Fostering Compassion in the Workplace with Liz Kislik

In this episode of Relationships at Work, Russel chats with management consultant, executive coach and speaker Liz Kislik on the importance of compassion in the workplace.

A few reasons she is awesome — She is the president of Liz Kislik Associates LLC for 3 and a half decades — offering management consulting, executive coaching and other services to help organizations grow (including American Express, Girls Scouts and Staples). She’s the author of the Workplace Wisdom blog and she’s a frequent contributing author to Harvard Business Review and Forbes as well as a speaker, including for TEDx where her talk on “Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and What You Can Do to Fix it” is close to 400,000 views.

Connect with Liz on her platforms:

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The difference between compassion and empathy
  • How to be more compassionate
  • Where compassion fits depending on your generation
  • How workplace culture can benefit from compassion
  • How we can foster compassion in others
  • The boundaries of compassion

“Sometimes it’s easier to learn [compassion] at work, than in our personal life because work is about action. We have goals, we have objectives… we’re supposed to get stuff done.”

Liz Kislik on learning to be compassionate in the workplace vs at home

FULL TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW

Russel Lolacher
On the show today, we have Liz Kislik. And here is why she is awesome. She’s the president of Liz Kislik Associates, LLC for get this almost three and a half decades. She offers management, consulting, executive coaching and other services to help organizations grow. You may have heard of a few of them, American Express girls, Girl Scouts, Staples. She’s the author of the workplace wisdom blog. And she’s a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review. And Forbes, as well as a fancy speaker. She was on TEDx where her talk on why there’s so much conflict at work. And what you can do to fix it is close to 400,000 views actually at this at the time of me recording, she’s actually even offered before we get in everything I wanted to highlight this, she’s offered a link to her free guide in the show notes of this show on how to resolve interpersonal conflicts in the workplace. So that’s a nice little add from Liz. Hi, Liz. Welcome to the show.

Liz Kislik
Oh, Russel. Thank you. It’s so nice to be with you.

Russel Lolacher
Liz, I like to set… I like to set the platform here by asking every one of my guests the same question to start. Because everybody has something somewhere in their past, regardless of their even their entrepreneurial consulting background, which is, can you name or tell me a little bit about what’s your best or worst employee experience?

Liz Kislik
So I listened to a couple of your podcasts and knew that you asked that question. And what came to mind this morning surprised me. One of the worst experiences I had as an employee was as a fairly young, Junior up and coming go getter type. And I was very happy. Enjoying my work, knew what I needed to do. I was having a good day. And a senior vice president snapped at me, how dare you be happy. And I was taken aback. And then I understood. There was a change of leadership happening at the time. And she had worked with this leader for a long time, and she was miserable about it. And it wasn’t really affecting me. And so I wasn’t feeling beleaguered by it. I was having a good work day. And what I understood from that, is that it’s very hard to be happier than your boss. just hard to live that way. And that you never know what someone else’s experience is. And it was very meaningful to me.

Russel Lolacher
And how long ago was that? If you mind me asking.

Liz Kislik
Oh, God, that would have been in probably the end of 1979, maybe early 1980.

Russel Lolacher
So as this is an audio podcast, you don’t see that my eyes got really, really big. And I’ll tell you why that is. The reason is, is that as I do this podcast, it’s always interesting to me. What resonates with people for so long after they happen? People think these little experience in the workplace are just these blips whether they’re good or bad. But to see even things of somebody snapping at you decades ago, is still something you ruminate and reflect on now, years and years later, I just find that fascinating that people don’t understand the impacts of their actions.

Liz Kislik
That’s such a good point, Russel, and, you know, I think about it as a parent, what are the small things that are going to make a very tremendous difference? But you’re right, we don’t think about it at work enough. And it is the small things that really set the tone, set the bar, etc.

Russel Lolacher
Now, Liz, you came to my attention through a Harvard Business Review article on how to be a compassionate manager in a heartless organization. And I was digging through your workplace wisdom blog, and I noticed this underlying theme, which is going to be the topic of our discussion today, which is compassion, especially when it’s not easy to be a compassionate person in the workplace. So what’s your fascination with compassion? And why do you think it’s so important?

