Exploring the reality of all that we are at work
I’ve recently finished reading a brilliant new book by Gabriella Braun, titled “All that we are”. In just 246 pages, Gabriella shares many real-life stories to deliver on her subtitle: “Uncovering the hidden truths behind our behaviour at work”. It’s a book that I heartily recommend to both leaders and their coaches. She really brings to life the need to consider the whole person and individual’s back stories when working to build effective teams or be an effective leader.
Over the course of 23 chapters (each sharing at least one story from her psychoanalytic consulting work), Gabriella brings to life why we can’t compartmentalise. Without preaching this message, example after example makes clear that the key to a breakthrough (if that happens) is engaging with the whole person(s). No “issue” is resolved with a purely rational approach or only considering behaviour at work.
As well as this, it is an immensely practical book. She covers so many situations that will be familiar to others who lead or work in teams. Without enforcing any theoretical framework, Gabriella helps us reflect on the familiar challenges & pitfalls when people seek to work together in organisations. If you have more than a few years of experience as a leader or manager many will ring true. Expect to chuckle and maybe cry at the memories these warm human stories will help you revisit. Our life at work is so often irrational and kind of beautifully imperfect and human. So, leave the neat leadership theories behind and dive in.
The order in this curation of messy human stories
So, what can you expect in what could sound like either a lot of psychological navel gazing or a messy jumble of different people’s work stories? Firstly, it is neither of those. Next, there is a high-level structure to this book. But, that is not enforced rigidly on the curated human stories. Rather they are gathered under three themes and then allowed to unfold naturally to shed light on the different issues revealed. Let me first explain the high-level map, before the paths are revealed by walking them.
The author starts by helping the reader reflect on where we are now. To become more aware of all that goes on at work and how the challenges found there have changed as most of us started working remotely (at least some of the time). She shares sobering statistics on mental health, bullying and harassment. These help her make the case for the need to engage by better understanding human nature & taking seriously how that shows up at work. We need so much more than a simplistic MBTI-type segmentation of our work colleagues to actually help them.
To achieve this, Gabriella has gathered real-life human stories to illustrate three themes:
- Human Nature at Work (understanding our minds & their effect on our workplaces)
- Losing Ourselves (exploring our inherent destructiveness & how it can undo us)
- Finding Ourselves (the inspiration & potential of our constructive side)
Important human challenges for leaders to recognise at work
Within those three parts of the book, the author shines a spotlight on a number of critical challenges in workplaces. Uncovering those through stories of messy complex human interactions in workplaces helps avoid the pitfall of any simplistic answers. Empathy and listening unexpectedly shine forth as important to helping others navigate such challenges. But Gabriella also reveals the impact situations have on her, the need for challenging people & the reality of the times when problems are not resolved.
No structure or system is imposed on these stories, but in order to help my reader spot topics that could be relevant to them, here are the common challenges for leaders & teams that I noticed:
Human Nature at work:
- Helping others notice the choices they didn’t know they could or had made.
- The need for psychological safety and security at work.
- Coping with life & death implications of your work on others.
- Accepting our own aggression & using it productively.
- Recognising the smudged glasses of our assumptions & misbeliefs.
- Avoiding the natural barriers of different teams becoming barricades.
- Noticing the voice of an internal critical parent & being good enough.
- A sense of paranoia at work & not getting stuck there.
- The power of a sense of belonging at work.
- Why we can lose the plot at work & how to recover our own mind.
- The poison of envy, accepting our anger & a way out of that darkness.
- Spotting if you have been seduced into turning a blind eye.
- Repetition compulsion & how to break free from repeating patterns.
- The hidden difficulties of leadership succession.
- Why we lose agency at work & how to regain a realistic form of it.
- Illusions at work, disillusionment and the myths we tell ourselves.
- Noticing differences & tackling discrimination (not just fine words).
- How to change our stories & patterns of behaviour.
- Refinding a love for the work that you do.
- Finding the courage to speak the unspeakable.
- Becoming more human, being ourselves at work.
- Recognising kindness and letting it in.
- Valuing the past & mourning to be able to move forward.
- Navigating endings.
Why this book matters and why it matters now
I am truly grateful to Gabriella for writing and sharing this book (and to the Financial Times for recommending it via their 2022 Business Books list). As someone who has both been a leader within a large organisation and worked with senior leaders as a coach, I recognise all she shares. Perhaps what I liked best was her avoidance of platitudes. She shuns easy answers or virtue signalling.
But this book, as the author highlights, is more relevant than ever for the managers or leaders of remote working teams. In such volatile & troubling times when many may be struggling with a range of challenges, there is a danger that technology reduces interaction to transactions. This book can help remind us all to engage with the full reality of human nature at work. To listen for & engage with the complexity of human beings needing to work together in divided organisations. I recommend that all leaders read this & consider what the stories highlight to them needs more care.
I’ll close with the final sentence of Gabriella’s book. A closing comment that helps reveal the spirit in which all this is shared to help us all:
“I hope you leave this book with no illusions about human nature and the cost of ignoring it in the workplace, yet also uplifted by the potentia of all that we are.”Gabriella Braun “All that we are” (2022)