A Compassionate Workplace
A Compassionate Workplace
Empathy is important, but should it be the focus at work?
Keith Richardson makes the case that compassion is the opportunity to build a more collaborative, connected, and positive workplace.
It feels like just yesterday that most of us were still working with the expectation that we have a “work self” and a “home self”.
Oh, how the times are seismically shifting.
During the industrial age and into the technological age, we have been expected to do our jobs and then go home.
How we feel and who we are have been kept mostly out of the workplace.
The Shift… Bring your “whole-self”
Today, however, there is a focus on bringing our “whole selves” to work.
We are wanting and being asked to be more vulnerable, express more empathy, and not to hide in our emotional corners.
It is not easy to merge your “home self” and “work self”.
It is a process. It is even harder to accept and understand everyone else’s journey to doing the same thing.
And, the guidance we get is deep, self-work, that takes time.
The trainings, books, and courses we all take to help ourselves along often assume we are at a common starting point.
As a result, it’s hard for us to really understand how much easier it is for some and how much more difficult it is for others.
Social dynamics, social expectations, and personal expectations all add to the overly complex human formula of existence that make this cultural transition difficult.
It is actually easier, in the short term, to stick with the binary “work self” and “home self”.
It creates a boundary we can more clearly see.
It is especially easier to see other people from this lens.
Yet, we push and are pushed along because the data is clear.
When we make this transition together and collectively, we are happier at our jobs, we are more productive, and organizations grow much faster.
In comes Empathy
Empathy has come along as a key principle in navigating this cultural shift.
It has become an anchoring tenant in so many of the courses, books and trainings we take to help us be more vulnerable, express ourselves more “wholly”, and to not hide in our emotional corners.
For good reason.
Empathy is an incredibly powerful emotion.
And, I agree with its importance.
Especially when you are trying to give emotional support to someone in pain.
Empathy gives us an opportunity to understand and feel what another person is going through.
Empathy isn’t easy
However, the thing about empathy, is that it can be difficult to access.
And, we all have different ability to feel someone else’s pain.
Some of us are naturally more empathic.
Some of us have to work much harder to access it.
Empathy cannot be forced.
As a result, it is difficult to build culture around empathy when taking into consideration the vast spectrum of emotional intelligence and empathetic capability.
And maybe we have, for that moment.
Empathy can be counterproductive
Empathy is about feeling what someone else is feeling.
Specifically feeling the pain someone is feeling.
This can ultimately create a counterproductive response. When we feel the pain of others our brains can go into protective mode.
The person experiencing empathy may end up personalizing that pain as if it is theirs.
Thus, that person goes into protective mode to alleviate their own pain rather than helping the other person.
Potentially making the situation worse.
On the other end of that emotional spectrum, as essayist Leslie Jamison writes, “Empathy can offer a dangerous sense of completion.”
The very act of feeling what the other person feels…giving that person a sense they aren’t alone, can draw out powerful feelings of accomplishment.
Thus, we can easily see empathy as enough.
Feeling empathy can lead to someone feeling accomplished in that moment.
Empathy is amazing, just incomplete
Before I slip down the road of seemingly taking issue with empathy as a tool in the workplace, let me add clarity.
Empathy is amazing, it just is an incomplete strategy.
If this shift to bringing “whole self” is going to be successful, we need levels of action. If we are going to accept others for their vulnerability and be vulnerable ourselves, we need more than empathy.
This collective shift can’t just be about how we feel other’s experiences and their pain.
And, it can’t just be about how we accept those experiences and that pain.
The cultural shift also needs be about how we act with our emotions and the experiences of others to keep the organization moving forward.
And, because accessing empathy is difficult for many, especially with the stress of a workday, we need a more complete strategy.
Side note…stress is a big blocker to accessing empathy.
We need to lean on empathy when it makes most sense.
We need to work on our own empathic state, but we still need more if we expect the culture of our workplaces to truly change.
Let’s introduce compassion.
You may think it is the same.
