I look at people differently since the time I heard my dad speak his first language. By “heard” I mean really heard. As a US immigrant, he didn’t speak Spanish at home with us; still, he spoke Spanish with our family in Mexico City nearly every day.
When I was twenty-two I learned Spanish in Ecuador. I’ll never forget the moment I returned home and dad picked me up from the airport. As we drove along the freeway, his phone rang and he answered, “Bueno.” Suddenly, tears filled my eyes.
As he continued in Spanish I could see layers of his expression I’d never known. I thought about our misunderstandings. Avoidable conflicts. Ways we struggled to connect growing up. I thought about a time I felt hurt by my dad’s tone and my mom said, “I don’t think he meant it that way.”
Sometime after that moment I remembered when, as a kid, he and I made art together. It was freeing and joyful and we felt connected. We didn’t think about it back then, but art helped us understand each other when spoken words fell short.
Upon reflection, I think many of us would discover that our purpose and values are connected with generations prior. My grandfather was a watercolor painter and his father a painter, furniture-maker and woodworker. He showed me that joy is attainable in pleasure, play and presence. My aunt was a therapist and nature-guide. She showed me that joy springs from grief and being in touch with difficult emotions like anger, sadness, hurt, fear and frustration.
Among others, my aunt and grandpa shaped who I am and the gifts I bring. Who shaped yours?
Great Company Culture
At Mosaicli we define great company cultures as ones that foster joy and deliver effectively on a meaningful mission. Influenced by our partnerships with fortune 100 companies and leaders across sectors, our work builds on a premise that joy and organizational success are interdependent.
Recognition is the driving force of great company culture. It’s rooted in relationships and “seeing” of one another. Recognition means, looks and feels differently for everyone. However hard to sometimes bear, recognition honors truth and wisdom through learning, increased understanding and action. It continuously builds trust and incrementally opens communication within and across teams. Recognition is alive and active.
Lack of recognition can feel like giving 110% and receiving a gift card to Baskin Robbins when you’re allergic to all things cold. It looks like being misgendered and no one says anything to correct the mistake. It sounds like the words “we’re like a family” and feeling deeply otherwise every time the phrase floats by.
We’ve all felt tension at work and whether or not we’re directly involved we feel the impacts. Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others say that our freedom is interdependent and that, in one respect, your expression is tied to mine. David White, an Anglo-Irish poet, says:
“To be human is to become visible,
while carrying what is hidden
as a gift to others.”
Great company cultures recognize the gifts their people bring through ongoing learning and action.
Interactive Art—A Foundational Language for Recognition
Like a meal made with care, interactive art can bring people together with warmth, gratitude and delight. As a shared language, art creates equal opportunity for expression and, with ample guidance, enables everyone to contribute their unique gifts, stories and perspectives to a bigger picture. In these ways art is foundational for creating a great company culture where everyone is recognized.
When art is effectively integrated into training, learning outcomes are shown to increase by 10%—that increase is estimated to be greater for English as second language speakers.
When our team prepares to deliver one of our interactive keynotes, clients sometimes hesitate with statements like, “we don’t want to force everyone to make art if they don’t want to.” By default when people walk into a room they are forced to sit in chairs, think, speak and listen in English, and engage in “left brain” activities. By integrating art you’re inviting participants to stretch their comfort zones and try something new. It’s a practice that helps build great company cultures and, even though creativity can feel vulnerable, most will appreciate the invitation to be expressive.
Additionally, while arts integration improves learning and engagement, programs that deliver a tangible collaborative outcome can foster ambient belonging. Driven by visual cues like workplace art, ambient belonging increases feelings of being accepted and valued and is shown to increase performance and engagement at work.
Leaders tip: When planning an event or training, ask who on your team is an artist (or likes to be creative). Ask them to integrate their love for the arts into your training. If you’re looking for inspiration, see the Mosaic below as an example of how you can integrate art to improve learning outcomes and increase ambient belonging at your organization.
Joy—A Vision We Can Dream Together
Our purpose at Mosaicli is summed up in one word, joy. While business outcomes matter, we center joy because it’s a motivating force change. In her book, “All About Love,” Bell Hooks said,
“Definitions are vital starting points for the imagination.
What we cannot imagine cannot come into being.”
