Compassionate Approach in the Workplace

With some places now coming out of lockdown and others going back in for their second wave, Christy Mori discusses with Dr. Josephine Palermo the importance of having a compassionate approach in the workplace and some tips on how leaders can create a culture of compassion in the workplace.

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Christy (00:10):

Welcome to Gears, Action, Growth, shifting business culture, one conversation at a time. My name is Christy Mori and I’m joining Dr. Josephine Palermo, whose superpower is to create business cultures that transform organisations team by team. Today, we’ll be chatting about compassionate approach in the workplace. Hope you get value from it.

Christy (00:40): Hey Jo. Good evening. How are you? Good.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (00:42):

I’m good. How are you, Christy?

Christy (00:44):

Yeah, I’m doing all right. This week we’re… this is the first time we’re actually recording in the evening. We always record in the morning, don’t we? But you’re a night owl.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (00:53):

I am, so I’m feeling great, but I know you’re a morning person.

Christy (00:57):

I’m actually not Jo! I’m actually a night owl that tried to be a morning person. So now I’m in between. It’s like, I can’t win. I’m really trying though, but I think I’m also a night person as well, even though, you know, today it doesn’t feel like it, but hopefully our listeners feel like we’re, you know, I’m still happy to be here.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (01:21):


Christy (01:22):

Yeah. So it’s been pretty busy hasn’t it? It just, it feels busy out of lockdown.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (01:27):

I know. And it’s been such a shock coming out of that slower pace of lockdown to this crazy, you know, freedom of movement and yeah, it’s really hectic. And with Christmas coming, I mean the biggest, my biggest concern is how am I going to fit in the Christmas shopping? So I don’t know.

Christy (01:48):

Are you going to give gift cards? Gift cards are nice. I, I agree. Yeah.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (01:51):

You might get one Christy! [laughs]

The Compassionate Approach

Christy (01:55):

Did you check the… oh, we’re recording? I was going to say like, did you check our locker at Higher Spaces? Okay. No worries. Okay. So for everybody, we are, so obviously listeners, who’ve been listening for a little bit now, you know that we’re out of lockdown as we are in Melbourne, but we understand there’s a lot of places who are still in lockdown around the world. So today we’re trying to raise awareness for companies to take notice of how employees and team members are feeling and acting. So that’s why we’re talking about compassionate approach. So let’s kick it off with why is being compassionate something that leaders should be concerned about?

Dr. Josephine Palermo (02:43):

Okay. So, so Christy, to demonstrate this, I want to tell you a story, right? So I’m going to put you, yeah, I’m going to put you in the story. So I’m going to tell you a story about Brian, the CEO. And I got this story from John Eades. So thank you John Eades, but I’m going to put you in Brian’s company. So you are an employee of Brian, so you can see yourself there.

Christy (03:10):

Yeah. I could see myself there. Is it luxurious office or is it like a shack?

Dr. Josephine Palermo (03:17):

It’s a medium sized sales and marketing business. So, you know, it’s a nice office and, and, and, you know, the company has been around for about 20 years. So you know, with the same CEO. So every it’s like, it’s like a bit of a family there. People are very used to working with each other and Brian has really built quite a profitable and successful company. So, you know, you feeling pretty happy about being there. However, you know, as we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic hits and Brian is in a bit of denial when it does hit and he doesn’t really put in place any changes to any proactive changes so that the impact on his business is minimised. So he encourages you and other people who are working in the company to keep doing what they’ve always done.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (04:10):

In less than a month though, of course, though his sales pipeline has dried up as you know, the world changes in terms of lockdowns and restrictions and people change their buying habits and his entire company is forced to work from home. And so the momentum that, that everybody’s built over the last year just comes to a halt, you know, everything stops. So instead of confronting the problem, head on Brian does two things. Firstly, he creates strict check-ins for his staff who are working remotely. And the second thing he does is he makes a number of people in the company redundant, including the chief operating officer who has lived, sorry, he has worked there. You know, I wasn’t say lived cause it’s like, he’s lived in the company for the last 15 years and he does that with very little emotion. So at this stage, as an employee, how would you be feeling?

