You know that cool (or eerie) feeling when two disparate events collide in a way that multiplies their individual impact? That’s what happened to me last week when I turned on the radio.
I was on my way home from attending a discussion on supportive practices aimed at working parents. A panel of experts had presented a solid case for making work less disruptive for employees and their families. And I sensed that I wasn’t the only one who had been impacted by the discussion—in terms of what it could mean for others, as well as how it had already affected me.
I was thinking about a situation when I had been denied on-the-job support as a working parent. It was a long time ago, but it had been a defining moment in my career. I was revisiting that when I turned on the radio. A reporter was discussing a story about crying at work. She had interviewed someone who described a work situation where she was new, inexperienced, under informed, and poorly connected with internal allies. She ended up crying in the bathroom on a regular basis. No one noticed.
The recognition hit me like a gut punch. That was how I felt! That is how we have all felt when the pressure—to learn and do and care for and assist and improve and coordinate and excel—has seemed greater than our ability to meet the challenge. It’s the feeling of needing support.
We all want to feel supported at work. And while it may sound like a luxury, supportive behavior is actually a critical ingredient in sustaining motivation.
In general, our workplaces aren’t all that supportive. When you want a boost of confidence, you’re more likely to turn to a friend than a colleague. If you’re expecting bad news, you’d rather be in your car than your conference room. And if you need a minute to decompress, you’ll choose tears in the bathroom over tears in the break room.
Let’s face it: when we think of emotional safe places, work is not at the top of the list. Even in the best of situations, going to work generally means donning the armor, hiding our fears, and censoring what we say and do. In other words, we have to put a lot of energy into just showing up, which means we have less energy left for performing our jobs and enjoying our lives.
So what can we do about it? How can we support others without needing more support ourselves?
We can contribute to more supportive work cultures by making three small shifts.
- Notice, listen, and ask
Pay attention to those around you. Who is faced with some type of acute or ongoing disadvantage? Who seems to be struggling? Be curious and wonder about those around you. Notice and acknowledge changes in co-worker behaviors. Ask questions to assess their needs.
e.g., It looks like you’ve been the last one to leave the office lately. Tell me about that.
- Provide what you can
If you’re one of the leaders of your organization, consider what policies and systems you may be able to implement. If your value is at the individual level, figure out what you have to offer. Sometimes the smallest gesture can be enough to replenish the energy reserves of someone who is struggling.
e.g., How can I help you get that done?
- Be vulnerable
Sharing your own challenges can be a helpful way of validating others’ experiences while also giving them permission to share their own. Instead of negative conversations that dis-empower, try to demonstrate and encourage resilience. And do your best to share only what will serve you and the other party well.
e.g., When my mom was sick, it seemed like all I did was work and take care of her. It was exhausting. Surprisingly, it ended up showing me that I was capable of more than I expected.
As you contribute to a supportive work environment, you empower others to do the same. Noticing what our co-workers need, offering help, and demonstrating vulnerability helps set them up for success and make it more likely they’ll be there the next time we are the ones who need support.