Company as Host: The Perks of Employer Hospitality

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Henri Nouwen writes, “Guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host.” In this reflection from our series What My Employer Gets Right, Sam Van Eman applies these words to employers who play host to their employee guests.

"You can be my guest if you believe what I believe, think the way I think and behave as I do." Henri Nouwen argued that this sort of attitude "leads easily to exploitation, making hospitality into a business.”

Hospitality issues aside, it's not exactly a high view of business either, is it?

Times have changed since 1975 when Nouwen's Reaching Out was published. He wasn’t talking about the relationship between employers and employees anyway. This is a good thing since businesses have moved toward a more human approach, toward being hosts who actually enjoy serving their guests. Nouwen might even have changed his wording if he had encountered places like Zappos and Wegmans and Google.

In this reflection from our series What My Employer Gets Right, we step back from positive signs of God’s presence in specific workplaces to take a broad look at how hospitality could help every employer get it right.

Gifts to Be Given and Received

There is a well-known story in Luke 24:13-35 about two travelers who discover Jesus after they invite a stranger to walk with them along the road. Hospitality and transparent communication result in an eye-opening blessing for them. This is what comes to mind when Nouwen writes, “Old and New Testament stories…tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host.”

We experience similar stories today. We invite a neighbor to the porch, which leads her to share a gift we didn’t know she possessed, like humor, counsel, or compassion. We care for a stranded driver who ends up giving back more than we put in. Whatever the tale, these surprises happen between human beings, not with characters like IBM or Target. Companies rarely enter the mix.

But should they?

Imagine that Nouwen had been writing to business owners instead, saying, “The Harvard Business Review tells us that employees carry incredible surprises with them, which they are excited about sharing with their employers.” This paraphrase raises three important questions:

  • What precious gifts do we carry as employees?
  • What would make us eager to reveal them to our employers?
  • What makes an employer receptive?

Gifts We Carry

We’ve taken all the tests to discover what gifts we carry: Strengthsfinder, Predictive Index, IQ, Myers-Briggs. Yet we continue finding ourselves in situations that call forth surprises. A promotion uncovers the ability to manage people, a crisis proves that we can handle pressure, a change of bosses or in the financial market or with our stamina shows adaptability we didn’t know we had. Every day, opportunities arise for something new to appear, and so often it has the power to bless those who sign our paychecks.

Eagerness to Share

Sometimes, however, we don’t want to bless others with our gifts. When my wife and I get in an argument, I have no interest in doing nice things for her. This is an immature response, I confess, but sullenness avoids kindness, even if an opportunity unrelated to our spat arises. Then she reaches out with a gentle word or a bowl of soup, and I find myself in new space. An inviting space. In that moment, obstinacy begins a turn toward willingness, which then and very quickly becomes eagerness. I grow up in this space. It’s where I admit my wrongs.

Her hospitality does not involve surrendering victory in order to end an argument I caused. Rather, it demonstrates maturity as she plays host to a guest.

Similarly, employers who make room for disagreement and then act with maturity create space for disgruntled employees. They foster an environment of eagerness. We want to share with an organization we respect. We want to replace our rebellions with loyalty to a company who plays host to a guest, especially when its size and power could run us over.

Receptivity of an Employer

Good, healthy space invites. In 1948, 3M initiated 15 percent time for its employees to innovate. Creativity, risk, and failure were encouraged. In a company with close to ninety thousand employees worldwide, finding a voice can seem impossible, yet out of this space came products like Scotchgard Fabric Protector and Post-It Notes. When Google invited its employees to a similar program, Gmail was born.

Receptivity of an employer is more than a passive, accidental noticing of our gifts. Learning situations are often forced upon us (the crisis that proves we can handle stress, for example), but as with 3M, employers become receptive when they create space on purpose.

“We will never believe that we have anything to give unless there is someone who is able to receive.” Able to receive is the first part. Nouwen then proposes, “What is revealed as good, worthwhile or as a new contribution needs to be affirmed.” Affirmation acknowledges our strong work ethic, useful solutions, clever diplomacy, or boost in sales. But we need more than an Employee of the Month certificate. Employers must take a third step:

The good host is the one who not only helps the guests to see that they have hidden talents, but who also is able to help them develop and deepen these talents … .

