Crashing through walls . . . and connecting


My experience in cardiac ward 28  described how I found brief but very meaningful connection with my fellow inmates. An eye-opening experience, which left me with some questions. What conditions encouraged this? What did I have to do to make it happen? And how can I learn from this experience about connecting in the world of work?

Three things encouraged the connection, and then there was one thing I had to do.

Pre-conditions to Connection

  1. All trappings of status, wealth or importance were left at home. We each had identical beds and sheets and ate the same food. Lying on a hospital bed is a great leveller – there is no differentiation or hierarchy. The only difference was between those wore the fashionable blue NHS pyjamas, and those who had brought their own.
  2. There were no walls of barriers between us – just flimsy curtains which were rarely drawn, even at night. Nothing is private in hospital – and once you get used to that, it makes interaction easy and natural.
  3. We all had a shared objective – to get well, to make the best of the experience and to get out alive!

What a contrast to the typical workplace or office, where our status, position and by implication – our importance is painted large, or small, for all to see. And there are physical, virtual and emotional walls all over the place.

Hierarchy, desks and walls

When I started work, the most junior grades sat in rows of desks in which we amusingly called the “galley slave” arrangement. We had keyboards rather than oars, but we were the staff at the bottom of the organisation, rowing the ship through the water.

The next level up – the “team leaders” sat along the walls in “carrels” – individual cubicles with head-high partitions on three sides. These people were responsible for making sure the workers were rowing hard and in the right direction.

For the even more important, there were large glass offices around the sides of the building. These were for the heads of department (HoDs). Their offices contained plants, a settee and walnut filing cabinets. Their big desks faced their big glass windows, so that they could survey the masses getting on with their work.

Finally, upstairs, on the executive corridor, was the line of prestigious director offices, with 12 ft high wooden mahogany doors, huge desks, plush furniture and an expansive view out into the outside world. These people were too important to have to watch the workers.

Each director was guarded by a well-trained and quite ferocious secretary, who would manage their diaries, do their typing, take their phone calls, fetch their lunch and repel unwelcome visitors. The Executive Corridor had a separate door into the building, separate executive toilets and an exclusive executive dining room.

Status and Separation

There is no evidence that those at the top of an organisational pyramid need more space to breathe or bigger desks to work at or more privacy. They have no special physical need for plants, settees, superior food or individual fruit bowls. But they seemed to need elaborate status symbols to demonstrate to the organisation – and maybe to themselves – how important they were.

Crucially they needed to be kept separate and apart from the workers. It would be confusing and potentially dangerous if the directors and HoDs had to mix and interact with the staff. They might be overheard whilst they were discussing their strategic and top-secret matters. Nobody was quite sure what these were – they were too big and complex for our limited minds to understand.

And even worse, if they were not sitting in their big offices, somebody may not realise how important and successful they were.

If we measure status simply by these trappings of power, the height of my own success was back in the late 90s when I inhabited (be ready to be impressed) a spacious office with a window to the outside, a good-sized desk, a round wooden meeting table with blue upholstered chairs and several pot plants. Best of all, I had a bowl of fruit refreshed every morning and placed in the middle of my table. Naturally, I had my name on the door. Nobody was in any doubt about my importance.

The reality was, I was also quite lonely sat in my isolated box. It felt like a very comfortable prison cell. I made sure my office door was always open. I took every opportunity to escape and walk the corridors.

Equality and Connection

By the time I made it to the lofty heights of director, these status symbols had largely disappeared. I didn’t have an office, or a carrell, or even a desk. When I came to work, I would find a desk anywhere I could, grab a chair and open my laptop. I could find myself sat next to anyone, irrespective of their (so-called) status. The directors ate with everyone else in the same canteen. There was a fruit bowl – replenished every day – but it sat in a communal kitchen for everyone to dip into. 

Not only was this okay, but it was also infinitely more enjoyable and productive. Most importantly, it meant I could easily and naturally connect with people, irrespective of their position in the company.

A challenge for leaders

If we are comfortable in our own skin and confident in ourselves, we don’t need offices or special privileges to big ourselves up or hide behind. All those barriers just get in the way of conversation and human interaction.

Leaders can hide out of sight, looking and sounding important, but never engaging properly with the people they are meant to be leading, inspiring and helping.

We are respected by how well we lead – not by the floor space and chair height we occupy. We are valued by the decisions we make, how we behave, and above all, by how we treat and lead people – as equals, not as inferiors or subordinates.

How much time do you spend connecting with people outside your level in the organisation, or in different functions, showing a genuine interest in them as equal humans? It may surprise you – but connecting with the people who work with you will be hugely interesting, enjoyable and rewarding.  

And it will improve everyone’s engagement, morale, motivation and productivity. After all, we are in the same organisation, we all have a common objective.

Now of course, more and more we operate in a world of open offices, hot desking, remote working and zoom meetings. But, even in an open office and with remote working, we can build virtual pedestals stand on and construct emotional walls to hide behind.

If we are doing this, we need to ask ourselves honestly – what are we trying to prove? What are we afraid of? What are we believing about ourselves and the people who work around us?

One thing I needed to do

This is what I took away from my time in Ward 28 – lower your walls, get over your fears and self-importance, be a little vulnerable. The rewards will surprise you.Repo

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