Putting what matters "in the center"

I’ve been fortunate to have an interesting career. It’s taken me to some unexpected places, and I’ve learned a lot about ways we can show up along the way. Early on, I learned a lesson that has stayed with me: what we center in our work is critical. It’s critical in how we experience our work. Perhaps more important, it’s critical in how we encounter each other.

The specifics of the job I had when this lesson presented itself aren’t important. That said, it was a mission-driven organization that required demanding hours — it wasn’t unusual for us to work an 80-hour week. In fact, I worked over 100 hours in a week on multiple occasions. It also wasn’t unusual to encounter people who only thought about the work, and who pretty much worked 24/7. I watched person after person burn out, sometimes within weeks of being hired. It was pretty brutal.

In the first months of being in this job (which, by the way, I was definitely passionate about, which will help explain where I ended up), I encountered superiors who pushed me to always do more. I remember telling one of them that I’d go talk to the person they wanted me to track down as soon as I grabbed a sandwich. It was 7pm, and I hadn’t eaten all day. “Are you saying you’re willing to risk not being able to reach them for a sandwich?” Yeah, that was his response. In each of the places I had to travel to for this job, I encountered more of these high-pressure managers. We had so much to do, we can’t wait to get it done. Go. This was a culture of get it done at all costs.

You can probably see where this is going. Within a year, I hit a wall. I was falling apart. All the working, the traveling, the late nights, the early mornings took a toll. Too much coffee. Too much Red Bull. Unhealthy eating. It was doing me in. I fell into a deep depression and struggled to do the simplest things. A coworker who had become a friend encouraged me to talk to my boss. “She’ll understand,” this friend told me. “Trust me.” Thing is, this boss, who was well loved in our organization, wasn’t one of these more more more types. She worked her butt off, and people worked their butt off for her. But something about her was different. I went to talk to her.

She took me to lunch, and I spilled my guts. She listened. Really listened. She was fully with me. When I finished speaking, she looked at me with kind eyes and told me her story. Of burnout and being overworked. Of collapse. Of not being able to go any further. She looked at me and said, “I get it. Let’s figure out what to do together.” We talked about plans, about what was possible, about what I wanted. It was amazing. She stood up for me with some people, made arrangements, put me on a new work plan. Got me a reasonable schedule. Helped me get the help I needed. She may very well have saved my life.

I’m not so sure this is all that unusual. Yes, the conditions were extreme. But I think the underlying issue is far more common than we realize. The thing that gets into our cultures and drives us to do more. And more. And more. The thing that leads us to burnout, and unhealthy stress, not to mention what we tend to call “lack of engagement.”

And what is this thing that drove the intensity? It’s simple. It’s what we centered: getting the job done at all costs. We had goals. We had to achieve them. There were quotas. We had to meet them. We were in a very competitive environment, and if we didn’t “win,” someone else would. There was no time for us to consider an alternative. The irony is that I believed in this. In some ways, so did my boss. She believed in what we were doing with a passion I saw few meet.

But she held the work very differently than most of us did. She centered the health and well-being of the people she worked with. Dare I say, she centered care.

We could say this another way: she put humans first.

I was centering what pretty much everyone around me was centering. The winning. I was centering what others told me to get done. I was centering a transaction. And why wouldn’t I? It’s just the way things are, right?

And this, I think, is a big part of what we are up against. It’s just the way things are. But it’s not working. Perhaps it never did.

There are shifts happening in the world of work. The decisions we make during this time are likely to impact the “way things are” for years to come. I believe we’re being called to clarify what we center. By choosing just the work, we will get a certain outcome. And there is no doubt that some will choose that.

But if we center people – if we put humans first – we can expect an entirely different outcome. We can expect an outcome that contains greater meaning. An outcome we can be proud of. An outcome we can actually live with.

The thing is, putting people in the center doesn’t mean we are giving up on getting things done. We aren’t giving up on outcomes. My boss wasn’t saying, “It doesn’t matter if we lose. I don’t care.” No, she was saying the opposite. That it’s possible to achieve our goals, to get our work done, but only if we are around to do it. How can I help if I’ve burned out?

Productivity. Efficiency. Profit. Return on Investment. Yes, these things are important. But must we center them? What might the impact on these if we put what’s meaningful in the center? If we put humans first?

There’s one more thing I feel called to speak to here. My boss wasn’t holding this perspective as some sort of workplace initiative. It was who she was. One of the most significant takeaways in this for me is that in order put humans first, it has to come from within — from who we are and from caring about who others are. This requires being honest with ourselves about our goals, our desires, about who we want to be in the world. And it requires doing the hard work of extracting beliefs and conditioning that no longer serve us.

I’m grateful for what my boss did for me all those years ago. She showed me that there was a way we can approach our work that values care for one another as a way to support what we are doing in the world. She showed me that it’s okay to be a messy, challenged human being. She showed me what can happen by putting humans first.