Creating Intentional Communities in our Workplaces
By Karla McLaren
All workers deserve to be treated as valued equals, and to work in safe, humane, and emotionally well-regulated workplaces. But this disastrous pandemic has shown us that this isn’t the reality, and many of us are viewing the workplace with new eyes now. Many people are choosing to continue working from home (if they can) and many businesses are struggling to find people who are willing to put up with low wages and substandard treatment; we’ve seen the workplace for what it is, and many of us are rebelling.
Disasters will do that; they’ll uncover what’s true about relationships, families, groups, workplaces, governments, nature, and the world. Though they’re shocking and painful, disasters can tell us what’s true. If we pay attention, we can rebuild after disasters with a new awareness of our problems and a new dedication to recovery and healing, to the protection of nature and all living things, and to the soul of the world.
During this disaster, I wrote a book about the necessity and power of emotions in the workplace (The Power of Emotions at Work: Accessing the Vital Intelligence in Your Workplace). I was so excited to write about the brilliance of emotions and how they contribute to the health and success of every social group and every workplace. Certainly, I was aware of the many serious troubles in the workplace, but I was so happy to be able to share my vision of a healthy new workplace and explore the ideas I’ve gathered in many decades of studying and consulting in the workplace. Then, the Covid-19 pandemic began – and the extensive troubles in the workplace became all too clear to everyone.
This pandemic has daylighted what had been swept under the rug of our constant activity and productivity. And we’ve started to ask the hard questions: Are we cared for as workers? Or are we replaceable cogs in an uncaring machine? Is our health and safety considered essential? Or do our employers have to be publicly shamed into treating us with even a minimum level of respect? Does our workplace deserve our time and dedication? Or have we been throwing good effort into bad businesses for no reason?
We’re seeing the dehumanizing story of the workplace very clearly now. But there is another story underneath this one that can help us understand how we got here, and how we can learn to create humane and functional workplaces with the support of something we all have but have been taught to ignore: our emotions.
The Unworkable Idea at the Center of the Workplace
Most of us have been fed the absurd idea that the workplace is a rare setting where emotions are unwelcome, illogical, unprofitable, or even unprofessional. We’ve also been taught that people can and should be treated as emotionless cogs in a machine, as numbers in a spreadsheet, or as consumers and cheerleaders of corporate vision statements. But what has this done to us?
I studied research that clearly shows the workplace to be a five-alarm fire of psychological and physical harm that affects more than 60 percent of all workplaces. This research, which I gathered across countries and across time, doesn’t point to problems with individual types of workers or industries; it points to widespread and fundamental problems at the very center of our workplace model. Or perhaps I should say at the foundation of our workplace model, because these problems stem from a terrible decision that segregated us from ourselves and undermined our workplaces: we fooled ourselves into believing that emotions had no value at work.
We wrongly thought of emotional skills as “soft skills” and kicked the emotions out of our factories, our offices, our workplaces, our boardrooms, and our working lives (or we thought we did) – and in so doing, we created an inhumane and emotionally unlivable environment that doesn’t truly work for anyone. As such, we haven’t learned how to make the workplace a healthy social and emotional environment where each of us can do our best work in an atmosphere of respect, professionalism, kindness, laughter, and community.
Removing emotions from the workplace (or blaming people for their natural emotional responses to unhealthy workplaces) was a wildly irrational idea that never worked anyway. Emotions are everywhere in the workplace – they never left because they cannot leave – they’re essential to every aspect of what it means to be human and what it means to work. Emotions are inseparable from human beings and human groups.
Emotions Are Vital Aspects of Thinking, Acting, and Working
People once believed that emotions were the opposite of rationality, or that they were lower than or inferior to our allegedly logical processes. But decades of research on emotions and the brain have overturned those outdated beliefs, and we understand now that emotions are indispensable parts of rationality, logic, and consciousness itself. In fact, emotions contain their own internal logic, and they help us orient ourselves successfully within our social environments. Emotions help us attach meaning to data, they help us understand ourselves and others, and they help us identify problems and opportunities. Emotions don’t get in the way of rationality; they lead the way, because they’re vital to everything we think and everything we do.
When we can learn how to listen to emotions (ours and everyone else’s) as uniquely intelligent carriers of information, we can learn how to build healthy and well-regulated social and emotional environments at work – not by ignoring or silencing emotions (you can’t), but by listening to them closely, learning their language, and creating a communal set of social and emotional skills that everyone can rely on. This work is not difficult at all, but it’s unusual in an environment that wrongly treats emotions as soft, irrational, or unprofessional – and wrongly blames individuals for their normal and necessary responses to profoundly unhealthy workplace environments.
