“I can’t stand my co-workers, and I hate coming to work every day.” I had just sat down to do a one-on-one interview with a staff member to prepare for an upcoming group mediation, and this was the first sentence out of her mouth. I felt my stomach drop, and I thought, “This one is going to take some work.” Feeling a bit desperate, I asked her what it was that kept her working there. I expected her to say the paycheck, and was surprised and pleased when after thinking for a bit, she said, “We never really talk about it, but everyone cares about the work we do, and we’re able to come together to achieve important things, even though we don’t like each other. I really believe in what we do here.” I realized at that point that this team had successes that needed celebrating.
Last year I wrote a blog post called Five Tips to Help Your Organization or Group Get Along Better. This post is expanding on the third tip: Celebrating Successes (The first tip was on building relationships, and the second tip was on creating a collective vision). Anyone who has worked in a non-profit or other fast-paced work environment with limited resources will have likely experienced that realities of the work such as stress, deadlines, and funder or member expectations often get in the way of reflecting on and celebrating small victories and things we are doing well. This is a huge lost opportunity to decrease conflict, and build collaboration, solidarity, and a shared vision.
We humans are inclined toward negativity. We tend to notice the experiences and interactions that feel scary, frustrating, or stressful - that activate our fight/flight response - rather than the positive or hopeful experiences we have. This negativity bias can be vicious cycle when it comes to our personal and work relationships, as well as to organizational functioning. The worse people feel and the more they notice the negative experiences rather than the neutral or positive experiences, the less likely they are to be open to others, willing to step out of their comfort zone, or open to creativity and collaboration. When organizations make a conscious effort to celebrate successes, they are helping to shift the balance away from hostility and suspicion and toward enjoyment and appreciation.
How can you celebrate successes?
Every workplace has to figure out what kind of celebration fits their work culture and the kinds of successes they experience. It should ideally be something that is enjoyable for everyone involved, doesn’t require anyone to participate in ways that would be uncomfortable for them, and also highlights the organization’s achievements and positive values. Here are some ideas:
If there is an annual meeting make sure to spend time talking about the successes of the year, and mention the people involved. Make sure annual reports highlight fun events, achievements, and positive milestones. Show funny videos or pictures. Draw attention to anything fun or inspiring that happened. Turn it into a game, trivia show, or funny story. Think of it as an organizational anniversary, and celebrate it as such. Make sure there is food.
Create a timeline on a piece of butcher paper or whiteboard, and ask people to write up specific organizational moments that have been meaningful or transformative for them. Allow time for storytelling, or for people to explain why a particular milestone or event was important to them. This has the added benefit of helping newer staff learn about the history of the organization, and feel motivated by the work you do.
Use Appreciative Inquiry for evaluations and strategic planning.
As I mentioned before, we tend to notice the negative things that happen to us more than the positive things. In the context of evaluation and strategic planning, this often means that we focus on a problem and try to find a solution to that problem. This can be absolutely necessary to avoid making the same mistakes again, but i n organizations that have a lot of interpersonal stress, it can also increase the negative feelings that people have about their work and the people they work with. If a problem focus is making you feel stuck in a cycle, try Appreciative Inquiry. Instead of focusing on what went wrong and how to fix it, Appreciative Inquiry focuses on discovering what has gone well, no matter how small, and on dreaming ways to expand and extend those successes. Instead of asking why things didn’t go as we would like and how can we do better, it asks questions like:
What do we feel good about in the work we do?
How do we manage to achieve as much as we do, in spite of the challenges we face?
What can we learn from and build on the things that went well?
If we were to expand on our strengths and really make use of them, what might be possible?
Don’t underestimate celebration for the sake of celebrating.
Don’t forget there are a million reasons to celebrate, even if there isn’t a clear organizational success. Birthdays, holidays, season changes, etc can all offer great excuses to bring some fun and connection into the workplace. It’s great for morale, and makes people feel better about coming to work. If co-workers are struggling with each other in work context, give them a reason to remember that they can still enjoy each other in a less formal setting. Give people a chance to put aside work stress and cut loose a bit. In the long run, the time and expense will be well worth the potential for increased collaboration and improved relationships.
At the same time it’s essential to address the challenges.
This blog post is not meant to imply that organizations never need to directly address problems, or acknowledge the barriers they face. It is absolutely essential to give people and the organization the space and time to vent about their negative experiences, and to address challenges they face in their work. When we have the chance to talk about the causes of our suffering, we are more able to deal with our difficult emotions. This can be an enormous relief and can free people up to identify multiple sides to a situation, to talk about solutions, and even to transform relationships. When we focus on the positive without meaningful acknowledgment of difficulty and suffering, people’s negative feelings - of not being heard, of being marginalized, of being mistreated - usually increase in intensity. As a result, conflict increases and becomes more urgent. This means that addressing the problems and celebrating the successes need to happen together. When organizations are able to be realistic about the issues they face, while at the same time, recognizing and celebrating the things that go well, the are more likely to be able to transform their struggles into something better.
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