My young daughter sometimes reminds me, “This is just for pretend, Daddy.” Although play is very serious business, she is clear that we are operating by make-believe rules. We suspend the realities that govern our actual existence so she can be a mommy, a kitty, or render me powerless with the magic word “abracadabra.” My favorite part is when she kisses me to make me strong again. That is because, in reality, I crave affection from my little girl. I sometimes find that people in the workplace lack this same clarity about what is make-believe, what is real, what people crave, and what people loathe.
Make-believe rules govern our lives everywhere we go. Sheldon, the super science nerd in the show “The Big Bang Theory,” refuses to give his best friend a birthday gift until Penny explains that gift givingis a non-optional social convention. Our made-up social “rules” are essential for holding society and companies together. We need these rules, but they are not always a positive force in our world. When we make-up rules that are contrary to our design, we create a mess.
One of my least favorite make-believe games at work is called: “It’s not personal; it’s work.” This game is played by a set pattern of complex, often contradictory rules. Here are a few of them:
- Do not take how I treat you personally.
- Do not bring emotions into your work (because they make me anxious).
- Be very likeable and reliable so people will like you and want to work with you.
- Be passionate about your work and put in extra hours.
- Give us your best, creative ideas. But do not be upset if we do not use them.
- Take pride in your work; make quality products.
The problem, of course, is that these rules contradict each other and reality. Unlike computers, people cannot partition their “hard drive” to operate their “rationale work being” separately from their “emotional personal being.” Work is an intensely personal activity. We are made to work, and we need to work. Like our Creator, we express our very nature in our work. That nature is rational and emotional, artistic and scientific, playful and serious… People cannot be deconstructed in the workplace and maintain the integrity of their full personhood. As I have worked with companies whose employee surveys revealed deep dissatisfaction, I noticed that employees are not just unsatisfied with the situation. No, they are angry and feel that their very personhood is under assault. Consequently, they protest this treatment in ways that disrupt effective operation of the business.
People crave the opportunity to bring their whole selves to work. In the pretend world, I am rejuvenated and reenergized when my daughter kisses me. In the real world, employees are motivated and engaged when their employer embraces their whole person.
If you want motivated, engaged people in your business, embrace them as whole people. Here are a few ways you can do that:
- Notice what people enjoy doing and find out what people do best. Then make sure they get to do it every day!
- Invite people to do more than what their job description includes. As they take on more, adjust their compensation.
- Demonstrate that you personally care about them.
- Encourage supervisors to use their judgment when they apply policies, e.g., scheduling rules; time-off; and allow consideration of the employee’s performance, commitment, and life circumstances.
- Make sure job requirements do not contain needless formal education standards that bar otherwise qualified people from advancing.
- Provide supervisors with “human relations” training including topics such as interpersonal communications and conflict resolution.
- Reward high performers and genuinely treat them differently than lower performers.
- Deal with the hard personal stuff. Stop avoiding conversations because it might hurt people’s feelings.