Renewing Our Belief in the Power of People

I feel the capacity to care is the thing which gives life its deepest significance.”

Pablo Casals

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:

  1. How much do I allow fear to govern how relate to others at work?
  2. What beliefs do I carry that keep me more in judgment than openness in dealing with others?
  3. What’s the cost (personal, interpersonal, professional) of my negative perceptions, attitudes and actions towards others at work?

A report from a 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.”  People are not 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

Thanks for reading.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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  1. John Wenger says:

    Dear Louise, we must have been tuning into something together in the past few days. I found, as I have many times before, reading your article and nodding vigorously as if you were inside my head.
    Does compassion require turning off our defences or does cruelty require us to turn off our empathy? (rhetorical, of course) I’m fascinated by Milgram’s experiments. Equally I’m fascinated that when rhesus monkeys were taught to pull a chain to obtain food, they refrained from pulling the chain when they were shown another monkey simultaneously receiving an electric shock (…with one monkey going hungry for 12 days). So who are the animals? The litany of horrors (not too strong a word, I believe) that take place in many workplaces makes it harder to maintain a sense of compassion. We default to survival mode and forget to remember ourselves and each other.
    I remember someone in one of my leadership workshops saying, almost word for word, “Why should I have to coddle my employees – after all, they’re paid to work, aren’t they?”…and after having done a piece of Role Training and having role reversed with them, he simply looked up, smiled quietly and said, “I get it.” Changed his world utterly.
    ..and as always, when I read one of your posts, Louise, I remember that you are the break in the clouds that E.B. White wrote about.
    What a wonderful, wonderful article.

    • Hi John
      As always you raise interesting questions; do we have “default” emotional responses; if so, what are they? Cooperation and empathy? Aggression and fear? Are they conditioned? How? We have glimpses of possible answers to some of these questions now but much rests on what we believe. I just read that researchers have had some success “retraining” empathy patterns in the brain using functional brain imaging. So often these studies raise more questions, deeper ones.
      Books like The Most Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible by Charles Eisenstein point out that the “Old Story” as Eisenstein calls it, is a story based on domination. The New Story, being explored and written, speaks of endless possibilty and bringing forward what we innately know. It is a story based on trust and on a belief of inherent goodness – that is of course, reciprocal, whether we are relating to people or the earth.
      Most of the story of business is based on the “Old Story,” which is way it is often practiced coldly, which we call the way it is.
      Thank you for your kindness and being part of the New Story.
      PS Every psych student goes through their Milgram moment – I recall how fascinating and disturbing they were to me – and how in my heart I choose not to believe it was the whole story.

  2. What a lovely way to end the post Louise! I LOVE that letter! It’s one that we might all keep handy when we are feeling cynical about humanity. 😉
    Excellent post.
    Dehumanization is the main offshoot of what is going on in our society. And the clash many of us experience is in our naturally ‘shock’ in encountering this so often in our day to day lives, and to add further insult to injury, we are treated AS IF it was ‘normal’. Encouraged to ‘put on your happy face…have a positive attitude’ in the midst of a completely soulless, degrading, dehumanizing environment. i.e. education, organizations, I’d have to say in many churches.
    Highlighting a couple of quotes from you here:
    ‘These behaviors are often triggered by unresolved emotions and exacerbated by systems insensitive to human needs.’
    ‘Researchers have found that one relative casual 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.’
    In short, how can anyone open to ‘love’ when they are having to protect themselves from various ‘attacks’? That’s at the crux of it. How to override our naturally tendency to protect ourselves if we are in an unsafe environment or with an unsafe person.
    Many of us have been treated as if we have no right to protect ourselves. No right at all…
    Another dehumanizing act.
    Again, loved the ray of hope offered in the letter at the end.
    Another brilliant post Louise.

    • Great to hear from you Samantha – appreciate all your excellent insights. I believe we are in a period where the struggle to humanize (deeply) collides with the crushing dehumanization you refer to. I believe it’s part of the climb out of centuries of limited, oppressive thinking that has allowed systems to continue when they do not meet people’s needs.
      Whether we like to use the term or not, it’s about a desire to continue to consolidate rather than share power. Sharing power is an enlightened idea that many parts of various cultures are not only not ready for – but are actively trying to repress.
      And yes, it is particularly maddening that this is treated as “normal,” the focus is still on the individual and their unwilingess to conform to the status quo. So while there is a growing (thankfully) movement to hold up the virtues of love, empathy, compassion, kindness, gratitude etc, it is very challenging for many people who are feeling the weight of so much anxiety to
      experience this. That is why I believe the self-compassion message is such an important one.
      Thanks again~

  3. Sangeeta says:

    What a beautiful, uplifting and strengthening article Louise! Thank you… for this article and steadily winding the clock on a regular basis for us all 🙂

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