Christy (05:15):

Well? I think it depends on how I view Brian. Day-to-day probably as a boss and how I feel there.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (05:31):

Let me, let me give you a bit more information, cause I’ll add a layout. So you actually, I’m going to tell you how you feel about Brian. You actually really like working for Brian because you can see that he works really hard and he’s got a, he provides a lot of care in the work that he does and he’s built this successful company and he’s really paid attention to getting the right teams in place to really make things work. And it’s a really close knit family. Now, how do you feel about Brian or about working in the company?

Christy (06:05):

I think it’s difficult for me because I’m actually, yeah, like personality wise, I think I’m pretty loyal. So if I actually like Brian, even though, you know, I might personally think maybe he’s having a very difficult time adjusting and changing with the times. I probably would feel that the strict check-ins would be pretty burdensome. Yeah, but I don’t know, you know, if it doesn’t change for a year or something like that, I’d definitely, I, I’d give him some time. I think if I was working there for a while with them and I liked him and I liked the culture, so I’d give it some time for sure, for them to create, you know, a way forward. But this is just my personality, I think, I think someone else might, yeah. Someone else might feel very like this isn’t fair or this isn’t the culture I want to be in and I can see a lot of people quitting if they don’t have a sense of loyalty or yeah.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (07:19):

So, so, so Christy, what you’re describing there is, I mean, obviously it is exactly what would happen. Some people would perhaps feel like Brian isn’t showing his compassionate nature and the, and the way in which he’s going about things he’s not compassionate. And that would be particularly devastating on the culture, particularly because before COVID Brian had cultivated a culture of everyone being a family, you you’re sort of describing yourself as loyal, but what you were describing there is your compassionate behaviour actually, because what you’re doing is really empathizing with Brian and then your actions sort of demonstrate an understanding of where maybe he’s coming from. So you’re perhaps giving him the benefit of the doubt and your watch and see to see if things improve. So, so while Bryan isn’t perhaps showing compassion in the way that he’s, you know, dealing with with COVID 19 pandemic, you yourself demonstrating a lot of compassion. Does that surprise you? That, that I would see that as compassion? That sort of self-compassion?

Christy (08:35):

Well, you’re a bit of an expert in psychology Jo. So I wouldn’t be surprised if you picked that up, but yeah, it would be yeah, I suppose that would be more accurate, I guess, in what I described. Hmm.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (08:50):

And let, and let me tell you, so, so, so you as an individual, because you are acting in a compassionate way and feeling empathy and empathy, let me say, it’s sort of like our ability to put ourselves in that other person’s shoes and really understand the other person’s feelings. You are probably feeling quite good about that. And we know from neuroscience that the pleasure centres in our brain are activated when we, when we feel empathy and compassion. Yeah. So you would be feeling better then perhaps. Yeah. Then perhaps Brian, perhaps. But, but from a workplace perspective, what Brian is, is doing by his actions, he’s actually increasing stress, decreasing the resilience of the team. He’s not, not creating a culture of trust and creativity and confidence and learning. And so, so he, what he’s doing is actually devastating those parts of the culture, but you, because you’re acting in a compassionate way are getting some benefit.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (09:58):

So, so it’s kind of an interesting thing where we can, we can look at compassion from an individual perspective and we can look at it from an organisational or company wide perspective, but, but we know that that really being compassionate is something that does have a benefit for, for us as individuals and for workplaces as well. And there’s a, there’s a benefit for workplaces because really if workplaces are going to be able to kind of survive and thrive in, especially in this current, you know, crazy fast paced economy where, you know, we’re, we’re hit with all sorts of surprises like a pandemic. You really do need a culture in the business that’s going to be conducive to people, innovating and really kind of creating a level of trust where they can try new things and quickly perhaps, you know, change and adapt to the, to the environment. And so a compassionate approach will actually build the foundations of that. So, so there are benefits for, for, for everyone.

