Address the Heart First, Then Change Workplace Culture
The summer of my sophomore year in college, I took a job as a server at a local burger joint in Florida. At the time, most of my family lived in the same state, except for my great-aunt Marty, who lived in Georgia. She was a headstrong, independent lady and was doing just fine living on her own and watching old cassette tapes of Elvis Presley in her one-bedroom apartment.
Until all of a sudden, she wasn’t fine.
That summer, cancer lit up her body like stars in the night sky.
When we found out, my family immediately made the plan to drive up to Georgia and be with her in the hospital. The only problem was my workplace, which had penciled me in for Saturday. I tried to get a coworker to switch shifts with me to go up and visit Aunt Marty one last time, but this coworker could not find a babysitter on such short notice. When I reached out to my boss and explained the situation, she said she couldn’t give me the day off—it was too much of a rush day for the business—but that I could have Sunday off instead. I felt uncomfortable and uneasy. There was a tugging inside me that I wish I had listened to, but I agreed to work and join my family on Sunday instead. What else could I do?
Aunt Marty didn’t make it to Sunday.
She died on Saturday evening, and my mother and sister were there beside her bed to say their goodbyes while I sat around the restaurant, waiting for a rush that never came.
Today, I carry that story—and the emotions that come with it—around with me in my heart, heavy as a stone. Immovable. After that experience, I learned that nothing could ever trump the high-stakes health, well-being, and aliveness of my family. I made up my mind that no company would ever hold me back from saying my goodbyes to the people that I love.
Work could wait.
The Heart’s Experience Is a Storytelling Experience
Today, that same situation might have played out a little differently. I have the privilege of a flexible and remote work schedule, so for me, pressing pause when I need to doesn’t have the same severity of consequences as someone who has more rigid boundaries around their day. But the reality is that, even if the same scenario happened to me today and I chose to stay at my desk, my head would still be elsewhere. Decisions would be difficult to make, managing others would feel heavy, and the emotional bandwidth required to be present for meetings would take its toll.
The reality is that human beings—who have their own experiences throughout their lives—have all of these hidden pockets of who they are still living beneath the surface.
The one who experiences loss.
The one who experiences chronic illness.
The one who experiences addictions.
The one who experiences anxiety.
The one who experiences childhood trauma.
The one who experiences racism.
We all have stories that live inside of us all the time, much like my own story about my aunt. And whether we are leaders of a company, employees at a job, or freelancers hustling in our own little sphere, we are all stepping into our work with these stories running through our minds. Accompanying our mind is a heart that helps to inform us of everything we experience today. And the heart’s experience is almost always a storytelling experience.
The stories we pick up about any topic—whether it be harassment, work ethic, motivation, or group dynamics—begin in our ordinary world, our childhood. Maybe it’s a bully on the playground or a challenging relationship with a parent. It’s only when we are called away for an adventure—a new career perhaps—and cross the threshold into a new world that we are forced to face certain challenges that begin to change our perspective on any given topic. In this new world of opportunity, we learn the skills to overcome our ordeals and claim victory over who we are and how we relate to one another.
Which means that every single one of us is bringing a heart full of stories to the workplace alongside our head full of knowledge. And that heart deeply impacts how we approach our work—giving and receiving feedback, diversity and inclusion, high performance, leadership, and mentorship—because much of our response to these situations has to do with how we approach the stories we tell ourselves.
“It’s only when we are called away for an adventure—a new career perhaps—and cross the threshold into a new world that we are forced to face certain challenges that begin to change our perspective.”
So if we are telling stories to ourselves all the time, it then begs the question: How would understanding one another’s stories, how far we’ve come, and the superpowers we’ve cultivated throughout our lifetimes change the way we relate to one another? The way we talk to each other? The way we resolve conflicts? The way we perform as a trusted team?
What if we looked at the employees in our company and instead of seeing the scars on their hearts as brokenness, we see them as the reason for their strength? What if all the scary moments we’ve endured are the catalyst for the superpowers we’ve wielded to overcome challenges? What if when we come to work every day, instead of being asked to rely on our heads to overcome workplace challenges, we are encouraged to use our hearts?
I want to be clear: Our heads are extremely powerful places to be. Innovation, determination, and a plethora of other gifts come from the head, but conversations about racism in the workplace will never be transformative when approached from a place of logic. Conversations about reframing criticism will never be relational when approached from a place that is transactional.
We must address the heart’s experience before we can ever make significant change in our homes, our communities, our workplaces, and in the world.
And uncovering our collective stories is one of the best ways to do that.
Storytelling as a Strategic Tool for Culture
Storytelling has the power to heal and transform our whole person by excavating the truth behind our experiences and empowering us with the knowledge of who we are when life throws us in the fire. Storytelling shows us our hearts unarmored. It breaks the chains that have made us think in the same ways for years. It cracks open the corrosive nature of past and present relationships.
Storytelling is more than just a set of numbers. It embodies the individual and shines light on humanity. This kind of work is a strategic tool for culture—sharing our stories and witnessing the stories of others unlocks authenticity that is desperately needed in all of our ecosystems.
Here’s the last thing I’ll say: This work is not just for employees within the workplace. Leaders must also be willing to address the challenges within their hearts before they are able to overcome challenges in the company or create change in the world.
Because even you, leaders, experience loss, childhood trauma, racism and sexism, anxiety, imposter syndrome, chronic illness, and the list goes on.
Even you—especially you—have a heart.