May 4, 2022

The Many Faces at Work: Do You See Them All?

When my boys were young, they loved a book called War Game.

The book describes the Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and English soldiers emerged from their trenches and - for a brief respite from brutal fighting - played soccer in no-man’s land. At the end of the truce, they returned to their respective positions to take up the fight, many to die in the ensuing battles.  

Against the harsh reality of the Great War, Michael Foreman’s lovely picture book taught my children that soldiers have faces - and names, families, hobbies and lives.

In a recent Reflection Point session with a procurement team in a global insurance company, a participant commented that her job rarely lets people see her face. When your job is to be sure that the company has paper clips, she explained, then your job is only noticeable when you fail to buy the paper clips.  As long as they remain plentiful, you are essentially invisible.

Paper clips aside (her job is quite a bit more complex than this), how many people in your organization do you only see when things go wrong?

In most corporate settings, we throw department names around as a proxy for the people who work in them.

  • “I will send the contract to legal.”
  • “I have to reach out to HR.”
  • “My computer is broken - I need to call IT.”

But like the soldiers in my sons’ beloved book, these colleagues have faces and stories, experience and perspectives.

We leave so much on the table when we fold individuals up into the functions they perform. We minimize their contributions and foreclose their opportunity to grow.

We deprive them of a face.

And we deprive the workplace of riches.

The organizations that take the time and make the space to connect colleagues at all levels of the organization find insights, wisdom and talent hiding in plain sight.

A few years ago, Ellen, the Director of Education in a learning organization, partnered with Reflection Point to create a stronger workplace culture. With a multi-building campus, the staff was siloed, by location and by function.

The diverse group included both customer-facing and “back office” colleagues, senior staff and administrative staffers. Among the group, Ellen met a young woman working part time in another part of the organization. Delighted by her thoughtfulness and engagement, she filled a role she’d been looking to fill: her full-time assistant. Ellen has since retired, but her assistant is now the department administrator.  

Talking about stories together “creates a strong sense of community,” said another colleague in the same group. “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 that brings up really interesting points. And John - before I only knew him by name - is now a really good friend.”

The outcomes are tangible - not just because colleagues make new friends or find new jobs. They build stronger networks to navigate the workplace. They forge collaborative paths to accomplish their objectives in a more welcoming environment.

It’s a lot easier and faster to call your friend in IT than to rely on a nameless department when something goes wrong.

In today’s workplace, many essential people are taken for granted or simply not seen. Connecting to them as individuals rather than as part of broader functions takes them out of the shadows and brings their faces into the light.

Image Credit:
Neenu Vimalkumar on Unsplash

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