For two years now, we have been holding regular "community" meetings at our office to give team members an opportunity to check in about how they're doing, not just professionally but also personally. Each person answers several questions beginning with a deceptively simple one: "How are you feeling today?" The rest of us simply listen.
It was only when we faced a sudden crisis that I finally understood why these meetings had been so important. On a weekend last October, the 23-year-old son of one of our team members died unexpectedly and tragically. On Monday morning, I called our team together in our conference room. The feelings that surfaced that morning were raw — grief, bewilderment, fear, an acute awareness of the fragility of life and the preciousness of our own loved ones, and empathy for our grieving colleague.
The emotions ran even higher at a community meeting on the first day our colleague returned to work several weeks later. Painful as it was for all of us, we were able to create a container for our colleague's heartbreak. Sharing our feelings also made them feel less burdensome. We held her, and holding her held us. It was cathartic, and that helped each of us to go back at the end of the meeting and focus again on the work at hand.
It dawned on me that day how powerful and liberating it is to say exactly what you're feeling, and to feel truly listened to without judgment. The impetus to hold community meetings came to us from something called "the Sanctuary Model", developed by a psychiatrist named Sandra Bloom as a way to help people deal with chronically stressful and overwhelming circumstances — mostly in the world of mental health.
Increasingly, however, the everyday experience of corporate life can be overwhelming in and of itself. In addition to whatever stresses we bring from home, including not getting sufficient sleep, we're deluged with email, running from meeting to meeting, skipping meals, and working longer and more continuous hours than ever. Is it any surprise we're struggling? Worse yet, in most workplaces the unspoken expectation is that we will check any strong emotions we're feeling at the door.
You know the drill. You put on your game face when you walk into work. "How are you?" a colleague asks, by rote and without real interest. "Fine," you respond, automatically, regardless of how you're actually feeling. "How many of us," Bloom writes, "have ever felt truly safe in a social setting ... [meaning] cared for, trusted, free to express our deepest thoughts and feelings without censure, unafraid of being abandoned or misjudged, unfettered by the constant pressure of impersonal competition, and yet stimulated to be thoughtful, creative, spontaneous and solve problems?"
To the contrary, as demand grows, we feel more anxious, more isolated, and more vulnerable. Each of us has a tipping point — a moment when we feel so depleted that we fall into survival mode. We're often unaware of it, but when we move from feeling calm and secure to anxious and under siege, we literally become different people. Our fight or flight physiology kicks in. In turn, our focus automatically narrows to protecting ourselves. We lose the ability to think clearly and creatively, respond to others with care and consideration, or consider the long-term consequences of our choices. Instead, we do whatever we think we need to do to survive in the moment.
Community, I've come to deeply believe, is the cure. It does indeed have the power to serve as a sanctuary — to protect, ground and encourage us, not just in extreme circumstances, but also in the face of countless everyday challenges. Support in a community can also give us the strength to forego immediate gratification in favour of choices that uphold shared values, serve the collective good, and generate long-term value.
I'm convinced that it's the strength of our community at The Energy Project which has allowed us to become a truly high-performing team. The safety and trust we feel with one another has freed us to focus our efforts on our mission. We have a small full-time staff — 14 of us, along with another dozen working part-time — but we've been able to work at senior levels in some of the world's largest companies. One reason is that we squander almost no energy on internal politics. We're in this together, including when one or another of us is struggling and needs help.
I've always thought of our core team as a living laboratory for the practices we teach our clients — whether it's the power of renewal, or focusing on one thing at a time, or learning to deal more skillfully with conflict. What I now realise is that I've been overlooking one of the most powerful elements of our work. Each of us is far less likely to succeed by forever pushing to stand out from the pack than by building communities of care and trust committed to raising the bar for everyone. Transformation takes a village. None of us can truly do it alone.
What If You Could Truly Be Yourself at Work? [Harvard Business Review]
Tony Schwartz is the president and CEO of The Energy Project and the author of Be Excellent at Anything. Become a fan of The Energy Project on Facebook and connect with Tony at @TonySchwartz and @Energy_Project.