Authentic Interactions at Work as a Driver for Growth and Learning

March 20, 2023 by Natalie Van den Plas

Enabel is the Belgian Development Agency with more than 2,000 colleagues working in 21 countries mainly in Africa. This cultural diversity is incredibly enriching. At the same time, it is also important to acknowledge that it can influence collaboration if certain assumptions are not brought in the open. Especially giving the mix of nationalities that are working together each day.

It is also becoming more clear (and accepted) that the quality of our interactions at work is important and can be a real gamechanger to feel included and appreciated at work. Both elements play a role in giving our best every day and working successfully together as a team and to grow as an individual.

What is authentic relating?

We started exploring alternative ways of collaborating in 2021 based on collaborative governance – a project which I have been part of since. One of the elements that resonated a lot with us was provided by the external organization that supported us in this reflection (Phusis) and highlighted the importance of ‘authentic relating’.

We define authentic relating as both a mindset or intention and a set of practices.

As a mindset or intention it is about really caring about the other, and favorising authentic and respectful interactions with our colleagues.

A set of practices can help us with this intention, such as active listening techniques, sharing signs of recognition and non-violent communication (NVC).

Why is this different than your typical ‘how to give better feedback’ session?

I think the intentionality and choice of the organization to not just invest in strengthening a certain communication technique but really put this intention central and as a guidance in what we do makes a big difference.

We all accept that these practices are not always easy and literally need practice to make them our own on an individual level. But the mindset that the quality of our interactions is important and that we want to create safe spaces to be more authentic is getting more and more ingrained in our DNA.

A radical choice for authenticity

It is exactly this mindshift for me that is so valuable. Because all too often we think of a work environment more in terms of results and performance, projects and deliverables, or human and financial resources.

It’s not always easy to see our interactions with colleagues as equally central in this or thinking about our feelings and needs (part of the non-violent communication model) in a work context and being more open (and maybe vulnerable) about ourselves.

But it is exactly this shift that can really be a driver for a growth mindset.


How can more authentic interactions stimulate a growth mindset?

If we have the fundamental intention to really care about colleagues (and by extension ourselves) and favor authentic and respectful interactions with them, this opens the door for getting to know ourselves better.

Learning about ourselves

Taking a moment to reflect on situations that gave us energy in our work (or situations that depleted that energy), we can get more clarity on how we really felt (was it frustration or disappointment?) and what need of ours (the things we find important) weren’t fulfilled. This can be eye opening, as it relates not only to what the other person did in the situation but also about our own role in it, and how our own feelings and needs color every interaction.

Learning from others

By building trust and openness between colleagues, it becomes more easy to share positive recognition and constructive feedback. This gives us again the opportunity to learn more about ourselves and how others perceive us. At the same time, this is ideally a two-way interaction.

The most meaningful feedback is specific and authentic, and shares not only a quality of the receiver but also something about the giver and what they find important.

Think about something that you really appreciated from a colleague this week; for example, a really good presentation. Try to define what it was exactly that you appreciated. The content, structure, energy? Then take it one step further and think about why you appreciated this. What need did it fulfil? Maybe you felt low on energy and were energized, inspired, felt insecure and the presentation reassured you? And why not actually share this with a colleague? I’m sure it will make them smile, create a positive vibe, and you both gained more insight in yourself and the other, which will strengthen the quality of your interactions.

A growth mindset This shows how more authentic interactions with colleagues can help us better understand ourselves, and what is really important for us in our collaboration and work.

It will help to be more clear about our own development goals and adopting a growth mindset in which learning and training is seen as something natural and within our own control. We are an actor in our own learning and growth.

It requires courage to accept this responsibility for our own growth and to expose ourselves a bit more in some interactions. But I really believe it is worth it, given the time we dedicate to work and the more meaningful and rewarding interactions with colleagues that it can provide.

How are we anchoring this within the organization?

We choose to focus, first of all, on creating a shared reference framework to talk about the intention of authentic relating and three key practices that we want to share and use broadly within the organization (active listening techniques, sharing signs of recognition and non-violent communication).

There is a very hands-on in-person training session on the mindset and practices that is organized for all Enabel staff in the different countries where we are based. At this moment, more than 25% of the staff have already taken the session (mainly in our offices in Rwanda, Niger, Guinea, Senegal and Belgium) and others will follow in 2023 and 2024. Each training is followed by a 21-day challenge where participants are invited to actively focus on specific elements during the three weeks that follow the training and an extra intervision session after that. Which is also why we refer to it as a journey more than a training.

At the same time, we are trying to strengthen the overall ecosystem to anchor the mindset into the DNA of our organization, and create a safe environment to practice and to engage more authentically with each other. This will be key to really anchor this within the organization in a sustainable way, as this is not a one-shot action.

For the countries that have already received the training there are local ‘authentic relating stewards’ defined that will be a focal point to relay questions and help ensure a safe and stimulating environment for authentic relating within each country office.

In parallel, we try to communicate regularly during the year to highlight authentic relating practices and keep the momentum going within the organization. Linked to the Belgian day of the compliment on March 1, we organized a week-long awareness of positive recognition, inviting colleagues to share their recognition with others.

In the future, we plan to offer extra intervision sessions and other types of team activities (such as team evaluation or team development workshop), built on the same authentic relating framework.

The key is to accept that this is a longer process that we can only co-construct with all our colleagues. I’m looking forward to continuing this journey.

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