Renewing Our Belief in the Power of People
“I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”
The more I see others from my heart and not my judgment, the more compassion I have for my fellow human beings. Admittedly, this is a work in progress.
There’s something poignant about pilots reporting their final passenger count as having a number of souls on board. Maybe we should do that in the workplace – report how many souls work here or how many souls are in this meeting? Regardless of your beliefs, using the term feels inclusive – like we’re all in this together. We’re not talent, direct reports, admins, vendors, temps, C-Suiters, or new hires – but souls on a journey – separate and together.
Too many people talk about their colleagues with a mixture of frustration and cynicism. Too many well-meaning books and articles label people as difficult, unreasonable, dysfunctional – even toxic.
It’s true that difficult, unreasonable, dysfunctional and even toxic conditions within many organizations and institutions produce all sorts of unhealthy actions. These behaviors are often triggered by unresolved emotions and exacerbated by systems insensitive to human needs. I’ve been exposed to my share of it – at both ends – as an employee and as a consultant. I understand the growing pressures that most workers are up against these days. I get why so many people feel discouraged and cynical.
How can we expect workers to act with respect, kindness and compassion in workplaces that are cauldrons of anxiety? How can we expect people to thrive in organizations with life-sucking systems and practices that reinforce fear and discourage honesty?
Researchers have found that one relative causal factor that enables compassion is the degree of safety someone feels. The biological “switch” that turns empathy and compassion on, works when the “survival” threat systems (fear, anxiety, distress) are turned off.
According to University of Chicago Professor of Psychiatry, Dr. Stephen Porges, “Compassion requires turning off defenses. Our physiology blurs our perception of the world with different psychological experiences.” Judgment and defensiveness, Porges says, turn off the heart connection.
Today’s “post” recessionary, post-normal economic environment has, I fear, accelerated the dehumanization of work. Despite the vision and voices of courageous and dedicated change agents inside and outside of the system, real change is rare. We’ve got a long way to go towards creating healthier, smarter workplaces and we’ll need to shift the focus from objectifying people to humanizing systems.
For generations, we’ve built (and fortified) organizational systems that trigger human defense mechanisms without much thought to the outcome. Too few leaders show interest in understanding human development. And even when they understand the detrimental impact of rigid systems on human functioning, it’s an inconvenient truth they choose to overlook..
It’s understandable that the pressures and uncertainties most workers face today result in them locking down their heart-space and reserving it for family and friends. As renowned “Mother of Family Therapy” psychotherapist Virginia Satir wrote, “Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open and rules are flexible – the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”
It’s discouraging to still hear people say, “Why should I have to coddle my employees – after all, they’re paid to work, aren’t they?” Beliefs like these are old cultural introjects which rely on limited views of human nature that see work as a strictly pecuniary activity.
How Would We Act if We Really Believed That Relationships were the Lifeblood of Business?
Once we begin to deepen our understanding of interpersonal dynamics, we face a new set of choices. Few employees are able to transform the systems they work in – but don’t have to concede their power to improve their own well-being and make small changes where possible. Those changes can be particularly fruitful when it comes to building healthier workplace relationships.
While studies show that emotional contagion is most pronounced from leader to employee, the emotional tone we set in every conversation has impact.
Regardless of the circumstances you face in the workplace, there are three important questions to ask yourself to help to begin to shift how you think about your co-workers:
- How much do I allow fear to govern how relate to others at work?
- What beliefs do I carry that keep me more in judgment than openness in dealing with others?
- What’s the cost (personal, interpersonal, professional) of my negative perceptions, attitudes and actions towards others at work?
A report from the 2013 conference on Compassion and Business at Stanford University concluded, “Caring about your own well-being and caring for the well-being of others aren’t at odds. But putting compassion into practice does take time and energy. A lot of the work finds that when people are burned out, they’re not actually feeling caring and compassion at all – the pressure to express these emotions is just another load on top of them.”
As I’ve often written, people aren’t tasks, and we cannot approach caring, compassion and empathy in the workplace as another strategy, technique or project. Our view of humankind is what we bring to every social exchange, but those beliefs and emotional baggage are magnified when we are at work.
The toll of unresolved feelings, cynical world views and low trust of our colleagues (neighbors, communities, even friends) has enormous personal and social implications. Stanford conferee, Jay Narayanan talked about the cost of holding a grudge, Pointing to a clever experiment that showed grudge-holders perceived a hill as steeper than did people who had been asked to recall a time they’d forgiven someone – as if the grudge was a heavy backpack that people wear, yet they resist forgiving others because they fear it will make them appear weak and will invite exploitation.
What We Believe
Truth is we can’t blame all of our frustrations and impatience with other people on heartless systems or lack of time or past disappointments. We can’t expect better results in workplaces laden down by cynicism.
Each one of us has to look deeply at the ways we shut down our own humanness in the quest to get things done. Each one of us needs to examine the beliefs that keep us separate from others. If we’ve become jaded to the possibility that every interaction with another person can be meaningful, we need to renew our faith in what Gandhi called, the ocean of humanity.
In my journey to renew and restore my relationship to humanity, I often find solace in literature and poetry. Recently, this wonderful letter from American author E. B. White moved and inspired me. In 1973, White, described as a masterful letter-writer and “celebrant” of the human condition, received a note from a distressed admirer, lamenting his loss of faith in humankind. The 74-year-old White responded with this short, remarkably simple response.
Dear Mr. Nadeau:
As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.
Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.
E. B. White
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Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants