Cultivating compassion in the workplace isn’t always easy, especially during stressful times like we find ourselves in right now. But whether your workplace is physical or virtual, compassion can make a big difference - both to your interactions with colleagues, clients or bosses, and in how you feel moment to moment yourself.
Compassion in the Workplace
Recently a friend visited me with her two young elegant long-legged tall greyhound dogs. She arrived late in the evening after a long drive and I made the mistake of letting her dogs into my house before my dog could come down from upstairs. My little old lady pug was immediately incensed over the intrusion and uncharacteristically began barking rabidly at the newcomers invading her space. It took a bit to sort it all out but eventually the hierarchy was established, and they all settled down and napped. This little doggy demonstration is a good example and a gross display of the natural territoriality we are all constantly negotiating in life; especially in the workplace.
There is, what some might consider, a slightly primitive aspect of our makeup that naturally jockeys and positions for stature and importance. But it is a natural and necessary instinct in us to help us find our place in the world. We all engage in the unspoken ritual of jockeying for position in organizations, families, clusters, groups and dyads, even in our childhood.
The expression of finding our place in the world can become a haunting and intimidating psychological occupation for those who feel ‘less than’ and unworthy of status and place. For others, those who map more easily to current social norms of popularity, this aptitude to popularity can be taken for granted.
Maybe you are someone where this kind of jockeying for stature has never even occurred to you; but I would gently nudge you to question that notion. Either you’ve vowed off the game all together and become a reclusive and/or a processed contemplative person (a legitimate life choice) or you are the most important person in the room a lot of the time. And of course, we all manifest differently in stature depending on where we are and with whom we are associating. For most of us, however, finding our place in the world is vital to our sense of self-esteem and dignity.
This is particularly true in the work setting and the arena of livelihood.
What does all this have to do with compassion in the workplace? The psychological jostling that occurs within us for stature and place in the workplace, including having a voice and maintaining our dignity is a constant; whether we are conscious or not of this dynamic. Therefore, concern for ourselves and our own position often outweighs the ability to feel compassionate toward what others are experiencing simultaneously. Unfortunately in the vast majority of work settings, caring for others whom we work with is fraught with efforts of superficial team building. Compassion is far more demanding than getting along and working well together; although that is nice when it occurs.
“Compassion” from a contemplative psychology perspective means we actually become selfless enough to ‘feel with’ another or a group of others enough to stand in their shoes. To have compassion means we deeply aspire that others be free from suffering, self-caused or otherwise. Compassion, from this perspective, can only genuinely occur if we are willing and capable of touching into the pain of another -- as if that pain we are feeling were our own.
How this is helpful to us personally and to others is that the act of feeling into another's pain immediately cuts through our own selfishness, territoriality and solid mind-set, and affords us the opportunity to stand in the shoes of another, thus we gain understanding from another’s view, other than our own.
Feeling others’ suffering supports a different kind of wisdom in us that is beneficial for everyone, it is enriching to all and is experienced as a connection of understanding with another, something we are all deeply longing for in our lives and especially in our work environments.
This kind of wisdom actually supports respect of corporations, and fosters outcomes of accomplishment in the workplace. Not to mention, making it a much more congenial and pleasant place to work.
Embracing Compassion at Work: A Personal Story
I once took a position where I was hired to supervise a group of nine social workers, who were all feeling demoralized by the size of their caseloads. They each provided case management for an average of 50 to 75 people, all who suffered from chronic mental illness all living in poverty. Many of the clients they served were homeless. Basically the nine case workers were struggling to keep their heads above water, to keep their morale up enough to meet the daily demand, and they were running from crisis to crisis to meet the needs of the clients they served, and feeling inefficient and impotent in their jobs.
One case manager, let's call him Anthony, had worked in this Program for over 10 years, and he was extremely aggressive toward me upon my arrival as the new supervisor. He outwardly expressed his hopelessness and he demonstrated symptoms of depression when I first met him. The former supervisor had warned me that I would never reach Anthony as an employee. That he was ‘impossible to work with’ and at the same time it would be frustrating because I would not be able to fire him because he had been there so long.
As I got to know Anthony, I found his attitude appalling and difficult to work with, and his narrative openly derogatory toward the Agency and the system. And yet, his knowledge-base about mental illness, the complexity of the suffering of what his clients endured and his relationship with those clients was profound.
It would have been easy to write him off as a difficult and unlikable person to work with -- but instead… I sat with him. I inquired into his experience and asked a lot of questions. I met regularly to just listen, and eventually, I discovered that his pain was actually a shared pain of the people he served. In fact, I learned to listen to him as the voice of his clients, often clients who could never express their pain for themselves.
Over a couple of year’s time, a lot of frustration and struggle to be honest, I learned to listen to Anthony and to feel into Anthony’s pain. I shadowed him in the field and eventually, I gained his trust and respect as someone who cared about the people we served. I learned that his difficulty at work was really coming from his own compassion for the people he served, and frustration with finding any leverage to change a broken and under-funded system of care. Along the way Anthony and I closed that particular program and formed another program that was based on client engagement in a community setting. That program eventually was shut down too due to lack of funding, but it was successful and fruitful while it lasted. I learned a lot from Anthony and wish him well, and I’m certain he is still serving and being a warrior and a voice for this underserved community of those who suffer with mental illness.