Liz Kislik
It has been my experience, that if you pay attention to other people, and if you care about them, you get along better, you can accomplish more, and you don’t end up Feeling against each other, as often as otherwise naturally happens at work, because different people have different roles and different responsibilities. And the way workplaces are set up is that people’s goals, their tasks, their assignments are often in conflict. So it really helps to know that even someone you think of as your adversary is a human being. And they have just as many feelings and attachments and concerns as you do. And if you can treat them as a whole person, you’re just likely to get along with them better.

Russel Lolacher
You stated in the article I mentioned earlier, that your working definition of compassion is the feeling you have when you see someone else struggling or suffering in some way, and feel the desire to take action to help relieve that suffering. My question then, is, how is that any different than empathy, because I’ve done a few episodes on empathy, and we get very deep into vulnerability, and the importance of empathy in the workplace. But compassion hasn’t been used or referenced as much. So I just want to make sure we differentiate right off the bat,

Liz Kislik
you are so right. And it has been very interesting to see what has been happening in the literature. You know, for the last I’m gonna say 10 years, there’s been lots of stuff written on empathy, from a variety of different viewpoints. My understanding of compassion, is that compassion always involves action. Whereas empathy is really about your feeling, your sense of the other person, you’re caring for them. And in a way, you’re experiencing their experience with them or trying to as much as possible. And that’s really great for understanding what’s going on with them and caring about them. But it doesn’t necessarily make the situation better. They may feel understood, that’s wonderful. But if you really want to change things, you have to plan actions that take into account their struggle, their suffering, as opposed to just struggling and suffering together,

Russel Lolacher
that hits pretty hard their lives. And I’ll tell you why. Because So the whole point of relationships at work is that relationships are relationships, because as you nailed it, we’re all humans. So even the skills you have and your relationships at home, are the same skill sets and priorities you should have in the workplace. And when you talk about empathy and compassion, I remember being in a relationship where we both very empathetic creatures, but that never moved the relationship forward. Because we just sat there in this death spiral of both feeling bad about things and feeding off each other’s energy, and nobody got anywhere. The relationship obviously didn’t go much further. But it was such a obvious moment, when we identified that we’re both such empathetic people. It just didn’t help anything great. You feel what I feel, and you feel what I feel, but the world isn’t any better for it. So I really appreciate you sort of nailing that differential of the action. How can one be more compassionate at work?

Liz Kislik
So this is audio so you don’t know how much I’m nodding at you, Russell for that description. And in fact, sometimes it’s easier to learn at work than in personal life. Because work is about action, right? We have goals, we have objectives, we’re supposed to get stuff done. At home, theoretically, we’re supposed to love each other, and that makes everything okay. But if you’re only loving and you’re struggling and suffering, it’s really hard to get anything done. And amazingly, you have to get stuff done at home too. So I, you know, I haven’t thought about it this way before, but I’m a very curious person. And I like to know what makes people tick. So I asked myself questions about other people. And sometimes I share those questions with them if I need information, like, what’s important to them? What is in the way of their being successful? How could I be helpful to them? What are the things they need? One of the best ways to move yourself from feeling to action is by asking questions about the circumstance. And what could possibly make it better? And these are the kinds of questions that a five year old might have. In fact, you know, why is that other child crying? Oh, I see they fell down and skinned their knee. What do I like when I’ve hurt myself? I like somebody to come and give me a hug. Maybe I’ll do that for my, you know, cohort over there on the playground. It’s not big stuff. And it’s not complicated. It, it is really about being open to each other’s humanity, and then thinking, What can I do? What’s the reasonable thing to do? What’s the responsible thing to do? It’s looking for some way to take action that will make a change.

Russel Lolacher
Can you be a good to great leader without being compassionate?

Liz Kislik
Oh, now you placed me in a tough position. I don’t want to say no. Because the and this is a deduction on my part, this is logic. I think you might not be naturally compassionate, not be naturally empathetic, but care enough to do the practice, to take the action of asking the question, and then of taking specific steps based on the answers. And I think that could make you a good leader. And the question is whether that would build Compassion Over time, and I am talking myself into the idea that whether you come from it from a feeling perspective, or you come to it from a thinking perspective, it’s all the same. I think if you don’t care about other people, it is extremely hard in this day and age to be a good leader. How does that sit?

