About ten years ago, I was brought in to run a team-building program with twelve senior leaders at a large East Coast bank. The first thing I did was go around the room and ask each executive what philanthropic activities they were involved with in their community. It’s a safe icebreaker since bankers at this level are almost always involved in charities. I started with the CEO, who mentioned he was on the board of trustees of the American Heart Association. The CMO contributed to the Wounded Warrior Project. The COO hosted fundraisers for the local public library. And so on.
Then I got to the chief human resources officer. We’ll call her Sandy. She said, simply, “I’m actually not involved in any philanthropic charities. Matter of fact, when I’m done with my work, I just go straight home so I can be with my husband.”
I noticed a few raised eyebrows among her colleagues. This bank considered itself a bedrock of the community, and its executives were expected to give back. My job was to bring these leaders together, not pull them apart, so I quickly tried to change tack. “You must have a really great marriage, Sandy, if you can’t wait to get home to your husband!”
Before I could change the subject, Sandy burst into tears. “I’m sorry,” she stammered, “it’s just that… the men in my husband’s family have all died before they turned sixty. The last three generations all passed away from the same congenital heart defect. His grandfather, his father, his uncles, his older brothers—they’re all gone. My husband is fifty-nine, and I’m terrified I’m going to arrive home any day now to see him lying in the kitchen. After I’m done with work, I just want to go home and spend as much time with him as possible.”
The room was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Finally, I asked, “How long have you been working here, Sandy?”
“Thirty-six years,” she replied.
“And how long have the folks in this room been here for?”
“Most of them have been here as long as I have.”
I looked at the other eleven senior leaders at the table; many of them were choking up. “And how many of you knew her story?” Not a single one raised their hand.
Then, suddenly, Jane, the bank’s CFO, said, “I have a story I don’t think any of you know.” She cleared her throat and wiped away a tear. “I used to be an All-American swimmer. I had a full athletic scholarship to an Ivy League school. The summer before I started college, I was lifeguarding at the local town pool.”
Jane took a deep breath. It took everything she had to say the next few sentences. “One Friday, it was especially busy. The pool was packed with people. My friend came up to me at the lifeguard stand and we chatted about the party we were going to that night. I took my eyes off the pool for one minute. One minute. And in that minute, a thirteen-year-old boy drowned. By the time I realized it, it was too late.”
Jane looked at her colleagues with a haunted expression. “I never swam again. After college, I wanted to get into a profession where I didn’t have to talk to people. I didn’t want to have to look them in the eye. I still have nightmares about that boy.”
After that, it was like a dam broke. One after another, these bank execs told each other things they had kept to themselves for decades. After all these years, they finally understood one another. Truth is, this bank was not a special case. These were all wonderful and successful leaders who respected each other. But, like so many workplaces, they didn’t truly know each other. They didn’t love each other. They didn’t understand why Sandy went home every day promptly at 5pm. They didn’t understand why Jane kept to herself. They never thought to ask.
Some time ago, when Jill and I were going through a rough patch in our marriage, our pastor recommended we read the book Love & Respect by Dr. Emerson Eggerichs. The book is built on the idea that in many marriages, one partner feels they don’t receive enough respect, while the other partner feels they don’t receive enough love. By showing more respect to your spouse, they will show more love back to you—and vice versa. Love & Respect really helped Jill and me, but I realized after meeting with the leaders of this bank that the concept works for all kinds of teams, not just marriages.
For as long as there have been offices and organizations, we’ve been taught to bring our heads to work and leave our hearts at home. We’ve been taught to respect our colleagues, to treat each other with courtesy and politeness. These are all important, but no employee handbook in any organization in the country will tell you to love your coworkers.
We live in a time when millions of folks are still working from home due to Covid-19. It’s harder than ever to collaborate with our team members. Record numbers of employees are quitting their jobs. Respect isn’t cutting it anymore. As those bankers learned in that conference room—as Jill and I learned while working on our marriage—it’s time we start focusing on love as much as we focus on respect.
I’ve been working with organizations for many years now, and the healthiest teams with the most dedicated managers and the most loyal employees understand that work isn’t just about work. It’s about love. The best teams take time to get to know each other as human beings, not nametags. Every employee, teammate, and customer has a name. Every name has a face. And every face has a story. What are the stories of the people you work with? Maybe it’s time you ask—not out of respect, but out of love.