We know that a clear company mission and vision are foundational for success. Similarly, a great company culture is achievable when we’re clear on what success looks and feels like, for everyone. In part, that clarity stems from a culture of ongoing recognition and supporting business systems (i.e. equitable hiring pipelines).
In his book, “Redefining HR,” Lars Schmidt invites leaders to share and build on one another’s models for change. Building on the work of many, including working closely with Amina Knowlen, founder at Matrix Leadership Institute and Sam Kaner and Sarah Fiske, co-authors of a best-selling book on facilitative leadership and organizational change, our approach centers joy at the intersections of connection, recognition and purpose.
According to Harvard Business Review, 40% of people report feeling isolated at work. And, companies where employees report feeling a high level of social connection save over $5,000 per employee yearly in better job performance, low turnover risk and fewer sick days.
You may have heard the statement “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” And, sometimes, people say they care but their actions make us believe otherwise. The dissonance is common across teams and moments of trust-breaking can be subtle.
A related study shows, in a hierarchical context, that one of two factors correlated most with team cohesion is care—the more that team members feel like their manager cares, the more cohesive the team will be. Care is core to recognition.
The second factor correlated most with team cohesion is the “right” balance between direction and autonomy. Unclear job descriptions and lack of role clarity kill team cohesion. So does an overbearing manager that can’t trust his people to do the job they’ve been hired to do. Everyone has a unique “right” sweetspot. Another aspect of care is recognizing when the balance is off and taking appropriate actions to course correct. The “right balance” is important for purpose and understanding how one’s personal contributions make a difference in the bigger picture.
Applications—Practices to Foster Connection, Recognition and Purpose
The following practices won’t fix all your retention or performance problems because, for many people, recognition in action looks like getting a year of PTO. Evenso, the applications, whether incorporated into your next event or integrated in team meetings, onboarding programs or training, will help over time.
We incorporate all of the following practices into one of our 90-minute “culture kick-off” experiences. Over time you can integrate each as a weekly team practice. Alternatively, you might pick three practices to incorporate during your next event. You might choose to discuss the applications with your team and hear what they have to say. What resonates for them from this article? Where do their teams excel? What practices are most urgent? Which ones can be integrated each week to foster recognition, connection or purpose? What’s essential? What’s not? Where do people differ and why?
The practices and associated activities are meant to spark ideas and be adapted to serve your goals and connect your people.
● Mindfulness: Give people an opportunity to sit, feel their breath and body, and connect with themselves. One-minute of quiet at the beginning of your event can deliver instant benefits for participant well-being and get everyone instantly more engaged.
● Joy: Near the onset of your event participants will love you for helping ground their flighty nervous systems. Remembering and reliving positive life experiences can increase dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin (happy hormones) and decrease cortisol levels (stress hormones). Invite participants to imagine, in as much detail as possible, a moment of greatest joy or gratitude. Joy is a great topic to bond attendees at the onset of an event or meeting.
● Remembering Heroes: Who “sees” or “saw” you? Who was always there for you? Who can you go to? Remembering how our heroes see us connects us to our values, gifts, and positive qualities. This is another practice that can ground the nervous system. As a pair-sharing activity it has the added benefits of building familiarity, increasing vulnerability and communicating how we like to be seen.
● Visual Expression: As an ice-breaker activity instruct participants to create a blind contour drawing. Have them do this in pairs and make blind contour portraits of their partner. They only need 30-seconds. A blind contour is drawing a subject or object while keeping eyes on it the entire time (and not looking at your drawing). This is a common artists practice believed to elicit right brain thinking and innovation by activating other sensory perceptions. Additionally, have participants write three words that represent positive qualities they see in their partner. Then, have them share with one another.
● Embodied Expression: Have you ever struggled to find words while your body or hands felt like easier modes of expression? Embodiment is another way to elicit right-brain thinking. Building on the heroes practice, you might ask participants to embody how they feel in the presence of their hero. You might say, “think about your hero and how they make you feel. On the count of three you’re going to strike a pose, like a statue, to represent that feeling.” Through embodiment you’ll be surprised by what you’ll learn about people (and yourself).
● Celebration: Start a gathering by having participants sharing one work-related and one non-work-related celebration.
● Zones: Create shared language around comfort, stretch and panic zones. This is a helpful tool that creates awareness and respect for one another’s experiences. A culture of recognition supports everyone to be in their stretch zone, and takes care when someone is in their panic zone. Growth and learning shuts down when we are in our panic zones.
