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For better or worse, our childhood experiences shape us into the people we are today. Notwithstanding the nature vs. nurture debate, children who grow up in a supportive and caring home may achieve more than those who experience adversities at a young age. Regardless, how we internalize and carry those experiences shapes our adulthood.
What we draw from our experiences — the good and the bad — benefits ourselves and others around us. As a child, I was told only to speak when spoken to. This experience of being silenced fueled my belief that everyone has a voice. I believe everyone’s voice matters, and when employees feel seen and heard, it validates that they matter and belong, boosting company morale and performance. Being stifled as a child led to me being better at my job because I know what it feels like not to matter, and I don’t want anyone to ever feel like that, particularly at work.
Don’t make the same mistakes
Growing up in England in the ’80s, children were not treated like 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 on how I should behave toward adults made me feel like I didn’t matter. As I grew up and could communicate more freely, I realized I never wanted anyone to feel unheard or that their opinion didn’t matter.
While I never felt seen as a person in my childhood, now I make sure that everyone’s voices are always heard and that everyone feels included. First and foremost, respect for the individual and care for people creates a safe environment where people feel free to voice their opinions. Some ideas may work, others may not, but everyone at least knows they have an opportunity 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 can’t develop all the ideas on my own. When we treat people as people with valuable opinions and something worthwhile to add, it will always lead to better solutions.
Younger people do — and should — have a voice
We need to empower people to feel safe enough to speak their minds, significantly younger or newer employees who may feel less confident. Each year, the workforce becomes younger, and a solution I deem good may not look the same from a younger perspective.
As remote and hybrid work options become increasingly common, going to an office and clocking in and out matters much less. If we aren’t listening to our employees, we may not understand why they don’t want a “return 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 lifted, we deliberately decided to wait to solidify a plan so we could watch and learn from other companies that were enforcing a hybrid model. We saw their people pushing back against it, generating greater 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 those same attrition problems.
The only important part about where employees do their work is where they do it best. Leaders can facilitate that by being flexible, getting employees the right tools and benefits, and suitable health insurance packages depending on their needs. But to get those things right, leaders must be open and listen.
Make sure everyone is heard
Many people don’t feel confident or comfortable voicing their concerns or ideas, so we have to carve out a time and place to make that opportunity available to them. On my team and within our organization, we use exercises to create a level playing field so that everyone can share and we can listen.
Opening up a space for people to air their problems brings awareness to areas where everyone may feel the same way, which can help us develop a lot more empathy for each other as an organism within an ecosystem. If this were how most adults treated children — making space for them to have a voice at the table instead of expecting them to stay silent — we would learn to do things better and grow closer by working through them. This may not have been the case in my childhood, but I was able to take my experience and turn it into something positive by giving even the most introverted among us a voice. Now, people are more engaged as no one is afraid to speak up.