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For better or worse, our childhood experiences shape us into the people we are today. Despite the nature versus nurture debate, children who grow up in a supportive and nurturing home can achieve more than those who experience adversity at a young age. Regardless, how we internalize and carry these experiences shapes our adulthood.
What we take from our experiences, good and bad, benefits ourselves and others around us. As a child, I was told to only speak when spoken to. This experience of being silenced fueled my belief that everyone has a voice. I believe that everyone’s voice is important, and when employees feel seen and heard, it validates that they matter and belong, increasing company morale and performance. Being smothered as a child made me better at my job because I know what it feels like to not matter, and I don’t want anyone to feel that way, especially at work.
Related: The Core Belief That Drives My HR Career
Don’t make the same mistakes
Growing up in England in the 1980s, children weren’t treated as people until they became adults. I was no exception. We were expected to follow the rules: “Don’t take up any space”, “Adults first, wait your turn”. I knew I had something I wanted to contribute and more I wanted to say, but all these instructions about how I should behave around adults made me feel like I didn’t matter. As I grew older and was able to communicate more freely, I realized that I never wanted anyone to feel overlooked or that their opinion didn’t matter.
Although I never felt seen as a person during my childhood, I now make sure that everyone’s voices are always heard and that everyone feels included. First, respect for the person and attention to people create a safe environment where people feel free to express their opinions. Some ideas may work, some may not, but at least everyone knows they have a chance to offer them.
Everyone has something to say, and we should want to hear it as leaders. I don’t have all the answers and I can’t develop all the ideas on my own. When we treat people as people with valuable opinions and something worth adding, it will always lead to better solutions.
Related: Why Active Listening is a Critical Skill for Founders and Entrepreneurs
Younger people have a voice and should have a voice
We need to empower people to feel safe enough to speak up, significantly younger or new employees who may feel less safe. Every year, the workforce gets younger, and a solution that I consider good may not look the same from a younger perspective.
As remote and hybrid work options become more common, going to an office and clocking in and out is much less important. If we don’t listen to our employees, we may not understand why they don’t want a “back to normal,” which can lead to events like the Great Resignation. Employees who don’t feel heard are the ones who often leave.
After the pandemic lockdown was lifted, we deliberately decided to wait to consolidate a plan so we could observe and learn from other companies that were applying a hybrid model. We saw their people push back, creating more friction and causing employees to leave. So we kept waiting, listening to what our people needed and supporting them in the process. We were able to avoid these same wear and tear issues.
The only important part about where employees do their work is where they do it best. Leaders can facilitate this by being flexible, offering employees the right tools and benefits, and the right health insurance packages based on their needs. But to do these things well, leaders must be open and listen.
Related: How to lead with your values, regardless of industry
Make sure everyone is heard
Many people don’t feel safe or comfortable voicing their concerns or ideas, so we need to find a time and place to make that opportunity available to them. Within my team and within our organization, we use exercises to create a level playing field for everyone to share and listen.
Opening a space for people to talk about their problems brings awareness to areas where everyone can feel the same way, which can help us develop much more empathy for each other as an organism within an ecosystem. If this were how most adults treated children, making room for them to have a voice at the table instead of expecting them to remain silent, we would learn to do things better and get closer by working on them. It may not have been like that in my childhood, but I was able to take my experience and turn it into something positive by giving a voice to even the most introverted among us. Now, people are more engaged, as no one is afraid to speak up.