I love my GPS. But there is a downside: I no longer enjoy the pleasure of unfolding a paper map, figuring out where I am in the larger domain, and then finding my way to my destination.
But none of that takes away from something essential: we all need maps to find our way. Sometimes, when we find ourselves lost, it’s because we don’t have a clear map.
I thought of that recently in connection with our work to promote healthy relationships in workplaces. We all may need a map to understand our workplaces.
Shalem’s Centre for Workplace Engagement (CWE) aims to strengthen and build healthy workplaces in line with the Canadian Standards Association’s Standard on Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and to transform conflict in the workplace in such a way that harm is repaired, relationships are restored, and workplace results are improved.
The context for this is both astonishing and alarming: according to a recent Gallup poll, in the U.S. 70% of workers are disengaged from their work, while an additional 14% are actively disengaged (meaning that they are actively hostile towards their workplace). That means that 84% of employees in the U.S. are not happy—and thus not as productive as they could be, costing the U.S. economy $450-550 billion dollars a year. The Canadian numbers are not much better. I would call that a crisis. And it’s not merely or even fundamentally a crisis of productivity: at its root, it’s a crisis of relationship, even of meaning.
What is the social impact of such widespread worker unhappiness, not just within but also outside of the workplace?
How does one grapple with this, with a view toward making things better?
To try find out, recently some of us from the CWE spent a fruitful day with a new friend, a colleague from the Netherlands and Calgary, Alberta. A former corporate lawyer, Govert van Ginkel, does “restorative practice” (healthy relationship) work in workplaces, as does the CWE. Our CWE group met with Govert to exchange insights and experiences.
This is where the helpfulness of a “map” comes in. Govert alerted us to a hugely insightful nine-minute video that visually maps out the various ways in which workplaces have been and continue to be organized. At least five different ways of structuring workplaces have emerged historically for different reasons, moving from top-down, command and control structures to culture- and values-based workplaces that feature distributed decision-making and “higher purpose” orientations—and various forms in between.
It’s an extraordinary map drawn in a short nine minutes. I strongly encourage you to watch the video and then decide which model of workplace most aligns with the workplace you may currently be part of, alongside perhaps your previous workplaces. The video gives you a clear, easy-to-understand map to figure that out.
One of the key points to emerge is that each workplace model has its own strengths and limitations. In many respects the next model emerged in response to the felt limitations of the previous model. None of them are perfect. But—and here is the key—the critical importance of healthy relationships is central in every model. None of them is successful without healthy relationships. In every model the crucial importance of nurturing healthy relationships remains. And engagement in the workplace requires healthy relationships.
So the next challenge for us at the CWE? It’s to understand the implications for workplace relationships of each of those organizational structures. A program to nurture, strengthen, improve and repair relationships may look somewhat different depending upon which organizational model a particular workplace aligns with the most.
But the fundamental dynamics of human relationship—of the importance of empathy, of vulnerability, of an understanding of the role shame plays in our interactions, of communication that engages someone rather than shuts them down, of leadership which both challenges and supports—all of that remains central. That’s what the CWE is focused on. It’s what turns disengagement into engagement, lack of satisfaction to happiness, emptiness to meaning and, ultimately, struggling workplaces into dynamic settings that get real outcomes.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is the Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network and a Member of the Steering Group of Shalem’s Centre for Workplace Engagement.