Christy (11:15):

So in regards to some specific things that leaders should look out for in their employees behaviour, if they want to take this compassionate approach, what kind of things can you point out?

When Compassion is Needed in the Workplace

Dr. Josephine Palermo (11:27):

Mm, so, so being compassionate is about noticing feelings and then empathising with others. So, you know, feeling the feelings of others, and then it’s actually a commitment to action. So that’s the difference. That’s actually the difference between empathy and compassion. You can, you can be empathic to someone, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything about their distress. Whereas compassion is about really noticing that someone’s in distress, really feeling that empathy and then acting and then doing something about it. And in fact, I love this quote from the Dalai Lama, because he says true compassion is not just an emotional response, but a firm commitment characterised by action. So, so, you know, he, he says that. And so, so what I think leaders need to watch is they need to notice distress. So, you know, signs of burnout and burnout can be emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion where people are really feeling like they, they just are overwhelmed and drained and that they don’t have any more resources to apply to the constant demands.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (12:46):

So, yeah, burnout is something that, that, that it manages and leaders need to notice. And, and really, you’re not going to notice that until you get to know the people. So yeah. So what leaders need to do is really just have deliberate conversations where they’re saying, where they’re really finding out about people and they’re asking questions. And they’re a bit more curious. So, you know, often like you and I, and I like, we, we sort of say hello, and then I’ll say, Hey, Christy, how are you? And you’ll say, Hey, Jo’s, how are you? But it’s going beyond that. It’s going, no, no, no, really. How are you, you know, and how, how was yesterday, tell me a little bit about your day yesterday. What are the things that, you know, upset you? So it’s about being curious and noticing those kinds of symptoms of stress and emotional exhaustion. And, you know, I’ve got a lot of my clients right now who have employees that are saying to them: I’m feeling burnout right now. I’m at risk of burnout right now. And while leaders are acknowledging that, they’re not doing anything. That to me is really dangerous.

Christy (14:07):

Yeah. I was, I actually had a friend who had to step down because of burnout. She was leading an organisation. I think there was no support from the board. Like the board didn’t really seem to, I don’t know if it’s not cared, but it’s like, they just wanted the work done. Like they didn’t want, which is interesting because they were a non-profit organisation for people. So they were like a people business, basically. Yeah, but unfortunately that was the result. And I think burnout is like, not a, I’ve read some articles on it and it’s not like a like medic… it’s not considered apparently like a medical condition, but this is just completely side note. But but it should be in my personal opinion cause it affects like every state of us. So…

Dr. Josephine Palermo (15:10):

Absolutely. And, and, and stress and burnout produce…. And, and we, we know this through science, stress and burnout produce physiological changes. And so it’s, it produces ill health, you know, there’s no doubt about it. And so you can’t, that’s what I mean, it’s very dangerous to just ignore those symptoms and signs. So when people are saying they’re burnt out, we have to listen to that. And, and, and remember compassion is about acting. So often, often I think leaders don’t act when they hear that, because they don’t know what to do. That’s not an excuse for not acting. So as a leader, you don’t know what to do, there are lots of places you can go to to kind of find support. And it might be that you need, you do need to go to a health practitioner to find support or an employee assistance program, or one of these many, many employee assistance program providers who can help. Psychologists can help as well.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (16:15):

And there’s, there’s just, I think particularly saying, saying nothing and doing nothing are just not an option because it is quite a dangerous situation to be in, but, but that’s kind of the extreme. I guess, the, you know, coming back from there there are other signs that we see before people get to that. You know, we see perhaps, we see someone maybe really just either feel they’re the expression on their face tells us that they’re unhappy or they’re not feeling well, or there’s some distress there. At all, they’re, they’re quieter than usual, you know, or their behaviour changes. And, and we’re noticing that. So there’s lots of things you can notice. And the trick is, you know, the skill in a way is to, to make it okay to talk about things that distress us. And that’s the, that’s the thing that we really need to do to kind of nurture a culture, which is a compassionate culture in business. You, you do need to be a role model for that as a leader, and you do need to recognise that you, that people will be distressed and you can tolerate that.

