“What feelings and thoughts are coming up for you right now?”
This was the emotionally-loaded question that I started our team meeting with last Monday. One by one, each of us shared how we felt over the weekend, what laid heavy on our hearts, shed some tears, and laid out every vulnerable thought and feeling. As each of us spoke, the other team members listened. No one interrupted. No one offered solutions or opinions. We sat in silence for parts of the call. We weren’t uncomfortable with the tears. And we listened without judgment as each team member showed up raw and vulnerable.
We spent nearly two hours connecting on this level. We finished our call with a quick ten-minute check in about the week. Out of our 4 totals hours in meetings together last week, nearly 50% of it was spent holding space to process what was happening in the world and our reaction to it. Some might look at this and see it as a waste of time or label it unproductive. But from my point of view, this time was necessary, important, and valuable.
I realize that I don’t often talk about the company I’m building and how we’re trying to do things differently. For years I worked in traditional corporate structures dreaming about what I would do differently when I owned my own company. For those building teams or companies, I want to challenge how we think about productivity and what supporting your team members looks like always, but especially now during these times of heightened stress and uncertainty.
For the past three months we have experienced significant and prolonged exposures to stress. First with Covid, then amplified with the racial injustices. Consistently we are hearing from our clients that they can see their team members and leaders struggling to manage emotions and corresponding stress. When we facilitate sessions on emotional resilience and ask people how they are really feeling, we consistently hear “Anxious, nervous, exhausted, disoriented”. When I ask them to raise their hand if they have experienced increased fatigue, poor sleep, emotional outbursts, nearly everyone raises their hands.
Whether we want to acknowledge the stress or not, whether we are comfortable with the stress or not, it is in the room. Not only is it in the room, but it is impacting productivity, innovation, and collaboration. As I’ve shared numerous times in conversations lately, as a leader if there is something impacting our ability to show up at our best personally and to serve the greater work, I want to name it, understand it, and help people work through it.
Why is it important for us to hold space for our humanness? On a biological level, the more we know someone, the more likely we are to trust them. If we only know our team members as employees, we only know part of them. We know them through transactions. But they are humans, they are complex, and they are more than an employee. Honoring the whole person in your team members is a powerful way to build high trust relationships.
From a productivity standpoint, we accomplished a lot when we gave space. These are not tangible items to cross off a list and won’t show up in a project management timeline, but they are intrinsic to building a team with high psychological safety. We processed something that was in the room. We connected through our vulnerability. We got clear about how we can show up for our community. We reinforced our company culture (remember, culture is what you do and what you talk about with regularity.) The culture of SNoW Co. is that everyone will be heard, you can show up as you are, we won’t fix or minimize your problems, and you can share as much or as little as you want. To us, this wasn’t a waste of time. Rather, it is the work.
It would be easy to say that we don’t have the time to do this work. It would be easy to collapse the space we held last week and focus on traditional productivity and bottom lines. And looking at the numbers, one could make a case for that. Like so many organizations our company has been hit by COVID. But we’re choosing to double down on this work. We’re choosing to honor our human complexity. Because we’re a company of humans who support humans.
For those of you who are thinking “Yeah but Sarah, I value revenue, productivity, and innovation. I don’t have time for emotions.” Companies absolutely need those for survival. And what we also know is that productivity, innovation, efficiency, and collaboration cannot thrive when people feel stress, but they do when they feel safe. As leaders we have the power to influence both. Which will you choose?