Working with Compassion and Power Dynamics
Compassion is a word that is tossed around a lot these days as something like being ‘nice’ to somebody. Phrases like ‘self-compassion’ are popular and meaningful to some, however, from a contemplative psychology perspective, there is no such thing as ‘self-compassion’. The word for what people are pointing to is called Maitri; loving kindness towards ourselves and others. We interchange the word compassion for maitri constantly - especially in modern mindfulness parlance - and it's a misuse of the word, and a gross misunderstanding of the demands of genuine compassion.
Compassion is far more demanding than loving kindness, and yet loving kindness is a very necessary and important stepping stone to developing genuine compassion. From a Contemplative Psychology perspective, compassion demands we plunge into the feelings of others as an equal, not out of sympathy or charity, but because we recognize their pain in ourselves and are brave enough to touch into how it feels.
To do so takes a lot of loving kindness towards oneself and another. We have to be genuinely friendly toward ourselves and others, before we let go into feeling their suffering, or we will tank, become enmeshed, and lose ourselves in others' pain.
Engendering both maitri and compassion is a time-tested contemplative process, and normally that takes training in a safe and kind environment and guidance to go there, because it means leaning into the vulnerable within ourselves, something we are all actively avoiding at this very moment. We are professionals at that especially in the Professional setting.
Learning to feel genuine compassion for others, while at the same time jockeying for stature and importance… Well, this is not an intuitive combination. That is why I began this newsletter with the example of the dogs. We can say to ourselves, ‘they’re just dogs, of course they act like that.” But finding our place in a hierarchy is something that is always happening consciously or not in the workplace. Workplaces, almost all of them unless you are working solo, have hierarchy. Dogs demonstrate this dynamic openly, where human beings are much more tricky than dogs and skilled at hiding their true motivations behind velis and veils of self-deception and ignorance. It’s nothing malicious, it's just the complexity of our social make up, and the cosmic price of our freedom of choice.
What I’m really pointing to here is our relational dynamic with power and how those habitual tendencies affect us psycho-spiritually in the workplace. Power and its expression at work is a constant and necessary element of getting something accomplished. Power in and of itself has no stain intrinsically unless it is tainted with selfishness.
Engendering compassion in the workplace means we are going to have to delve into some deep personal patterns of how we work with power. The workplace and our daily interactions with colleagues often exaggerate age-old patterns that we carry with us everywhere we go.
These are psychological constructs or what we call “mental formations” in our consciousness that repeat over and over in the way we habitually deal with the constant jockeying for stature and place.
Bringing compassion into this mix is demanding because it requires we touch into the part of ourselves that we like to actively ignore. And we are professionals after all. Getting into emotions at work is highly inappropriate, we have learned from experience. Yes, getting into compassion means touching into the messiness and truth of emotions, without being ruled or overwhelmed by them. How do we touch into those creepy underbelly feelings around power, and our relationship to it?
Contemplation for Bringing Compassion Into the Workplace:
Here is short contemplation to do for five minutes to feel into your own experience:
- Consider your work environment currently or work places that you’ve inhabited in the past. (pause)
- Choose a particularly difficult relationship with a superior or a colleague, if you can find one in your history to touch into, (if not good for you). (pause)
- Feel the quality of that energy in your body as you bring that memory back into your consciousness. Do a brief body scan for where the energy rests in your being. (pause)
- Just feel the energy, with kindness like a mother would its crying infant, and hold the energy in your body - dropping out of the memory. (pause)
- Then consider this person with whom you struggled and consider the root of their suffering for a moment. (pause)
- Then wish them to be free from their suffering as genuinely as you can, if you cannot do so, then that is simply information… nothing to beat yourself up over. Just where you are right now.
This contemplation is a method to get close to that underbelly of energy we usually suppress or are afraid to touch in ourselves around our relationship to power and this jostling for place in the world. That energy is our teacher around how we work with power. That energy is our resource to wake up to the pain of others, which we always share around topics of working with power. When we can touch into our own pain with gentleness, then we might be able to open to the pain of others with gentleness. These are the seeds of engendering maitri and compassion in the workplace.
On another note regarding compassion in the workplace; the recent Covid crisis we are all living through, brings up many other work-related issues to contend with in terms of engendering maitri and compassion in the workplace. Many, this very moment, find themselves isolated and at home either coping with endless zoom meetings and newly designed tasks, and with little to no focus to actually get their work done. Some notice the space the pandemic has generated and actually tapped into more kindness towards others in their workplace. They notice the distance helps to dissolve old territorial lines of conflicts.
However the biggest current issue with which to generate compassion is not having a job to return to all together, or a job that is safe, or having enough income to pay one’s bills. This is a fruitful place to engender compassion in the workplace. With regards to engendering compassion towards those who’ve lost their job and don’t know where their next paycheck is coming; just feel into the experience of not being able to pay a bill or make a rent payment. The agony of that and anxiety of that - feeling that is actually opening and compassionately touching into the plight of so many at this moment.
Engendering compassion in the workplace with those we are consciously or unconsciously competing for stature and position is unfortunately not something we learn in kindergarten. In fact, learning to acknowledge power dynamics and foster consideration for others in the workplace is often sorely missing in our schooling, our parenting, and our leadership. I aspire we learn to feel into this difficult topic as power dynamics in the workplace are probably not going away, but engendering compassion in the workplace is a new frontier.