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Employee Engagement: Having Heart

Making life richer in the workplace and beyond


Kevin M. Dee

It’s a privilege to be asked to write a column on the things I care about and the work I do in the world. My editor suggested a piece on employee engagement and how to create more of it. This is a topic and area that I work in a lot and am quite comfortable doing. I started mentally composing what I should say and how to make it interesting. Then I happened to have a conversation with an elder Alaskan who I respect highly and who always seems to say something that sticks with me.

We talked about a whole host of things: how he built his first cabin, how his neighbors came from miles away to chip in or give advice, and just the richness of his many years of adventures and experiences in Alaska. Time seems to stand still when I hear his stories and the larger than life characters that fill them. Throughout all his stories, from the great adventures to the heartbreaking ones, one thing stood out: his deep passion for what he did in his life and the people who shared those times. He had heart.

The twinkle in his eyes says he still does, even worn down by life and creaky. Every adventure he shared, whether a bonanza—or bombshell of an event like losing a child—was filled with the deep gratitude for the people who came together to share the good and the bad times. I realized in listening to him the things that really matter in my life are the people I surround myself with and how I walk in my world with them. I want more of those rich meaningful experiences. In my workplace and my life I want to be surrounded by people who also live with more heart.


Having Heart

So what does it mean to have heart? You all know it when you see it. It is found in those friends and family who make your life richer just by being in it. Those close friends who, no matter how often seen, make you light up with a smile that runs throughout you. You find heart in the people in your life that challenge you to be a better person. They are part and parcel your family or extended family. You have mutual and deep trust. Your experiences with them bring out the best in you and are treasured. Heart is celebrating what’s right with the world in all its crazy messy ways.

Heart is a living compassion for each person regardless of how stupid they sometimes act. Heart is forgiving the person but not the act. Heart is allowing someone who has wronged you to make it up to you. Heart is compassion in action (and deeds) that is inclusive of the people around us and their well-being. I don’t mean just ignoring actions that affect me or others. I mean still caring about the person even when I am doing my utmost to eliminate the behaviors that are offensive.

When offensive or inappropriate behavior occurs in the workplace and the person chooses not to clean up their act, then heart is promoting that person to the job market in support of the larger group. Leadership from the heart does not fire people—they promote people to go to a workplace where their behaviors are more acceptable than your workplace. Heart, even in negative circumstances, demonstrates compassion for their well-being.

Heart also has courage to it. Courage is defined as commitment to a course of action with uncertainty as to the outcome. Heart gives you the courage to surface and talk about difficult things, ask for help and be supportable, and support those in need, even when you may have to sacrifice getting or accomplishing something for yourself.

When I see people speaking from the heart it is an instant connection. It conveys us to the place where we experience our common humanity and connection. When we take the time to listen fully, we all hear the heart of a matter. When someone shares what’s important to them and we hear it, we are heart connected.



Alaskans share many things that keep them here: family, work, the unsurpassed beauty in all seasons that is found just by gazing in any direction or looking overhead at night. Some of the most amazing people found anywhere in the world, doing extraordinary things, live and play in Alaska.

A general collective of shared difficulties and hardships that can send some people scrambling to leave the state makes those of us who love it here stronger. Not least of all that we share is the belief that we are all in this together. That is what has made this transplant from Boston fall in love and make Alaska my home since 1979.

Alaska’s heart is more than the beauty and the people here. It’s the common experience and code of helping each other out when needed. Here if someone goes ditch diving we ask ourselves if they are alright and if not, we stop and help. The very least we do is rate the quality of the ditch dive itself. Especially fun is predicting the amount of newbies ditch diving on the first real snowfall. In other places people have the tendency to look, think to themselves, ”glad it’s not me” and continue on their way (best not to get involved). Alaskans tend to lead with heart and get involved.


Got Heart?

Does your workplace have heart? Is everyone treated with respect and compassion? Does management empower people to be their best and insure that bad actors are held accountable? Does your workplace have a culture where everyone is caring, accountable, and pulls their weight to the best of their ability?

Most importantly, is your workplace and life in balance? Are you fully engaged in pursuing that which brings you passion and fulfillment at work and at home? If you can say yes to these questions, then you are well on your way. If not, what are you going to do about it? Thinking there is nothing you can do is playing the victim.

It takes courage and heart to bring about meaningful change. I see too many Eeyores who say and act if there is nothing that can be done and nothing will change in many organizations. Heart is about not giving up even after failing many times—life is too short not to have one that fills your heart with all the things that have meaning and heart. Creating the life you want does not just happen. It takes your willingness to create it for yourself and the heart-directed actions to make it happen.



This article first appeared in the November 2016 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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