Christy (17:34):

Mmhmm. So like create the space. Yes. A space and time is what it seems like needed. Exactly. And it’s critical. That’s fine. Yeah. Right. So,…

Dr. Josephine Palermo (17:47):

Yeah. Sorry. I was going to say Christy. I think sometimes, particularly at this time of year, Christmas is coming. We, we create space sometimes for social events where the expectation is that people will bring their happy selves to a function. I’m sort of talking about, create a space where you can bring your sad self or your stressed self or…

Christy (18:12):

Right, not like a champagne party or something.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (18:14):

No, that’s right. Yeah, exactly. So it’s, it’s, so it’s about, it’s about leaders asking the right question. And and, and if you notice that nobody is saying something, then you can ask a question, which goes, something like this, I’m noticing that there’s quite a lot of stress in the room right now. What do people think of that? So you don’t even have to say, “Hey, Hey Christy, you stressed?” you know, you don’t have to point a finger.

Christy (18:43):

Not directly like approach people. Yeah.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (18:46):

Or I’m noticing that the energy’s really low today. What what’s going on there, it’s about being curious, not judgmental.

Christy (18:58):

But that that’s also the relationship as well, and relationships do take time.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (19:05):

Right. So, so it’s, it’s going back to that, that old kind of you know, that old sort of thing about, you know, how well do you know people and, and where is the, where is the boundary at work? You know, do we need to know, know everything about everyone at work? You know, where do we have personal, personal boundaries versus work boundaries? It’s kind of those old ideas. And I would suggest that particularly the way that we are working right now with many of us working from home, those boundaries are becoming more and more blurred. And, and some of it has been great because you you’ve gotten to know people’s home environment. You sort of see it through, you know, like a virtual meeting and you can see their background and their cat. So they’re, and their dogs are there and their kids are running around.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (19:57):

And so, so that has kind of shifted the balance on that. And I would suggest that, you know, I’m not suggesting you, you, you you’re invasive as a leader or even, you know, even if you’ve got a, a team member, I’m not suggesting being invasive and it, and being best friends or friends at work doesn’t necessarily mean that you are ,you know, that you know everything about them, but I think you need to really get to know people at a personal level. If you want, if you want teams that work effectively, that can support each other and encourage each other, and also really, you know, bring out the best in each other. There’s a personal component to that. And we have to stop pretending that emotions are not being brought to work, and we have to stop pretending that negative emotions don’t exist at work, or have no place at work. The full scope of the emotions are there. So we might as well notice them and we might as well be proactive about them.

Self-Compassion for Leaders

Christy (21:06):

Yep. So we’ve been talking a lot about leaders providing support for their employees. So I just wanted to point out that, you know, employers and leaders can do the best they can, but leaders themselves also need to apply the compassionate approach to themselves, or they would not be able to lead anyone. So, yeah. What can you say about this Jo and are there some personal things that you could share for some people that work for you?

Dr. Josephine Palermo (21:37):

Mm, yeah, absolutely. So, so I think that’s absolutely right. So self-compassion is about again, noticing, feeling, and acting. So it’s about noticing my own feelings and and acknowledging those. And then it’s, it’s, it’s having some empathy for, for myself in that, you know, not being judgmental because often, you know, sometimes, for example, I might, I might get angry at work and I find it that’s one of the emotions I find a bit difficult because I have a bit of judgment on myself around getting angry. It’s it’s it’s, you know, it goes right back to my childhood and we don’t have an hour to talk about it.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (22:25):

Right. But, but suffice to say, anger is not something that I express easily. And when I do express it and, you know, I’m, I’m an Italian woman, so of course I, you know, feel anger and when I do express it, especially in a work situation, I can get very hard on myself. And so I’ll give you an example. I had a a staff member who just, we just didn’t get along. And he, he had opinions. I had opinions. I didn’t feel like, you know, we were gelling at all, but what surprised me more than anything is we would end up in almost screaming matches at each other. Oh, yes, yes.