If we find ourselves in a job where 1) we possess gifts, 2) we feel eager to share those gifts, and 3) the employer not only welcomes those gifts but helps to “develop and deepen” them, we should stay put.

What if the company behaves out of alignment with our tenets of faith (presuming it is not an outright harmful establishment, of course)? If it treats us as contributing members, we still should stay put. Having a voice at work can benefit a company if Christ is at work in us. Consider how Nouwen speaks of students’ contribution to teachers: “[T]hey are indeed like guests who honor the house with their visit and will not leave it without having made their own contribution.”

The Challenge of Size

Influence becomes more difficult, we know, as size increases. Companies may start with two friends in a garage, a rather human context. As they expand to ten or two-hundred, natural separations appear. New employees find themselves outside of the inner circle, despite frequent communication with the owners. Larger separations limit new employees to exchanging hellos with upper-management in the parking lot. Eventually, that inner circle gets so far removed that the relationship between employer and employee becomes corporate—not in the Latin sense of becoming a body, but in a crass sense meaning less human.

With size often comes institutionalization. To the degree an organization becomes institutionalized, the more difficult it is for the humans within it to act like a community.

The June 2015 edition of Fast Company addressed this point in the feature “Goodbye, Org Chart.” General Stanley McChrystal, author of Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World, calls for a highly connected and highly communicative workplace model to replace the old top-down command structure.

He writes of new research that proves “that sharing information and creating strong horizontal relationships improves the effectiveness of everything from businesses to governments to cities.” The research, done by MIT professor Sandy Pentland, suggests that “the collective intelligence of groups and communities has little to do with the intelligence of their individual members and much more to do with the connections between them.”

Connections between them. This is the antithesis to separation.

Pentland calls these connections “idea flow,” and it thrives on two components: engagement within a group and exploration between groups. Close ties like these require trust, transparency, collaboration, and common vision. Silos of interdependence cut these ties. Institutionalized separation keeps the ties from ever being made.

If what Pentland and McChrystal are saying is true, then it is not enough for employers to simply decide to be receptive. Wishful generosity requires cultural intentionality. The business model itself must change. Fortunately, starting with the right model and holding onto it through each iteration—each merger, acquisition, hire—can fuse the model with the business, literally forming a single entity. Whether it’s two guys in a garage, or a few girlfriends on Etsy, how we begin says a lot about how we’ll end, which brings us to the final point.

Family as Company

If businesses—large and small—are to create hospitable space and employees are to engage and connect and reveal in that space, where do we learn how? The answer, curiously, points to the family.

Parents naturally act as a team. Children do the same. Using Pentland’s language, a healthy family experiences engagement within each team as well as interconnections between the teams. For instance, parents plan Saturday’s activities, but the children may have their own ideas. The children request changes, pleading with pros and cons that intend to woo and also benefit the parents. The parents see new value and respond with prerequisites that measure the children’s commitment to the adjusted plan (e.g. Room must be clean; No whining). In the end this “team of teams” enjoys a better Saturday.

Nouwen strengthens the argument:

What parents can offer is a home, a place that is receptive but also has the safe boundaries within which their children can develop and discover what is helpful and what is harmful. There their children can ask questions without fear and can experiment with life without taking the risk of rejection. … The hospitable home indeed is the place where father, mother and children can reveal their talents to each other, become present to each other as members of the same human family and support each other in their common struggles … .

The point here is not to be cute. Replace “home” with “office,” and “children” with something like “Research and Development staff.” Turn “experiment with life” into “experiment at 3M,” and suddenly this model becomes a lot more appealing as an ideal work environment. The business becomes a receptive host, creating healthy space for its employees to grow, take risks, and reveal their gifts. And we learn much of this in our early years in the most fundamental social unit.

None of us will ever have an employer who gets it all right. Some of us might get close. But if our employers commit to a greater hospitality, and if we, as employees, commit to offering our lives and talents to those giving us a place to work in the world, then with God’s grace all of us can get a little closer to getting it right.