Building a Healthy Workplace with the Help of Emotions
So, how do we move from this tragically failed model – which is all that many of us have ever known – to one that helps us do our best work in a healthy, emotionally well-regulated, and functional environment?
The answer lives in our workplace communities and in our emotional responses to the workplace as it is. The answer is in our workplace already. It’s staring us right in the face; it’s the emotions! Luckily, we don’t have to do anything special to welcome emotions into the workplace (or even to make room for them), because emotions are and always have been in the workplace.
All of the things we need to create healthy, efficient, and worthwhile workplaces are there already, and while our current workplace model is inhumane, most of us were never fooled by it, and our emotions certainly weren’t fooled by it either. They’ve been reacting and responding appropriately to the trouble all along. The keys and the tools we need to cultivate healthy workplaces are already there.
Cultivating Emotionally Well-Regulated Social Structures
Each of us is unique and our needs vary, but over the decades I’ve identified key features that emotionally healthy relationships, workplaces, and social structures share. Your interior emotional awareness and emotional skills are a vital part of your health and well-being, but one of the most important supports for your emotional health is to be a part of emotionally well-regulated relationships and social structures.
Well-regulated social structures create healthy environments for people and their emotions, and they help individuals and relationships flourish. These social structures can be partner relationships, family groups, work environments, therapeutic relationships, or support groups, and though the setup of each social structure will be unique and based on the needs of the individuals within them, there are broad similarities.
Here are nine aspects that emotionally well-regulated social structures share. These aspects should be present and available to anyone and everyone in the social structure, regardless of position, seniority, or power:
1. Emotions are spoken of openly, and people have workable emotional vocabularies.
2. Mistakes and conflicts are addressed without avoidance, hostility, or blaming.
3. You can be honest about mistakes and difficult issues without being blamed or shunned.
4. Your emotions and sensitivities are noticed and respected.
5. You notice and respect the emotions and sensitivities of others.
6. Your emotional awareness and skills are openly requested and respected.
7. You openly request and respect the emotional awareness and skills of others.
8. You and others feel safe enough and supported enough to speak the truth even if it might destabilize relationships or processes.
9. The social structure welcomes you, nourishes you, and revitalizes you.
If you have one or more of these emotionally well-regulated relationships or structures in your life already, congratulations! Your social structure is your ecosystem, and its health directly affects your health and well-being. If your relationships and social structures are healthy, supportive, respectful, and revitalizing, then your life and your work will feel, if not exactly easy, then at least doable, hopeful, and worthwhile.
But if the social structures in your life are draining, unsupportive, emotionally destabilizing, or filled with conflict, then your life and your work will be much harder than they need to be – and your emotions will react accordingly. For instance, you may find yourself disengaging or feeling frustrated, fed up, sad, angry, depressed, and so on. You may find that you’re losing your motivation, seeking distractions and comfort anywhere you can find them, heading toward burnout, and planning your escape. As you should.
All of these healthy emotional responses to unhealthy social structures are necessary, and it’s completely natural for you and your emotions to essentially go on strike when your social conditions are unsupportive or abusive. In fact, I’d be deeply concerned about you (and your emotions) if you didn’t react and protest. Your emotional reactions to unhealthy situations not only protect your mental and emotional health, but they can help you identify problems and understand exactly what’s wrong. In addition, each of your emotional reactions can inform you in a unique way, because each of your emotions contains a specific type of intelligence that helps you understand your world.
Emotions aren’t the problem and they never were the problem; emotions point to the problem. Our emotions help us understand the world, respond to the situations we find ourselves in, and figure out how best to respond. Our job is not to suppress emotions, manage them, blame individuals for having them, distract ourselves from them, throw techniques or meditation practices on top of them, or spew them all over the place. Our job is to learn to listen to emotions, respect them, work directly with them, and access their irreplaceable genius so that we can build healthy social structures that work – whether we’re working from home, in a business with three workers, or in an organization with thousands of workers. We all deserve to work in healthy social and emotional environments, and we’re all a vital part of building and sustaining them.
Through the lens of this emotionally well-regulated social structure, we can plot a course toward intentional communities: healthy social and emotional ecosystems where people and projects can finally thrive.