Christy: I ended up in the middle of that as well. I think I’ve been in not screaming, but I’ve been in the receiving end. Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (23:30):

And it’s always surprising and it’s always it always makes me wanna sort of step back. And, and so, so my reaction to that you know, at first was either, I was very hard on myself and, but, but what I, what I did was then, and I did this by actually talking to someone else, talking to a peer, because sometimes you need that sounding board. It doesn’t come naturally. If you just listen to your own voice in your own head. So I spoke to a peer that I trusted and what, what I had to do was kind of work on, you know, what I was, what I was feeling. So I noticed, what am I feeling? Why am I getting so angry? What is happening in my body when I get angry like that? What, what, what am I hearing from that other person that triggers that? So I was noticing that, and then I felt, I, you know, I did go into sort of that, self-compassion where I thought, well, well, you know, I’m not perfect.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (24:21):

I’m… I make mistakes. And obviously this situation is what is, this is what I’m not responding to well. It doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t even make me a bad leader, but I do need to change it. So what the action was, was that I, I started to do a little bit, of sort of, I guess, mindfulness before going into meetings with this person. And, and I ended up having very structured meetings because I had to do some performance management. So I would do a very sort of, you know, kind of visualisation, a very calming visualisation before going in to make sure that I was, I was more aware of myself. I was more present. And I look, I think that helped a lot, but it it’s, it’s, you know, it doesn’t mean that I’m, I’m not going to surprise myself again and get angry and and maybe behave in a way that surprises me because it’s, it’s, you know, life is a work in progress, but I think that self-compassion is really important.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (25:29):

The other thing for other people, and in particularly now for other leaders is to really pay attention to, is the amount of stress that you might be feeling because of the increased demand in workload. Right now, we sort of in this crazy place that the pandemic has put us in where people are out of work. And then the people who are working are just, you know, have just too much to do. So there’s this kind of continuum. People are on one side or the other. So I think we just need to be very mindful of that for ourselves, if you can’t. If you’re experiencing heightened sense of stress, you’re not going to be able to think clearly and make clear decisions. And it just means that everything can exacerbate from there. So we need to, we need to be aware of our own emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion and put in some self care.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (26:28):

So as much as possible, some strategies and whatever that is for you. You know what someone else’s doing may not be the one, may not be right for you. You need to do whatever’s, whatever works for you, even if it’s one minute of like what I do. I work from home. I have a terrace with all my beautiful plants and herbs, one minute on my terrace just staring at my mint leaves. And I, I get my mint leaves and I crush them in my hands and I smelled them and I’m suddenly present. So whatever works for you, but make sure that you’ve got some self, you know, just some self practice around being present and, and self care.

Christy (27:09):

And when you said mint leaves, I was thinking you can make mojitos. That would self-care for self-care. That would be, that’d be fun too. Yeah. But you’re really good at taking time for yourself. Is it like, I’ve noticed that, like you do take time out for yourself and yeah. That’s probably why you can do so many different projects and be involved with so many different industries cause you’re good at being able to shut off as well for yourself.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (27:42):

Yes. It’s part of my, it is my self-care routine and it’s part of me knowing that I need to feel that cup in order to then, you know, kind of tip my cup into other things. So, yeah, absolutely. And I, you know, I dunno people with families, they find it very hard competing demands, family, work. But, but as I said, it’s the small things that we do every day. It doesn’t have to be the big things. It’s all the small things.

Christy (28:10):

Yes. Yes. That’s very, very true. Well, thank you for that. And we just want to thank everyone for listening today. We know that there was a lot of information about this and it’s just going to be an ongoing continuation, I think because there’s no easy fixes obviously, but we’re looking forward to connecting with you all next time. What do you think about compassionate approach in the workplace? Are you a leader? Are you an employee? Tell us about your workplace. Don’t worry, we won’t name any names if you don’t want us do so, but let us know. We’re curious about you and what you are facing right now. So please send us any questions or comments at [email protected], which is in the description. We appreciate you and hope you found this episode useful and bye for now and good night.



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