And, there are similarities that may have you asking, “why differentiate.”
Well, there is a significant difference in how we process compassion that it is important to distinguish.
It actually functions differently in our brain.
Compassion is directly connected to the parts of our brain that experience love. It also ties to parts of our brain that make us move.
Why does that matter?
Compassion leads to action.
When we feel compassion toward someone else we are more likely to act in a way that benefits THEIR circumstance.
Compassion isn’t just about others
Another key to compassion is that we can practice it on ourselves.
It’s something most of us struggle to do, especially if we have spent so much of our life forging a mental picture that is suddenly challenged by a new reality.
Admitting to ourselves that we need to change becomes more difficult because we don’t give ourselves enough grace and compassion to accept what is and act to help ourselves move forward.
That just makes it even harder to look at someone else with compassion.
Because we can apply compassion to self, it also gives us more opportunities to practice making it easier to give toward someone else.
The reason I emphasize compassion is because it is something we can more easily access.
As we access it we are more likely to implement change behaviors to help others or the organization.
Empathy can be a great catalyst for compassionate acts at workplaces.
But it is not required.
Compassion is most purely accessed when you relate to someone else’s suffering.
However, it does not require you to suffer. Simply to understand their suffering.
If someone you know has lost a loved one and you never have, it can be hard to truly empathize with them.
But, if you give yourself a moment to think about what that could be like you can feel compassion and ultimately SHOW compassion for them as a result of that person’s experience.
Not just because you feel it, but because you connect to it in your own way.
In the workplace this can lead to actions that have the other person feeling less alone, feeling supported, and maybe given a break in order for them to process their grief.
The key to compassion is the activation of appropriate action for the benefit of the other not for the self.
We don’t just understand the other person we act to help benefit them with what they need.
You may feel sympathy for someone and in turn offer to do something for them.
Likely, the offer to do something for them is based on what you think you would need in that situation.
Acting with compassion anchors on finding out what would work for the other person.
You may offer an idea or just ask, “what would help you in this situation?”
You may be able to accommodate or suggest something that is close but possible. It’s not about fixing the problem from your own experience.
It’s about the other person feeling understood and assisted.
Compassion doesn’t just happen
Here is the thing, we don’t feel compassion right away in most situations.
It is not automatic.
Yet, it is something that we can work to access more quickly.
That access comes from anchoring our perspective on the idea of lived experience.
We all have suffered in some way. To be human is to experience suffering.
We may not suffer or feel pain over the same things, but that experience can allow us to access compassion for someone else who is feeling a certain way about something.
We just have to make the effort.
And in that, we can more effectively demonstrate compassion toward someone else.
What does the effort look like?
A few ideas for you today.
You can express compassion without feeling compassion.
Be supportive, understanding, and simply receive whatever someone is saying without giving advice or attempting to fix.
Ask how you can be supportive.
If you have an idea that is for them (“can I suggest taking the day off?) then suggest it.
But, if you aren’t sure, just ask “what can we (I) do to help you today?”
If you don’t understand, ask a question.
If you can seek further understanding, your connection to their circumstance will be easier and thus your actions will be more natural.
A more collaborative, connected, and positive workplace
Ultimately, our ability to connect with others greatly hinges on our ability to relate to one another.
We have some innate human tools to help us improve our lived experience and impact other’s lived experience.
Empathy, sensorimotor contagion, emotional contagion, sympathy, and compassion are all in our tool belt to better connect and relate to each other.
Some of these responses are more automatic than others.
Some people have more innate ability to access these responses than others.
We are collectively best served when we know how to access and implement each tool to ensure we are leaving a positive impact on people and the environments we are in.
With compassion, we can intentionally move through the world, not just feeling for others, but acting to help others when they are in need.
Not only can we help others, we can use compassion to help ourselves.
We can leverage compassion to make our lives, our environments, and our workplaces a more positive place to be so we all benefit.
Their purpose is to drive productive human connection across cultures, backgrounds, and disparate viewpoints by anchoring people in compassionate conversation.