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Bringing the Neighborhood Back to Business: Lessons From Mr. Rogers

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Fred Rogers is not your typical pop culture icon. If his show came out today, it would likely be set aside in favor of a binge-worthy, fast-paced and high-drama series. However, his show impacted a generation of the children who now make up the largest proportion of the U.S. labor force — including yours truly. 

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The 2018 HBO documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? pulled back the curtain on Fred Rogers’ life and intimate moments, uncovering the man behind the iconic sweater. It was a timely reminder of a man whose goals and intentions were to help make the world a more loving and kind place. For the generation of elder millennials experiencing a second recession amidst a global pandemic, it feels almost necessary to pause and apply Mr. Rogers’ lessons to the workplace. 

How different would work look if people functioned in the spirit of Mr. Rogers? If colleagues used the teachings of Mr. Rogers on their teams? What potential could a business unlock if the message it gave to every employee was, “You don’t ever have to do anything sensational to belong here?”

Related: Why It’s Important to Build a Good Work Culture

Here are three things businesses can learn from Mr. Rogers today.

1. Redefine high potential 

Not everyone is a fan of the beloved Mr. Rogers. He’s been falsely accused of creating a generation of entitled children by telling them they were remarkable for simply being who they were. In a scathing Wall Street Journal article, one critic even argued that “what often got lost in his self-esteem building patter was the idea that being special comes from working hard and having high expectations for yourself.” 

Those critiques showcase a uniquely American view. Success does not happen in a vacuum. Community, networking and connections play a significant role in upward mobility. The idea that every individual is responsible for working hard to get the things he or she wants in life is riddled with logical fallacies, gaslighting and often blame from the more privileged generations who came before. And while 90% of people born in the 1940s achieved higher wages and standard of living than their parents, only 50% of millennials born in the 1980s experienced the same. So today, for many people in the U.S., there’s “not enough wealth” to go around, no matter how hard they may work. Do we really believe people have to be exceedingly special to provide a decent living for their families? It appears so, as a whopping 62% of jobs in the U.S. today don’t provide a middle-class wage

Organizations perpetuate the same belief that there isn’t enough for everyone by only paying the people who “provide the most value.” The view from the outside is that only these special, chosen, high-performing few deserve a better life and opportunity to build generational wealth. For a clear example of how extreme this practice has become, you only need to look at how we compensate executives whose wages have grown 1,322% between 1978 and 2020. For comparison, the top 0.1% of earners have only seen 341% wage growth, and the average employee only 18% wage growth in the same period. 

Mr. Rogers provides a counter-narrative to the high-performance (HiPo) prioritization we see in most organizations. By taking a page from his book, we can redefine value at work from an artificial set of metrics that disproportionately reward a few upper-middle-class, wealthy, white men (and a few women)

The reality is that all employees can and do play a role in an organization’s success — we simply must redefine high potential. In the paper “Everyone is Equal, but Some are More Equal than Others”, Yost and Chang channel Mr. Rogers and create a guide for organizations seeking a kinder way to categorize potential:

  • Potential for what:  By focusing on the few high-potential employees, companies neglect the importance of every employee to the success of a business. A HiPo in sales and marketing strategy would never be successful without the operational team that executes her plan. How much more human capability could we unleash if, instead, we asked, “How can organizations help everyone increase their potential?” Because there is no such thing as a high performer in isolation. 
  • Potential as place: Imagine organizations that are flatter and more dynamic. Instead of thinking of potential as “moving up,” potential can be realized through horizontal movement. Finding a match for individual capabilities with company needs (within or outside of the scope of a role) can increase potential for everyone. 
  • Potential as process: It takes time for the process to bring out potential — which, by definition, has not been realized yet. Thinking of potential as a process gives people in organizations the freedom to learn how to develop themselves and others. This can be done through an equitable distribution of access to resources that have historically been available to a few privileged people like stretch assignments, mentorship and sponsorship, formal and informal networking, robust and resourced development plans, feedback, and opportunities reflection.

By seeing a workplace as a collective of potential instead of individual performers, we can help employees be their best selves beyond performance metrics.

Related: Community Is the Best Company Culture

2. Flip the script on conflict

Fred Rogers normalized emotions. He displayed and had dialogue about a wide range of feelings and healthy reactions to the entire spectrum of emotion — even anger or disappointment. Frequently in organizations, the high-potential folks are the only ones supported in experiencing and expressing these negative emotions. However, conflict at work is often interpersonal and impacts teams and people more negatively than positively, resulting in increased stress and decreased well-being. But as Mr. Rogers taught us, the conflict has the potential for good.

Conflict can boost creativity, result in better solutions and increase learning in complex tasks. It can lead teams to unexpected results and stronger relationships. So how can people turn tension into a productive tool? By responding with curiosity, openness and warmth. 

Displaying warm and inviting behaviors in the face of conflict is called non-complementary behavior —something that’s extraordinarily hard to do. But when people act in non-complementary ways, it acts as an extraordinary impetus for change.

If instead of defending or responding with aggression to conflict (i.e., asking “What’s wrong with you?”), get curious (i.e., “What happened to you?” “It seems like you’ve had a unique experience here”), and you will likely change a hostile situation into a warm one. 

By channeling Mr. Rogers, we can cultivate healthy conflict and drive cultures of curiosity, allowing people to be more fully themselves at work. Emotions are not something to defend against if we reframe them in his pedagogy: “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” 

3. Build community 

Fred Rogers’ childhood was not always easy. He was overweight, shy, had low self-esteem and suffered from asthma in a heavy industry town. Often stuck inside during summers due to air congestion, he felt isolated both physically and emotionally. While he learned to have self-confidence later in life, those childhood experiences stuck with him. They greatly influenced the adult he became and led him to build community with and for children (and adults) who had experienced adversity growing up.

Now imagine the CEO of your company held that view — that our job as a community is to help other human beings navigate and grow through the ebbs and flows of their lives. That your CEO believed in this idea so strongly he or she assigned a chief neighborhood officer and a team of people whose sole function was to build community, care for the humans who interact with the organization and lift people up within and outside of organizations.

Being in positive relationships with others is essential to health, happiness and even has positive outcomes for the organization. Having a best friend at work is linked to seven-fold increases in engagement, higher levels of well-being, better customer interactions and higher quality work. For many of us, work is our modern-day neighborhood, and if we aren’t supported in overcoming our own challenges, how can we model that behavior and pass it on to others?

Perhaps some of you already have people or community teams doing similar work and have felt the impact of care, compassion and collective growth as a core value of your workplace. 

If we prioritize building and cultivating community as Mr. Rogers did, we can create systems that lift people up and empower them to do the same for others.

Related: 5 Ways to Harness the Power of Community to Grow Your Business

Bringing the neighborhood to your business

Regardless of where your organization is today, I encourage you to take a step back and think about where you find kindness and community in your workplace. And, where we can, take a page from Mr. Rogers and build even more. When it comes to the workplace, his wisdom still holds true: “Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort.”

Fred Rogers has been a role model for how to live and work for me and others for many years, but sharing his lessons now feels more pertinent than ever. Over the past two years, we have experienced an unprecedented transition in how we gather, relate to one another and how work happens. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to walk through the portal and imagine a new way of being — guided by heroes of our childhood who envisioned a place where no one had to be extraordinary to be valued. 

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