Last week, my company, The Energy Project, held an offsite for our employees. On the second day, we brought in two outside facilitators to help us focus on how we work together.
The facilitators had been trained in something called the "Sanctuary Model." It was created by a psychiatrist named Sandra Bloom to help organizations — most of them in the mental health field — build communities grounded in communicating openly and honestly, listening deeply to one another and taking truly shared responsibility for conflict resolution and problem solving.
The Sanctuary model intersects with an idea Daniel Goleman put in his book Social Intelligence: "Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are almost as powerful as those to our very survival."
The implications of this insight are profound. The more we feel devalued — and we all do at various times, to varying degrees — the more energy we spend defending and restoring our value, and the less energy we have available to create value. Unfortunately, this issue rarely gets addressed in the workplace.
The first question our facilitators asked each of us to answer, after acquainting us with Sanctuary model, was incredibly simple: "How are you feeling?" That's a very different question than the standard "How are you?" we all ask each other every day.
When people stop and reflect, and then say, one at a time, how each of them are really feeling, it opens up a deeper level of dialogue. It creates a wholly different level of intimacy and connection by cutting to the chase.
What followed was a remarkable interchange that went on for several hours. As the leader of our company, I was by far the most frequent focus of what people were feeling. Their comments largely revolved around ways that my words and actions had made them feel uncomfortable or destabilized, or devalued.
It was painful to hear, and humbling. I've always been very aware of ways I fall short. Lest I miss them, my younger daughter, who works at our company, is very quick to let me know whenever she feels I've fallen short, especially in the way I've treated someone.
But nothing compares in impact to having people tell you what they're feeling, directly, without pulling any punches. I'm not certain how exactly our facilitators made it safe enough for that to occur but that's the magic, and they did.
Over the years, I've spoken to thousands of people about how easily our value can be threatened. I underestimated how true that was even in our own company, and how I myself had contributed, without fully recognizing my impact.
We each have an infinite capacity for self-deception, and here was mine.
To my surprise, I didn't feel defensive in the face of people's comments. I instinctively sensed it was healthy for them to air feelings that had been bottled up and were getting in the way of their feeling safer and more secure with me, and at work. The more I simply listened, the more people began taking responsibility for ways in which they, too, might have contributed to the conflicts we were discussing.
A core premise of the Sanctuary work is that the best place to resolve differences among people and to create trust is in the community. This is a radical notion in most organizations, where conflict avoidance is the norm. Taking it on is uncomfortable, especially at first, and it requires a significant investment of time in an era when none of us feel we have enough.
But if organizations are going to thrive in the face of relentlessly rising demands, we all need ongoing opportunities to safely address conflict in the workplace, and to restore our sense of value when it gets disrupted.
Nearly every person at our offsite left feeling lighter, and more hopeful about the way we work together. I'm committed now to holding these community meetings at regular intervals. I'm convinced they'll generate more value — in both senses of the word.