Being a human at work

Photo by Rock'n Roll Monkey on Unsplash
Photo by Rock’n Roll Monkey on Unsplash

By Emily Johnston, co-founder of Unity Effect.

A few months ago I lost someone very close to me.

It was a total shock, completely out of the blue.

One day I was living my normal life, running our social business Unity Effect in Bonn, Germany, and the next thing I knew I was sitting on a plane to Australia. I dropped literally everything.

Six weeks later I arrived back to Germany and began the slow process of returning to ‘normality’ — or rather, to my new normality.

I had just spent six intense weeks of being deep in the process of grieving and being in that weird — and almost comforting — grief-cocoon, where no-one expects you to do — or be — anything remotely close to normal.

I was scared of returning and confronting other people’s expectations of me to be normal again, of having to pretend to be ok. And indeed, for the other people who were affected, this was largely the case. Of course they received support, but overall there was a certain pressure to ‘function normally’ and just get on with things.

For me, however, the experience was quite different.

Bringing our whole selves to work

The culture we have created at Unity Effect places a huge value on bringing our whole selves to work.

For us it’s important to recognise that we are not one person at work and another at home: we bring all of us to the office with us each day.

We spend so much of our time at work, why would we want it any other way?

Within our small team, we’ve all been pretty open with each other since the beginning — and to be fair, starting a business is such an intense process that it’s pretty impossible not to be open and honest with each other, or at least in my experience it makes things a hell of a lot easier.

Over the year and a half that we’ve been working together, we’ve gradually built up our capacities for vulnerability, transparency and honesty and have even built these thing into our team routines, with practices like having check-ins and taking buddy walks.

Nevertheless, coming back to work as both a co-founder and a grieving person felt like having arrived at a new level of vulnerability that felt somewhat scary.

Funnily enough, actually showing and sharing my emotions wasn’t the hard part.

It was confronting my own expectations about how I should be and what I should be capable of doing which was a challenge. Because the fact is that at the beginning I didn’t feel very capable at all. Even doing small things felt epic.

Yet no-one in the team actually expected me to be capable more than I could be.

And not having this external pressure, or someone else to blame for expecting me to function, meant acknowledging that I was pressuring myself.

Learning to accept support

It was not the first or last time that someone from our team had to leave unexpectedly and the rest of us needed to pick up the pieces. I knew from those experiences that our internal team system is extremely resilient and can deal with these kind of shocks.

The fact that we work in a transparent way plays a big part in that (and using self-organisation tools like Scrumban certainly helps). And when push comes to shove, we can make decisions to focus on what matters and drop the rest.

I also knew that when I had been the one holding things together, I had actually felt grateful to be in the position to be able to support the other person. Yet being able to receive that support was more challenging than I thought.

For me, it meant facing up to the fear of not being a valuable team member if I felt I wasn’t doing or contributing enough to the organisation. Getting stuck in that story meant I couldn’t appreciate the fact that I had amazing colleagues who care about me and want to support me.

You wanna know how I got unstuck?

By talking with my teammates about it.

Question Time: the power of sharing the stories we’re making up

Creating the space to ask each other the questions that are weighing on us is part of a practice we created in our team. We call it — very creatively — Question Time.

It’s pretty simple. For example, one of us in the team once asked us the question: do you guys think of me badly because I come to the office in the morning later than you? The feeling of guilt for arriving later than everyone else had been weighing on them day in and day out for months.

By simply asking us how we perceived this behaviour, we had the chance to say: actually that doesn’t bother any of us. We could say: we are all free to decide when to come to the office and we trust that you do your fair share of the work. Even if we had been bothered by it, it would have given us the chance to air the issue and talk it through.

We spend so much time and mental energy caught up the stories we make up about what other people think about us. If we simply ask them, we can start to let these stories go.

This can be hugely powerful, yet of course, putting yourself out there and asking these questions — even the ones which may seem small on the surface — takes a lot of courage and trust in both the others and yourself.

Taking responsibility: Carrying our own baggage

This kind of transparency in the workplace, and indeed in most situations, might sound pretty radical. And if you’re asking yourself if this is some weird group therapy stuff, my answer would be no.

We are not here to carry each other’s baggage or resolve each other’s issues.

Yet we can start to recognise when these things — our patterns, our triggers, our stories — are showing up and influencing our reactions, and practice taking responsibility for our own emotional wellbeing.

This is so much healthier than blaming others when we are triggered, or feeling judged or under pressure — whether it’s happening consciously or not.

By diving into these tough and courageous conversations together we avoid so much conflict, misunderstanding and weird internal politics — within ourselves and in the team.

And we actually get a lot of work done, maybe even more.

Just ask yourself: do you do your best work when you’re afraid of what someone else is thinking of you?

When you’re afraid of upsetting the internal politics or pissing off the wrong person?

When you’re afraid to share your ideas, opinions or real thoughts on something?

When you’re spending your energy pretending you’re ok when you’re actually not, or you’re distracted by something major happening in your life?

There’s so much power and value in bringing our whole selves to work — the challenging parts along with all the beautiful, creative, joyful parts.

It’s about allowing honesty, vulnerability and openness. Allowing and seeing the beauty in the tough emotions. And allowing ourselves to be imperfect and show our imperfection, because after all, we’re only human.

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