I remember the first time I got bullied like it was yesterday. I was in the seventh grade, and at a new school. One day, while walking along a path between buildings to the cafeteria, I heard someone behind me shout, “Hey, look at the bubble-butt!” I turned and saw an older kid staring at me. At first, my brain refused to accept that I was his target. Then some other kids laughed and joined in: “Bubble-butt, bubble-butt, you have a bubble-butt!” Thus began three and a half years of hell. I was ruthlessly teased. I had no meaningful relationships. I was neither an athlete nor a top student, so my whole identity boiled down to being a kid with a round derriere who got picked on a lot. In other words, not good times.
The Silver Lining
If there’s an upside to being picked on and marginalized in your formative years, it’s that you work extra hard as an adult to create conditions more favorable to your happiness.
For me, this included building a company whose culture, vision, and values were diametrically opposed to the spirit of bullying intolerance I’d endured as a young man. I wanted to make sure that strong emotional connections ran throughout all levels of the organization.
The Four Areas of Emotional Connection You Need in Your Work Life
1. The People Around You: Your Colleagues and Coworkers
We spend a lot of time at work, and it’s a hell of a lot more fun when you’re working side by side with actual friends versus mere coworkers. Create opportunities for friendships to develop and flourish in your office. Dedicate one evening a month to a bar or restaurant on the company tab, somewhere you can sit down and discuss something other than work.
For our monthly company meetings, I interview one of my employees and then write a small essay about his or her life, which is then read aloud to the company. You can learn a lot about a person in 1000 words.
2. Leadership and Management
It isn’t enough for an employee to just feel love and affection from fellow employees, it needs to start at the top and follow the dotted lines of leadership all the way down. Leaders at every level must share the same values and be constantly aware that they’re being looked at not only for guidance in matters of business but in matters of conduct as well. Hold regular one-on-ones with your employees. Get up close and personal and learn what’s going right and what’s going wrong in their lives and careers. Their managers should be doing the same thing.
3. Your Work
The third emotional connection is to the work you actually produce. This is typically easy when someone first starts a job because they were hired for a specific role that they’re excited to fulfill. But depending on how quickly that person progresses, that sense of satisfaction can change faster than you think.
Two things are going to happen with an employee who doesn’t feel emotionally connected and engaged with their work. For one, their work will suffer. But what’s less obvious is that they are suffering, too. Ask your employees regularly if they’re pleased with their roles. Find out if they need new challenges. It’s deeply satisfying to see an employee progress from role to role and land in a place they feel truly needed and fulfilled.
4. Your Customers
Your employees’ emotional connection to your customers encompasses your mission, your vision, and your values as an organization. It isn’t very realistic to expect your employees to fall in love with the vision of your business before they work there, or even very quickly afterward. But I believe that anyone who has made the first three emotional connections can fall in love with their company’s mission over time.
One of my employees at Nav once emailed me: “When I first came to work for you, if I hadn’t almost immediately felt affection and trust for both my teammates and leadership, I wouldn’t have caught the missionary zeal nearly as fast. I intellectually understood the importance of small business to the US, but it was the fact that I started genuinely caring for the people around me, and could see that they genuinely cared about small business, that fueled my own passion.”
“When I first came to work for you, if I hadn’t almost immediately felt affection and trust for both my teammates and leadership, I wouldn’t have caught the missionary zeal nearly as fast. I intellectually understood the importance of small business to the US, but it was the fact that I started genuinely caring for the people around me, and could see that they genuinely cared about small business, that fueled my own passion.”
I’ll never forget the day I left the school I’d been bullied at for good. It was great to leave a place I’d been miserable, of course, but the best part was that I was returning to my old school and my old friends. I count it as one of the happiest moments of my life. As leaders, we’re probably not going to be able to create an environment where every single employee is delighted to drive to work in the morning. But we can sure as hell try.