For several weeks this quote — attributed to Plato, among others — has been rolling around in my head. A significant number of people I know have been struggling with one issue or another in their lives.
In the workplace, we rarely share what's going on beneath the surface. At most companies, the unspoken expectation is that you park your emotional life at the door, put on your game face, and keep things light and professional. In short, you bring a part of yourself to work and try to suppress the rest.
But at what cost — including to productivity? The more preoccupied we are with emotions we can't express, the less focus we bring to our work.
As the CEO of a small but fast-growing company, I'm spending more and more of my time focused on our internal community — how people are feeling and how we're interacting with one another. I'm convinced that how we take care of ourselves, and each other, profoundly influences how well we serve our clients.
The problem, I've learned, is that when strong feelings can't be acknowledged, they fester, and get acted out, often in passive aggressive ways. Over time, they drain energy, individually and organizationally.
With all that in mind, we decided to focus a recent company offsite on giving our people an opportunity simply to talk openly about themselves. The goal was to improve communication, decrease misunderstanding and free up positive energy.
The most fundamental emotional need human beings share is to feel safe, so we built the day around having our team members reflect on and talk about what makes them feel safe and unsafe at work, especially with one another.
To facilitate this discussion, we used a tool called the Enneagram — a personality typing system akin to Myers-Briggs, but for my money, much richer, more penetrating and more practically useful. The Enneagram posits that there are nine separate personality types. Each one is marked by a central defense or preoccupation — a specific lens through which each of us reflexively and narrowly views the world, in order to feel safe.
Type one, for example, derives a sense of safety above all from trying to be perfect; Type eight from staying in control; Type three from being successful: Type two from being generous and giving. Each type tends to be excessively focused on its primary need, and to feel endangered when that need isn't fully met.
Most of our team members were already familiar with the Enneagram and had typed themselves; for the others we gave them the book The Enneagram by Helen Palmer, which provides a rich description of the nine types and makes a great deal of psychological understanding highly accessible.
It was an extraordinary day for several reasons. First, awareness by itself opens doors. In understanding the predictable patterns of each type, we each had multiple "ah ha" moments, such as recognizing the six's acute sensitivity to danger, or the seven's need to keep everything light and positive.
Using the Enneagram made it possible to operate on a level playing field, without judgment. No type is superior to any other, and that helped each of us feel more comfortable exploring our blind spots and limitations, along with our gifts and strengths. We did our learning as a community, and everyone participated, to one degree or another.
Truly understanding the struggles and the world views of others makes it easier to feel empathy for them, and to hold their value, even when they interpret the world very differently than we do. For me, recognizing that one colleague — a three — gets a sense of safety from feeling successful at each step of any process was very helpful. So was understanding why another colleague — an eight — has such a high need to feel on top of every detail where most details make my eyes glaze over.
This isn't easy work. We had the advantage of a team that includes many people who have already done considerable self-exploration. Even so, acknowledging any level of vulnerability is challenging. By the end of the day, we all felt drained — but also exhilarated that we had gotten to know each other so much better, and we could more easily accept and even appreciate our differences. Even the most skeptical among us felt it was a rewarding use of our time.
The goal of getting people to talk about what makes them feel safe — or unsafe — is not to push them to share feelings they're not comfortable sharing. Rather it's to invite them to learn more about themselves, and to develop emotional skills that are critical to performance — among them self-awareness, empathy, and resilience. Since we're all fighting a difficult battle, why not take it on together?