● Interpersonal Appreciation: Set aside 5-minutes at the end of a meeting or event. Have one person begin by saying something they appreciate about the next person. After that person receives the appreciation with a “thank you,” they continue by appreciating the next person until everyone has received an appreciation. Alternatively, give each person one minute to be in the “hot seat” while their group members share their appreciation. Doing this weekly will increase your team’s capacity to share constructive feedback openly.
● Leadership feedback: Create a list with two columns, one labeled “strengths,” the other “improvables,” and invite participants to share their feedback. Give context and let people know you really want to know what’s working and what’s not. The purpose of this exercise is to build trust and model that it’s safe to share constructive feedback, especially with upper management. The “improvables” column will naturally grow first. Eventually, someone will take a risk and share an improvable. Stay out of solutions, reflect back what you hear, add it to the list, and keep going. If you do this right you’ll have a long list of improvables and someone might say something like, “I swear it wasn’t that bad.” While anonymous feedback can be complementary, this feedback exercise is essential for recognition and building a culture of open communication, trust and continuous learning.
● Risk-taking Appreciation: How often do people avoid conversations or fear to say what’s on their minds? We all do it! And, it’s even scarier when we have something to say to people in positions with increased influence and decision-making power. When someone shares constructive feedback, whether openly or 1:1, bring an attitude of gratitude. Say thank you and be sincere about it. If it’s appropriate, follow up in another meeting and recognize the person, again, for their contribution. Being vocal shows you value risk-taking and encourages others to do the same.
● Responsive Action: If nothing happens when issues are raised people will eventually stop speaking up. Create a place where feedback and action gets tracked. An Excel sheet will do. Let folks know about instant changes and communicate the status of other items. In some instances, letting people know why a solution will be sought in 3 months as opposed to now can increase the sense of care and recognition.
● Purpose: In her book, “Presence,” Amy Cuddy references a study where employees were guided to find a personal connection to their company's purpose. Those who were guided vs. those who weren’t stayed at the company an average to two times longer. Have leaders and customers share stories of impact related to your culture and your purpose and guide participants to find their own connection.
● Heartbreak: Questions like, “what breaks your heart about this?” can help employees get in touch with their purpose and values. Instructing folks to complete the sentence, “if you really knew me…” has a similar effect. If you are trying to get folks to connect with your purpose, tell a story that reflects a problem and its repercussions. Tell the story within the context of your product solution and vision for the future. Guide everyone at your company to develop a similar story narrative.
● Company Values: Create practices to demonstrate that your values matter. During our recognition program kick-off event we give participants “pay-it-forward” watercolor postcards. They decorate the front and write a note on the back that recognizes a colleague for exemplifying a core company value.
● Personal Values: While company values are strategically chosen to foster mission and purpose, personal values are drivers of great company cultures. Create space for folks to explore their personal values and how those contribute to the company. Invite team members to share with one another the qualities they see and how those reflect their values. Prompts like these are especially impactful after colleagues share stories like those named in the practices above.
● Roles: People are great at what they do. That’s why you hired them. Meanwhile, we take our colleagues' innate skills and contributions for granted. At least once a month make time for colleagues to acknowledge one another’s gifts related to their roles. Have them share specifically about the impacts their contributions have on the team or the organization. When people feel proud and recognized for their contributions, they feel an increased sense of service and personal purpose at work.
 https://edpolicyinca.org/newsroom/arts-integration-key-student-academic-achievement  https://medium.com/inclusion-insights/what-signals-is-your-office-sending-about-who-belongs-1bc21d59e735  https://hbr.org/2019/12/the-value-of-belonging-at-work  Irvin D. Yalom, “The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy”
Relationships have and always will be #1. I'm a seasoned employee engagement and organizational effectiveness leader using creativity to help leaders scale arts-engaged culture-building and training programs.
As a mixed, white, first generation Mexican American person I lead with growing recognition of the privileges/responsibilities inherent with the color of my skin while understanding some complexity of cultural nuance, erasure, and the ongoing struggle to honor varying cultural heritages and values.
With degrees in organizational behavior, entrepreneurship, and drama therapy I've led intercultural learning programs at the university level, have led engagement programs with fortune 100 companies globally, and mediated programs between the United Nations, local NGOs, and indigenous communities in the Amazon of Ecuador.