The Dalai Lama wrote, “When you practice gratefulness, there is a sense of respect towards others.”
In the research I have done on workplace dynamics, I have found that what workers crave most, but do not experience, is respect and appreciation. I assert that the reason for this is the general lack of gratitude for what we have, never realizing how fortunate we are compared to others around the world.
Thirteen years ago I was given a death sentence when I was diagnosed with leukemia. Thankfully I became eligible for a wonder drug called Gleevec, which turned what was a fatal condition into a chronic one.
I have difficulty responding to being thought of a cancer survivor because I did not go through the horrible suffering that most cancer patients experience from the cancer itself or the chemotherapy and radiation that up to this point provided the only hope. I did not have one day of down time and none of the side effects associated with how cancer is usually treated. Emotionally however, I did go through what most do—fearing the unknown and anticipating the treatments I have witnessed other patients endure.
This diagnosis also forced me to face the reality that as there is a beginning, there is also an end, which caused me to reflect on the reason for being. While I have lived a charmed and successful life by most standards, there was a realization that if I were to meet a premature end, my mark on the world would be insignificant.
The day I came to that horrible realization, I cut a deal with the Almighty: if I were made better, I would become a better person. Well, I was made better and am still working on becoming that better person.
My reflections centered on understanding my sense of self. Who am I? Why do I behave the way I do? What is my purpose? What motivates me? I discovered I had was an obsession with the material aspects of success and measuring this against other successful people. This obsession blinded me from recognizing that I had more than the vast majority of people who have inhabited this earth.
For me this was an awakening and I resolved from that moment on I would shift my focus from my needs to the needs of others and put into practice what we all learned in kindergarten: the Ethic of Reciprocity, the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Shortly after making this resolve I was asked to become an ambassador for MSF, also known as Doctors without Borders, which I agreed to do provided I witnessed firsthand the work they do and the impact they have. This led to a 20-day trip to the Republic of the Congo. There I saw the that people there are lacking the basics that I have always taken for granted: clean running water, food, shelter, education, infrastructure, democracy, freedom of expression, free press, medical care, employment, honest government, and most devastatingly absent—hope. Before I saw this I took what I enjoyed for granted with a perverse sense of entitlement.
Two events there were the most poignant:
The first was watching people in a small community go from drinking what can only be described as sludge from a river to having fresh water within a matter of hours because of a well drilled by MSF volunteers.
Perhaps even more poignant was what happened during one of the many missions I visited. It was at a pediatric hospital where I went on rounds with Heidi, a young doctor from Germany, who volunteers during her vacation time each year for MSF.
We went to the neonatal intensive care unit, which was a 1,000-square-foot room with open windows where mothers had to swat flies away from their infants. Heidi warned me that I would observe her negotiating with a young mother to take her 9-week-old son off life support so that he could die and be buried amongst family. Heidi could not reassure the mother that leaving the infant on life support would save him.
We then watched as the IV was removed from his tiny body, his mother made a baby sling out of a magnificently colored shawl, placed him within it and walked out with the bearing of a queen for the long journey home, a 15-mile trek on a dusty path.
Watching this left me emotionally drained and I asked Heidi how she was able to deal with this. She said, “There is no question that emotionally these individual situations are hard on everyone involved, but if the mothers see us break down, it dilutes their hope. We get by with the knowledge that our presence has helped the infant mortality rate significantly decline.”
When I asked Heidi why she volunteers her time to do this, she explained that this was her way of giving back in appreciation for all of the advantages she had, noting that most of the people who volunteer with her are similarly motivated.
Inspired by this and other experiences, I have become a student of emotional intelligence and recently embarked with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence on a major initiative called, “Emotion Revolution in the Workplace” to understand how employees feel about their work, why they feel the way they do, and to develop evidence-based solutions to the many workplace issues that exist.
Our early findings show that most environments have become dehumanized, employees are considered a commodity rather than a resource, and governance and management models place disproportionately more focus and value on the shareholder than on the employee. This has resulted is a huge equity gap. What is missing is that Ethic of Reciprocity where the needs of others trump the needs of the self.
Perhaps the significant decline in civility has something to do with why people are so starved for respect and appreciation. Or perhaps it is our self-absorption and obsession with power, control, material goods, status and personal well-being. Just imagine how this would change if everyone started to focus more on the needs of others in every aspect of their lives.
Andrew Faas (www.andrewfaas.com) is an author, activist, revolutionist, philanthropist and management advisor promoting psychologically healthy, safe and fair workplaces. Before becoming a philanthropist, he led some of Canada’s largest corporations for over three decades as a senior executive. He founded the Faas Foundation, which supports non-profit organizations concerned with workplace well-being and other personal health and research endeavors. Currently he is partnering with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence on a groundbreaking initiative, Emotion Revolution in the Workplace, which will revolutionize the way organizations operate, leveraging the power of emotional intelligence; and Mental Health America, to help reduce unnecessary stress factors at work and eliminate stigma around a condition that affects one in five adults. His latest book “From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire,” reveals deep-seated dangers of bullying to everyone who works pinpointing the identifying characteristics of bullies and outlining how bullying undermines corporate profitability and value and how CEOs and boards can remedy it.