Community is a vital element in people’s feelings of satisfaction in their workplaces and in life. Humans are hard-wired for community which is why it is a critical piece of any organization’s culture. At Gallaher Edge, we focus on three pieces that create a sense of community at work: practicing openness, building trust, and demonstrating compassion. So let’s dive into the openness piece. Openness truly is the foundation for community. True connection comes through our willingness to allow ourselves to be truly seen. It takes vulnerability to allow one to truly be seen, and that vulnerability is where true human connection is formed.
Openness at Work Defined
We define openness from the work of Dr. Will Schutz and his program, The Human Element:
Self-awareness + self-disclosure.
When you’re self-aware, you allow yourself to truly know your own experience. You’re able to identify your thoughts and feelings, the stories in your head, your fears and insecurities, and also what you want – your intentions.
Self-disclosure means making the choice to share your experience honestly with others. As humans, we often choose to withhold our true thoughts and feelings, or we share some distorted version of the truth in an attempt to protect ourselves or control the outcome of the conversation. Openness means sharing your self-awareness with someone else. It also includes being self-accountable, which means that you recognize that your thoughts and feelings are yours to own, and they do not represent an “absolute truth.”
Sometimes openness is misunderstood as being “really direct” or “brutally honest.” Often this means that someone is sharing thoughts without allowing themselves to be fully self-aware and self-accountable. If, for example, you believe that somebody is “making you feel” something, that lacks self-accountability. If you believe that somebody else is just intrinsically a jerk, and it’s an absolute, universal truth, that everybody accepts as fact, then you’re lacking self-awareness.
Openness in the Workplace: Surfacing your Story
Instead of telling someone they are a jerk (or thinking it but withholding verbally), self-awareness means surfacing the story in your head about what’s happening, and how it ultimately reflects on you. For example, maybe you think Bob is a jerk because he hasn’t answered your email for 2 weeks now. Digging deeper means that you can recognize that the story in your head is that Bob isn’t responding to you because he doesn’t think that your email, your project (or maybe even you) are important. In the absence of understanding Bob’s delay, your brain’s negativity bias coupled with our human tendency to be driven by fear means that the stories we create often lack generosity. The end result of that is reduced cohesion and reduced trust. We learn to be guarded with one another rather than truly open. A piece of openness is being willing to surface your story while recognizing that it is your story (not absolute truth).
How Openness Helps in Problem-Solving
Openness is a core method for problem-solving. It helps you short-circuit the “story in your head” situation. It builds community to call out the real problems you want to solve and to invite others to join in that problem-solving. When you have community, there is a genuine feeling of being “on the same team” even when you’re not “on the same page.”
Openness in Action
Openness allows you to have difficult and powerful conversations that help you solve important problems together and stay aligned in your intentions. Consider an example from one of our clients. The organization was gearing up for a large growth phase that required acquiring a significant number of qualified leads very quickly, and the department responsible was very small. The CEO knew that there was a resource constraint, but he also found himself questioning if the leader of this department had the capacity to build her team and gather the leads as quickly as the organization required. But he found himself withholding those concerns, wanting to wait and see if the apparent bottleneck would improve when she had more resources. At the same time, she found herself expending energy wondering if her performance was being questioned. In coaching, she realized that if she fully trusted that her CEO would be open with her about any question about her performance, she would feel less anxious, and could spend less energy there and more energy on getting things done.
In coaching the CEO, we surfaced that he had a fear about sharing his doubts with this leader. He found himself more cautious with her because he didn’t want to upset her or cause her to shut down. This is something that Dr. Will Schutz calls “First truth first” (source). This is a vital part of openness. When you find yourself withholding thoughts, feelings, or feedback from somebody, there is a reason (or a reason that you tell yourself) you are choosing to withhold. In this case, the CEO’s fear was that she would become upset in the conversation. This is his “first truth.” And we call it the “first truth” because it’s actually the most important conversation to have.
When he was asked, “How important is it to the success of your organization for you to be fully open with your head of marketing during this growth phase?” He said it was critically important. So instead of jumping into a conversation about resources, or even a conversation about capability, the first open conversation to have is about their ability to have open conversation.
We also refer to this as going “meta” which means you are referencing yourselves in the conversation. Essentially, you’re commenting on what you see happening, like in shows like the goofy sitcom Community when the character of Abed refers to what is happening as “an episode” and references “last week” (as in referencing last week’s episode). For some people, communication patterns like this can seem radical or at least unfamiliar at first, as though we’re calling out something that we’re supposed to ignore. This is because we’re socialized from a very young age in many different ways to not say what we’re really thinking or feeling. That makes it even more important for leaders in organizations to lead from a place of openness so that current and new employees see the behavior and quickly learn that these are the behavioral expectations in the culture that create the connections between people that contribute to the culture of community.
When you are open with your intentions, you are far more likely to align your impact with your intentions, which is at the core of authenticity, which builds trust. Openness, trust and compassion are three keys to building community at work. Read more about Community at Work on the Gallaher Edge Blog.