Spirit At Work -- Declaring Tactile Territory

Dec. 21, 2004
Harassment concerns are dehumanizing the workplace.

The usual steady flow of letters from readers spiked following my column about love in the workplace [The 'L' Word]. It seems a chord was struck. One e-mail came from "Andy in the Midwest," who spoke for many others when he wrote, "Our company has had formal 'sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior' training, which left me depressed. People are too paranoid to socially talk to each other beyond 'How are you?' I understand companies have to get to the lowest common denominator with harassment issues, but it is really too bad for the vast majority of us, who are normal people and have no intention of behaving inappropriately. I even suggested to our instructor that to counterweight the harassment training we should have a course on how to develop friendships and other appropriate relationships at work. A course like this has yet to take place." Andy is not alone in his disenchantment. During a workshop I was running last week for a giant corporation, one senior leader complained about her company's systemwide "no touching other people" policy, which, she felt, dehumanized the workplace and sucked the spirit from the organization. But when a senior human-resource leader participating in the same workshop challenged her to name the actual document purporting to include this policy, she couldn't do so. It turned out that there was no such policy -- simply a strongly reinforced culture that frowned on any form of tactile behavior. Have we become so paranoid about harassment lawsuits and political correctness that we have forgotten that organizations are clusters of individual humans who are so inherently tactile that we will die without oxygen, nutrition, information, caring interaction, and touch -- these last two being expressions of love? In some states it is illegal for a teacher to touch a student, yet teachers will tell you that their students yearn more for hugs than knowledge. A baby who is never hugged or cradled will die, and we are simply grown-up babies. In circumstances of grief -- for example, a cancer ward, a war zone, a car crash, a funeral -- we do not check the policy and procedures manual to determine if hugging, consoling, and holding hands are permissible. In our misguided belief that machismo is the hallmark of strong leadership, we too often pretend that we are detached from or unaffected by these essential human needs. Thus we appear distant, cold, and mechanical to others. Being human, not mechanical, is crucial to opening our souls at work and permitting the whole person to be present and to contribute. Avoiding these and other issues of the heart, issues that are at the core of what it means to be human, starves the soul of its most essential requirements and blocks our creative energy and productivity. Denying our vulnerabilities and avoiding intimacy with others leads to the greatest poverty the soul must endure: loneliness. And it is easy and all too common for people to feel lonely in the workplace, despite the thrum of humanity that surrounds them. Revealing our vulnerabilities in intimate one-on-one conversations is vital for us to connect beyond the superficial level. Denial of this essential fact of life leads to communications that are both shallow and distant, causing workplace toxicity to build at an alarming pace. Organizations are teams who depend on their relationships to achieve shared goals. This chemistry leads to friendship, and the most successful teams are collections of successful friends. Deep friendship is a human connection between souls. When the soul is troubled by an absence of chemistry among employees, performance suffers and the spirit withers. It doesn't take much to remove the soulless rules that have denied our spirits the warmth of physical contact and kind, engaging social interaction. Organizations simply need to declare, formally if necessary, that their workplace is a caring place -- a sanctuary, zoned as tactile territory. Organizations are potential meeting places where we can comfort each other in our sorrows and celebrate each other in our joys. They are organizations of humans who need to laugh, cry, and yes, even hug together. It is vital for the soul. Lance Secretan is an advisor to leaders, a public speaker, and a recipient of the International Caring Award. Author of nine books, including Inspirational Leadership, Destiny, Calling and Cause (1999, CDG Books).

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