Put people first

A cordial workplace is possible only if we help others fulfil their potential, before promoting our own needs

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”

— Theodore Roosevelt

In this journey we call life, many of the most touching, inspiring, and fulfilling moments we experience are a fruit of the depth of connection we share with the people closest to us. Indeed these moments of communion with fellow human beings are what define our experience of life. While we may encounter many challenges to experiencing these moments with others, our work environment—the place where we spend the majority of our waking hours—often presents a unique set of challenges to connect, collaborate and communicate effectively. In a world crying out for more compassion and connection, how do we build that in the workplace where adversity, miscommunication and strained relationships are the norm?

Pressures and strains of work

In today’s world, the demands of an organisation to remain agile and competitive often require, and indeed attract, a great diversity of people with a wide range of skills, knowledge, backgrounds, religions, languages and social beliefs. This diversity, if harnessed appropriately [read synergy] is actually the key to its optimisation. However, this very same diversity, fuelled by the growing pressures to produce more with less, can cause cracks to appear in staff relationships.

Haven’t we all experienced strains in our relationships at work before? Perhaps you can recall times when you said something to someone with the best of intentions, but they were left feeling troubled, angered or upset? Or maybe you remember situations when you’ve been trying your best while dealing with challenging personal situations and others dismiss you, disrespect your efforts, and treat you like a ‘thing’ rather than a human being?

Many times these kinds of issues between people aren't addressed for fear of confrontation. “What will they think about me?”, ”I wouldn’t dare raise this with him, I might lose my job”, “She doesn’t really care about me or understand my situation”, or “Why can’t they just get on with it?”

Perhaps we do address these situations, but we do so reactively, making accusations or judgements without really understanding the whole picture, causing damage to, and a lack of trust in, relationships.

Why can’t we all just get along?

Have you ever noticed how some people behave very differently at work compared to the way they do at home or in their personal lives? How well do we really know our work colleagues? How well do we know their ideas, aspirations, challenges or what is happening to them? So often, we feel unable to share all of this at work, or hide who we are, or what we’re feeling because we've grown to adopt a set of behavioural work norms—so we behave in a certain way in order to avoid being judged.

Confined by these norms, we tend to reduce our interactions to that one dimension of our lives, yet we all know there is so much more to who we are, to our lives and aspirations beyond our current role or position. In fact, the most important element of that role is the very human being that breathes life, knowledge, skills and wisdom into it. Beneath the surface-level interactions of that role, we don’t see what is happening in others’ internal worlds or personal lives and so don’t really understand the human being, yet someone’s life and aspirations outside work can be one of the greatest determining factors of their success, happiness and productivity in work. So problems arise in interactions with others because we simply aren’t aware of what is happening beneath the surface—inside people’s heads, hearts and personal lives. If we wish for someone to flourish at work, we must help them flourish as a human being in all areas of their life.

We all agree that people are the most valuable ‘asset’. Yet, when we don’t genuinely put people’s lives and our relationships first—before money, production and transaction—the effects are evident. On a human level, people feel undervalued. There is a lack of purpose, resourcefulness and initiative and they develop poor relationships with others. On a business level, this gets translated into low profits, high costs, low client retention and high staff turnover.

So how do we overcome these challenges?

How do we build strong, deep, trust-filled relationships in the workplace? How do we build an environment where people feel more open to share and work through their challenges rather than harbour resentment? How do we build a culture where people feel accepted and valued, where people don’t react but instead listen empathically? How do we enable people to nurture their relationships and support each other in their lives as a whole?

put-people-first-2-320x249The law of giving and receiving

Some of the greatest business and spiritual leaders have said that if we want happiness, we should give happiness and that if we want love, we should give love. When we’re dedicated to helping someone else achieve what they want in their lives, we will get what we want in our lives—you might call it ‘the law of giving and receiving’. The answer then is to step into a role where you’re putting other people’s growth and development first. You may call it the role of a ‘mentor’—not a mentor in business techniques or career progression, but in life and leadership—a compassionate mentor on a human level who is willing to extend himself or herself for the good of others.

When someone goes out of their way to help us in our lives, don’t we feel a powerful sense of compassion, appreciation, loyalty, respect towards them and a compulsion to help them too? It breaks down those walls that stand between us and inspires us to be open and connect meaningfully with others.

The employer’s role

An organisation that truly cares about the employees personal aims and development in all areas of their life, beyond its own institutional aims, inspires them, who then see their work not just as a means of keeping a roof over their head. They see it as a vehicle to build their lives as a whole and achieve their dreams. This is what ensures a rich working environment of motivation, purpose, loyalty, trust and high levels of commitment, where people pour their heart and soul into their work, as against arriving reluctantly to give their heads and hands.

So how does becoming a mentor actually help you? In his revered book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes the principle of ‘teach once, learn twice’. If you’re involved in helping someone learn something, you naturally tend to understand, internalise and habitualise it up to 70 per cent more yourself. If we want to become an effective leader or manager and achieve goals with or through others, then we must learn to understand the human being behind the role. Anything less and we begin to get too efficient, treating people as things rather than human beings. If we want to improve our ability to understand others, to connect, to help, to inspire and to lead others, then mentoring is the key to help us achieve that.

So where do you start?

It starts with you. By finding someone who can mentor you, someone who can help you become a mentor yourself or someone who can help you build a mentoring scheme in your organisation. As this famous quote attributed to Gandhi tells us, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” If we want others to work together effectively in the spirit of cooperation, creativity and harmony, then we must lead the way, we must be that change and there is no greater way to evoke that in others than by being a mentor to others. Besides, nothing can feel more fulfilling than playing a role in empowering someone else, while also inspiring yourself.

This was first published in the July 2013 issue of  Complete Wellbeing.

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