation. Still, it is the one she chose to share and speaks to the lasting positive impact a leader can have and the unexpected goodness that can come back to that leader in return.
Hayley started work as an administrative assistant for Dean right out of college. She’d been working for a few weeks in Washington State government and things were going well. She liked the people and the work came easily. She felt happy and confident.
But when she found out she was required to attend a new employee training in Tacoma, a 32 mile drive up the interstate from Olympia, she panicked. She didn’t want to go. She dreaded it and became a visible wreck. Dean asked what was going on.
Hayley confessed that she did not know how to merge onto the highway. She had learned to drive in Hawaii, never going more than 45 mph, then later her driving was limited to rural Washington and around the State capitol. She’d only been driving to and from work for a few weeks and even then she took a 15 minute detour to avoid the need to merge onto the highway.
She was distraught knowing she needed to drive to Tacoma on the highway five days in a row, merging both coming and going, and no one could help her.
To his credit, Dean did not laugh at her. Instead, he said, “OK, let’s do this together. Let’s drive together once and have merging lessons. You can drive, and I’ll be with you, practicing merging. I need to go to Tacoma that first day and introduce you to people anyway.”
Once he made the offer to teach her, Hayley felt immediate relief. She’d been dreading this drive so much she was giving herself headaches, but they immediately stopped that day and her shoulders relaxed.
Dean was a performance administrator with 80 people in his organization, certainly a busy leader with many demands on his schedule. But he took the time to drive with Hayley for that first meeting, coaching and training her on merging on the way up and back.
Today Hayley laughs as she looks back on this experience. But it also holds a deeper meaning. She recalled, “I felt like he could have chosen to only care about work and my performance. But instead he chose to consider me as a whole person. The fact that he was willing to take this extra step with me really impacted me.”
“Following his example, I know that the people I work with are whole people inside and outside the job. I try to make it safe for people to tell me all their things. I want to build that trust so they can share more than work. I see them as whole people.”
Dean’s investment in Hayley resulted in more than safe driving skills and better health. It formed a trusting relationship that allowed Hayley to say anything to Dean. This candor became a huge benefit to Dean. As she quickly got up to speed on the work, she felt comfortable asking questions, pointing out insights, sharing ideas, and even challenging him. She observed things he did not see and became a trusted partner that he relied on to expand his view.
Hayley and Dean collaborated over the years on projects that positively impacted Washingtonians as well as public servants. Hayley did drive successfully to Tacoma for five days, and after 11 years of state service, she is still safely driving and merging around the Puget Sound!
Dean told me he didn’t see this as a strategy for employee development or engagement. It was just the right thing to do. It was his nature to see Hayley as a whole person and to respond by investing in her growth. His human-centered, caring leadership makes this a Love Story About Work.
*"Love Stories About Work" are drawn from my research interviews on fear and love in the workplace. These stories are used with permission but the names of people have been changed and organizations not identified to protect and respect the identity of participants. I am so grateful to all who have shared their stories with me so that we can learn from their experiences and build a more human workplace.