Not long ago, the team of the Harvard Business Manager magazine asked their readers on LinkedIn about which spaces they are missing in times of Corona. The first place that came to my mind was – the company cafeteria. The reason was not that I had been a frequent guest there or that I liked it a lot. Typically, I would rather sit in a far corner, removed from most of the noise of the crowd. There was, however, a trigger event I experienced in this seemingly unlikely spot.
It was a commonplace moment on an ordinary day. I was looking for a seat, carrying my tray. Suddenly, in this mass of people, I realized that all of us, hundreds and thousands, work for the same company! For a second or two, there was a feeling of elation – in the presence of a salad for lunch and a bottle of mineral water. Of course, I did not talk about my exhilaration at that table. This would not have suited the setting. Or would it?
The world of emotions at the workplace
Human connectedness is a most powerful human need. It emerges when an individual is actively engaged with another person, activity, object or environment, resulting in a sense of well-being. Let’s take a look at how this translates to the workplace.
In our job world, emotions such as anger, stress, and vindictive pleasure are “accepted”. However, if you were to say to someone “I feel connected” or, e.g., “grateful”, people would be at a loss – “please don’t say things like that at the workplace, okay?” After that lunch, I asked friends about occasions when they felt connected; most of them outlined that cafeterias were certainly not the place for that. This kind of feeling would turn up in extreme situations – during sickness, when their soccer club won the title, when they moved residencies, or when they lost a loved one. Be it in our highs or lows, in routine or adventure – connectedness plays an essential role in our lives. It constitutes, by itself, our life, stated the philosopher Erich Fromm in the 20th century. In the spontaneous realization of his or her self, man or woman unites anew with the world. ” If this is so, why do we hardly talk about that with colleagues, in our job context?
Last summer, I happened to read a bestseller by Lori Gottlieb, a U.S. author and psychotherapist. In this book, she explores issues which are very much her own; and she often mentions that her patients are embarrassed to speak about their fears, or to cry. “Will you recognize my vulnerability – will you recognize what makes my existence human?”. I wonder whether this also holds true for connectedness. Do we choose not to speak about our need to connect because this would mean admitting that we are vulnerable, that we feel isolated without feeling connected with others?
Fromm summarizes: Man/woman sees him/herself confronted – at all times and in all eras – with the same question: how he/she can overcome disconnectedness and achieve union. Is this feeling of feeling connected a privilege in our lives – illustrated by the questionable term “work-life balance”?
Better together than being lonely
Have you heard the saying “Thank God it’s Friday”? This separation of work and leisure is deeply rooted in us. However, we live in both worlds. We do not stow away our human characteristics in the closet – like a suit – and take it out when we arrive back home. Feelings are with us at work, like it or not! Long since evidence has emerged that people who have a feeling of well-being are more productive. This is why companies spend budgets on team building events, they place drinking fountains in office corridors to encourage chance encounters, they arrange soccer matches for their team members, and give away T-shirts with the company logo around Christmas. “We belong together” – this is the message aimed at an outside audience, and much more importantly, to the people within the company.
It is what’s within us that makes us connect
Is there a way to produce that feeling of connectedness? Or is it rather something that develops all by itself – or not, similar to love? I asked this question a female participant in a coffee break during a seminar. Her business card carried a PhD title. Her answer sounded somewhat blunt: “Do you work in production? ‘To produce‘ sounds so mechanical.” I decided to invest more energy in this topic, and I learned the following:
Two views on connectedness are widespread. One is that we can induce it through actions such as making presents, using prepared positive phrases, etc.; the other view defines it as a matter of pure coincidence which may happen to someone or not. There is a third view that can be found throughout eras, continents, and minds – it defines connectedness as work, as work on oneself. The idea behind this is that we are the only filter for anything which emanates from, as well as enters, ourselves. It is us who concede closeness or distance, love or hate, good or bad luck.
If I was to create key phrases relating to this realization, they would be “a sense of oneself, a sense of others, looking for things we have in common instead of those that differentiate us” … and a simple, but difficult finding: humans are not connected by perfection. Perfection is an illusion which isolates us. Instead, we are connected through our human limitations. They constitute our being human – in our private as well as in our job worlds.
What are the experiences you have had relating to connectedness at the workplace? How important is this feeling for your mental health? Please tell me about your personal stories and your thoughts.