When my boys were small, they loved a picture book called War Game.
It’s the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and English soldiers emerged from their trenches to play a friendly game of soccer in no-man’s land. Afterward, they picked up their guns and resumed fighting.
Not exactly a happy ending. Nonetheless, this moment of comradery amidst a brutal war taught my children that soldiers are not the faceless fighting machines often portrayed. They are humans with families, passions and lives (a particularly haunting reminder considering the atrocities in the world today).
Everyone has a story. And everyone deserves to be seen. But like those faceless soldiers in the Great War, in the corporate world, many people are reduced to the inhumanity of a function.
In a recent Reflection Point session, a woman commented that her job rarely lets people see her face. She works in procurement for a global insurance company. As she put it, when your job is to be sure that everyone has paper clips, your job is only noticeable when you fail to buy the paper clips. When you do your job, you are essentially invisible.
Paper clips aside, think of all the people in your organization that you only see when things go wrong. And think of how often we refer to the function, and not the person: I’ll send the contract to legal. I have to reach out to HR. My computer is broken – I need to call IT.
When we reduce people to the functions they perform, we minimize their contributions, and we deprive the workplace of rich connections.
Functions often kill inclusion. Realistically, we can’t eliminate them, but we can fix some of the unintended problems they cause. Here are three ways we can work beyond functions to build connected, inclusive workplaces.
- Nurture connections in your organization. Find the contexts and the spaces for people in all corners of the organization to come together - preferably as people rather than just colleagues. It doesn’t have to be work-related. In fact, it’s probably better when it’s not.
A few years ago, Ellen, the Director of Education in a learning organization, partnered with Reflection Point to create a stronger workplace culture through story-based discussions. With a multi-building campus, the staff was siloed, by location and by function. She was seeking to develop intentional collisions among colleagues that barely knew each other so she brought together customer-facing and “back office” colleagues, senior executives and administrative staffers. Gathering colleagues who had never sat in a meeting together leveled the playing field and provided richness and dimension to their conversations.
- Cultivate collective intelligence. When we truly “see” the colleagues we work with, we foster relationships that lead to creative innovation and authentic inclusion. But it has to be more than just a happy hour or a social gathering. Nurturing workplace relationships requires a concerted effort to build collective skills: listening with humility, asking good questions, challenging assumptions, disagreeing with respect and widening the circle of empathy.
In broadening the circle of colleagues she invited to the discussions, Ellen met (for the first time) a young woman working part time in another part of the organization. Impressed by her thoughtfulness and engagement, Ellen offered her a role she’d been looking to fill: her full-time assistant. Ellen has since retired, but her assistant is now the department administrator.
- Change the narrative. As an organizational practice, stop referring to people by the functions they fill. This seems simple, but it requires intention and persistence - first by leaders to model the change. It’s an effort, but one that will pay off.
Ellen’s colleague said it well: “Now when I see people I don’t normally work with, I am more than just ‘Ken the IT guy’ meeting them over their broken computer.” It’s a two-way street, he added. “Ellen isn’t just ‘Ellen in education,’ she’s a real person who brings up really interesting points. And John - before I only knew him by name - is now a really good friend.”
The organizations that take the time and make the space to connect colleagues at all levels will find insights, wisdom and talent hiding in plain sight.
The outcomes are tangible - not just because colleagues make new friends or find new jobs. They build stronger networks to navigate the workplace and the inevitable issues that arise. They forge collaborative paths to get things done more efficiently.
It’s a lot easier and faster to call your friend (who happens to work in IT) than to rely on a nameless department when something goes wrong.
In today’s workplaces, many essential people are taken for granted, overlooked or excluded. If you truly want to build a more inclusive workplace, it starts with connection. Like those soldiers on the soccer field, connecting people as individuals rather than “just” the job they do, takes them out of the shadows – bringing their faces (and their valuable contributions) into the light.