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“I Like You Just the Way You Are”: 4 Lessons from Mister Rogers About Building a Strong Company Culture

Source | | Bruce Anderson

Fred Rogers, a beloved pioneer of U.S. children’s television and the long-time host of his celebrated show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, had red-green color blindness. He couldn’t distinguish his blazing red cardigan sweater from his go-to green one.

But while he couldn’t distinguish the colors of some of his famed zip-ups, he was acutely aware that people came in all sorts of colors and he embraced people of all races and religions, all ages and abilities. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood featured François Clemmons, the first African American actor with a recurring role on a children’s TV show. And, over the years, Mister Rogers’s guests included a rainbow coalition of the celebrated and the little known.

With his mantras of “there’s no person in the whole world just like you” and “I like you just the way you are,” Fred Rogers was a champion of what more than one writer has called “radical acceptance.”

With the release of It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a feature film starring Oscar-winner Tom Hanks as the beloved TV host, there’s renewed interest in what Mister Rogers had to say about children and kindness. There should also be attention paid to what he had to say, indirectly, about business.

Here are four vital lessons from Mister Rogers on building a robust company culture:

1. Foster inclusion and belonging by celebrating people’s differences

In many ways, Mister Rogers was decades ahead of his time with his message of accepting and celebrating people for who they are rather than who you want them to be — “I like you just the way you are.”

Mister Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he didn’t just preach radical acceptance. He practiced it. “Fred was intentional about the atmosphere he created on the program as well as on the set,” wrote Jeanne Marie Laskas, who worked at WQED with Mister Rogers, in a recent profile in The New York Times. “If you could provide an environment that allowed people to be comfortable enough to be, simply, who they are, what would happen? . . . This idea of accepting a person, a child, or anyone as is was a novel concept to me.”

But this kind of acceptance allows people to feel psychologically safe and to tap into their best selves, driving performance and engagement. When you’re part of a team that values your opinion and your work, you speak up and contribute more. 

In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Pat Wadors, then LinkedIn’s head of HR, noted a number of ways to foster a culture of belonging. She suggested introducing colleagues as whole persons, beyond their roles and responsibilities, and sharing stories and encouraging others to share their own.

2. Promote curiosity about the lived experiences of others

For inclusion and belonging to really take hold in an organization, employees — from the top all the way down — have to understand and appreciate what the workplace looks like for others. Uzo Akotaobi is the VP of HR, diversity and inclusion, and learning and development at Prologis, and he encourages employees to have an “insane curiosity” about the lived experiences of others.

In a conversation with Brendan Browne, LinkedIn’s head of global talent acquisition, Uzo says: “To understand that difference, that creates the bridge of empathy.”

Mister Rogers gives a master class in this kind of “insane curiosity” in an episode with Jeff Erlanger, a 10-year-old boy who was confined to a wheelchair by a spinal tumor. Mister Rogers asks Jeff questions, gently but insistently, about his electric wheelchair, his medical condition, and his doctors. Jeff answers all of Mister Rogers questions, not only educating his host and the TV audience about his condition, but teaching everyone about how it’s possible to cope, gracefully and articulately, with a disability. 

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