This weekend, I went on a retreat with 10 other women to reflect on our experiences in 2011 and plan for what we wanted to do in 2012. It was a fabulous experience that I'll be writing more about.
One of the most eye-opening realizations I had in our weekend away was the profound LACK of meaningful conversations at work and in our personal lives.
Sure, we're talking all the time about transactions and meetings and getting work done. But we aren't talking about the meat underneath, the stuff that is really bothering people or that inspires people--the stuff that makes us tick. What became clear to me in our weekend away was that there is a HUNGER for this kind of conversation in our work and personal lives.
In a work context, it's easy to say that there isn't time or that work isn't the place for this kind of talk. But I would argue that work is exactly the place right now where we need to be having deeper discussions. It is the lack of meaningful conversation that is draining us of our creativity and commitment.
According to a recent Gallup Poll, the majority of US workers are disengaged from their work--that is, 2/3 of American workers are not "involved in and enthusiastic about their work and contributing to their organizations in a positive manner." I would argue that part of the reason for this disengagement is because we are not talking about the deeper, more systemic issues that are going on in the workplace and what we can do about them. We spend our days talking about the work, but do nothing to really get at what's going on underneath that leads to those undercurrents of tension, dissatisfaction and anxiety.
Here's a sampling of some of the things we discussed during our retreat:
- There's a sense that workers are "disposable"--we can put our heart and soul into the work that we do, and it can still result in a pink slip at the end of the day. That leaves people wondering if it's worth it to do anything other than put in their time.
- So many of us are being under-utilized or mis-utilized at work. We have some amazing gifts and talents, but instead of work playing to our strengths, in many cases we are shuttled from one project to another as though we are simply interchangeable cogs in a machine, rather than human beings with real passions and strengths. This is demoralizing and de-humanizing. And let's not lie to ourselves. It has an impact.
- The employment contract is starting to feel extremely one-sided. We are expected to give our all, putting in the long hours and demonstrating the "commitment" to our work. Many of us sacrifice family, friends and personal renewal to keep those commitments. But we don't see the same commitment from employers, who remind us that "employment at will," means we can be let go at any time. I don't belive that this is sustainable in the long-term. We are already paying the price in terms of disengagement, which costs companies billions.
- Much as we don't want to admit it, gender issues still impact the workplace. We may have curbed the most virulent forms of sexual harassment, but the more subtle influences of patriarchy are still alive and well, influencing many of our beliefs about the workplace and "acceptable" forms of behavior there. This is a trap and a problem for both men AND women.
What came through loud and clear for me is that for many people, it's not safe to have deep conversations about issues like this at work. Yet it is these unspoken issues that are having a profound influence on how we engage with our work and on our relationships with colleagues.
One thing I know is this--when we don't address the elephant in the room, he keeps getting bigger and bigger. We're forced to move furniture and shrink up against the walls in order to make room for him. Pretty soon there's little room to even breathe. But if we started acknowledging and discussing what was going on, we could ease him out, making space for people again.
So what meaningful conversations are you NOT having at work? And what can you do about it?