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Can We Create More Compassionate Workplaces?

Working in technology companies in the Bay Area for well over a decade, I’ve seen and experienced a strong culture of negative behavior being used to drive success. It doesn’t feel good – and with all the people experiencing burn out and looking to make a change, it clearly isn’t working well either.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we could create happier, healthier, more positive and compassionate workplaces. Then I read an article by David Chang entitled “The Culture of the Kitchen.” It’s about a chef who was raised in the school of screaming, yelling and harshness as a way to keep the kitchen in order and get to the top. And I couldn’t help thinking how interesting it was that negative culture as a motivational driver is pervasive in all sorts of work environments. You not only see cooking shows with explosive chefs, but hear stories about how Steve Jobs treated many employees so badly that he made them cry. (And they aren’t just stories; I’ve heard firsthand accounts).

This behavior happens in plenty of unexpected places, too. A previous colleague who works for a company most people would guess has compassionate leadership has told me their CEO does the same; she terrorizes her employees and often makes them cry.

I find this type of behavior unacceptable and believe it’s time for a change. While many restaurants and other companies with this negative culture seem financially successful and continue to grow and thrive under such leadership, I have to ask: At what cost? Not only to the company but, more importantly, to their greatest assets – their people. And would these companies have even greater success if they promoted a positive culture driven by compassion rather than fear?

Of course, not all companies have CEOs or managers that are that blatantly awful. But I do think it’s bred into corporate culture in this country through internal competition, office politics, lack of trust, ego gratification and a general policy of people looking out for themselves over what’s best for the company or others that work there. All of which drives people to work from a place of fear.

I have to believe there’s a better way. Picture for just a moment what it would be like to work in an environment where you really felt like people were working together towards a common goal and helping each other to get there; where feedback was delivered in a spirit of helping you learn and grow; where there were people you could go to without fear when you were struggling to solve a problem, and others you worked with would also chip in to help out.

Imagine what it would feel like to spend your day in an environment where you weren’t worried about being fired or laid off because you could have open, constructive conversations about your performance and, if it turned out you weren’t a good fit or the company needed to shift direction, there would actual support for helping you find something new.

Kindness and generosity are said to be two key predictors of successful relationships. What if we started to infuse more of these characteristics into our work relationships? Would helping people improve their emotional intelligence help improve their behavior at work (as well as at home) and start shifting corporate culture? As I learn more about mindfulness and meditation, I ponder how we can use guiding principles of those disciplines to improve corporate culture.

How can we employ these concepts to positively impact professional performance? I know it won’t be an easy thing to do and it won’t take place quickly. As much as I’d love to wave a magic wand and create change on a global scale overnight, I know that isn’t possible. So, I’m starting by experimenting with a few simple steps at my current company.

  • When I first joined the company I was asked to write a short blurb about myself, so I included that I was interested in mindfulness and meditation, and invited fellow team members to come talk to me if they were, as well. It felt a little risky to put that in my bio, but it worked and a few people took me up on the offer. I started a weekly meditation session with that group and now have about 15 people signed up.
  • I make sure to have regular one-to-one conferences with each of my employees and always ask what I can do to help them with any problem they may be facing or help them continue to grow in their current role.
  • Since down time and recovery are important but not often valued, I don’t send emails after hours or on weekends. If I’m working, I just keep the emails in draft mode and send them later during business hours so I won’t proliferate a culture of working 24/7.
  • I also share my ideas and look for input from others – both inside the company and out – to help foster collaboration and build consensus.

This is where I’m starting. Where will you start? What are some of the things each one of us can do individually or collectively in our workplaces to improve culture and help create happier, more fulfilled employees? I’d love to hear your ideas in the Comments section below. If each of us can impact even one other person, then the movement toward a more compassionate workplace has begun.

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Julie Demsey

Julie Demsey

As an experienced technology executive, Julie Demsey has led successful product management teams for a number of progressive companies, including Yahoo, Rally Health, BabyCenter and Genealogy.com. Recently, she has also been studying mindfulness and meditation, along with how these practices can be folded into corporate culture to produce more positive personal and business outcomes. She can be reached at juliedemsey@gmail.com.

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