“Tell me a story about a time when you felt afraid at work.”
“…What happened? What did you do? What did others do? What was the impact of that fearful experience on you, your team, your work, your organization, and your customer? How did this fear impact your personal life and your physical well-being? And what did this experience mean to you?”
“Now tell me a story about a time when you felt loved at work.”
“…What happened? What did you do? What did others do? What was the impact of that experience? And what did it mean to you?”
I’ve asked these questions to literally hundreds of people in research interviews and in workshops. And their stories reveal a lot about how people are actually experiencing leadership and teams in organizations today. What’s clear is that too often leaders are operating under an outmoded, threat-based, dehumanizing approach to leadership, and teams follow suit.
Their stories also demonstrate that when leaders and teams do break from this norm and create a loving, human-centered work experience, then people not only feel happier and healthier, they perform better. Everything we do at A Human Workplace to make work more human has its roots in these stories of fear and love.
We focus on stories because they bring to life the ever-growing body of scientific research supporting a more human-centered way of working. A multitude of studies demonstrate that fear is harmful to people and organizational performance, while love in all its forms is beneficial to people and necessary for sustained results. We learn from these studies that kindness, forgiveness, warmth, safety, compassion, altruism, trust, inclusion, empathy, and more are linked to better organizational outcomes as well as better human experience.
And yet, here we are in 2019 with the vast majority of workplace cultures and leadership practices still threat-based, still dominated by fear. Negativity, bullying, indifference, exclusion, isolation, cruelty, humiliation, and betrayal as well as harassment and discrimination are all too common. Little has changed for most people in their daily work even though we know better.
But stories are powerful. Stories can help us shift this dynamic in several important ways.
Stories create emotional engagement. This can motivate change. When I listen to your story, my brain begins to mirror yours. I feel the emotions of your story with you. As I listen to your fear story, my body’s stress response increases, but I relax and smile listening to your love story. Your sorrow and shame at fear and your hope and joy at love are familiar to me, and I feel those things with you in your story. This experience of empathetic mirroring can create new memories tied to emotions that can motivate new workplace behaviors.
Stories create cultural momentum. The more we share stories about fear or love at work, the more we realize we are not alone in our experience and our confidence grows. We have the confidence to question cultural old cultural norms and form new ones. I see this every time I speak on this subject. Many people start out skeptical. But after hearing stories, most people realize that their experiences of fear are commonplace and their desire for love is not unusual. The movement grows.
Experiences with fear at work can leave deep wounds. The trauma of being humiliated, betrayed, isolated, or left in a state of debilitating uncertainty decreases focus and prevents us from contributing our best. These wounds endure, sometimes for years as a type of post traumatic stress. People have described to me suffering from weight gain, eczema, stomach issues, insomnia, impacts to diabetes, and depression. Ultimately fear undermines our identity and self-worth, and we may struggle with embarrassment and shame. Even if we no longer internalize the experience, we still may carry an emotional burden from it.
In my research and workshops I’ve witnessed that telling our stories is powerful medicine. When a person tells their fear story and then their love story, they move through the fear and resolve it and then can celebrate and learn from their positive experience.
When we bring our story out of hiding and trust it to another person, we feel seen and heard. We know that we are not isolated any more. We find validation and healing just by telling our story to another caring person. Our fear stories create a chasm leaving us isolated. Telling our stories reconnects us to each other so we are not alone.
Recently I was interviewed on the Love in Action podcast by Marcel Schwantes, noted servant leadership author, speaker and advocate for putting love in action in the workplace. During the interview we turned the tables, and I interviewed Marcel asking him to tell a story about a time when he felt afraid at work and about a time when he felt loved at work.
He shared a devastating story of fear that created so much stress he became disabled for a time. Even though this took place years ago, the power of that fear lingered. But by telling the story to me on the podcast, he moved through the pain and intensity of the fear into a new freedom and peace. And Marcel became a believer in the power and importance of telling our stories of fear and of love at work.
Marcel and I both believe so much in the power and importance of stories that we are collaborating to collect stories through A Human Workplace Story Portal. We invite you to share with us your stories of times when you experienced love at work and other times when you experienced fear.
Any stories shared will be considered individually and in the aggregate for themes and insights about the impacts of fear and love. We promise to use these insights to advocate for making work more human and putting love in action. We may share stories in talks or writing always keeping confidential the identity of the story-teller.
By sharing your story you will contribute to a growing body of insights demonstrating that a loving, human-centered approach is the best way to lead, to team, and to work in the 21st Century!
We hope this portal will create a compilation of stories to will inspire, teach, and heal us all and help us put love in action to make work more human.
So please, tell us your stories! Here’s where you can get started.