Russel Lolacher
That sits perfectly fine. So that makes me think about generations, because I’m a Gen Xer. So I’m sort of in that middle of your work, you have a fear of losing your job, you keep trudging through, you live, they work there for 30–40–50 years, versus the millennials, or the I Gen, which is younger, which is I want meaning in my work, I want to feel heard, I want mental health to be a priority. Not that not all generations, think that’s important. It’s just how we were raised and the priority of the workplace. So how does compassion line up when it comes to generations? Because I’m always feeling conflicted? Because there’s a part of me that goes, we really need to listen and understand who we work with. And the other part is, aren’t we getting anything done? We kind of need to prioritize getting stuff done. Where do you fit on that?

Liz Kislik
So I say both. Because if you ask my clients, I think they would all tell you I am very loving. I’m also very tough minded. If the work is not getting done, there’s a problem. We are at work to accomplish things. That’s why you might choose one workplace over another because you believe in what one workplace accomplishes more than you believe in what some other organization does. I think the ability to get things done is crucial. The ability to perform, you’ve got to have that or the organization can’t continue and can’t take care of the people in it. I think so I’m a boomer. I think everybody actually wants the same things. But as boomers, we were taught not to ask for that kind of emotional support at work. That emotional stuff was kind of messy. And you were supposed to what was the old expression? Leave your baggage at the door or something like that. You were supposed to come to work prepared to work. And that is great. But the truth is we bring our whole selves with us whether we acknowledge them or not, and whether our colleagues acknowledge them or not. So I like to think that in some ways, we’ve gotten more sophisticated about what people actually need to be able to work well. And any good luck No matter what the generation figures that out,

Russel Lolacher
How does the workplace or even the culture benefit from being more compassionate?

Liz Kislik
When we care about each other, we can actually be smarter in a variety of ways. Here’s an example in today’s workplace. Okay, so lots of organizations, the tensions about returning to the office. And mind you this is only for those lucky people who were not handling product, serving physical customers in a physical location not doing health care. You know, many people never left the workplace during the pandemic. But for the people who are, let’s say, knowledge workers are able to work remotely. There’s so much tension now about, do you have to go back do you never go back. And so much of it depends on the nature of the leaders and the leaders beliefs about what makes work successful. And maybe this ties back Russell, very much to your generational point. Because even in tech companies, where most of the work that is not involved with physical hardware can be done from anywhere. And yet, Elon Musk has gone on record, Schmidt has gone on record, Hastings, from Netflix has gone on record, that it’s better to be back in the office. Well, if you care about your people, you know, some of them really want to be back. Some of them really don’t want to be back. There’s a huge mix, there is no one size fits all. And so just making a declaration of Fiat about, we’re going to be hybrid, we will be in the office Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That will serve some people and will be damaging to some people in the same way that any policy decision is understanding people’s situations, then lets you know where you have to make adjustments, where you can help the employees think through how they’re going to manage whatever their personal situations are. Maybe you figure out certain trade offs in different work groups. Overall, I think one of the things that works the best is releasing authority from the people at the top of the hierarchy. So that decisions are made as close to the people who are doing the work as possible. And actually supporting mid level managers to learn how to handle those decisions. And those communications and the communications about those decisions, both to team members, so in what might be considered a downward direction, but also across and up. So that the organization understands what’s happening with each group, and can adjust and modify and swing as it needs to. So that the most people feel treated the best they can be, are comfortable enough to do what they need to do and understand what’s expected of them.

Russel Lolacher
I like this organization you’re illustrating, I think it sounds fantastic. But unfortunately, there’s a lot of organizations that don’t seem to get that you kind of alluded to the big ego CEOs of the Elon Musk’s and so forth of the world. And they say one thing, and then their actions completely do another. So I’m a leader in an organization or an employee or a manager or whatever. And I want and understand the importance of compassion. But my organization doesn’t get it. What do I do in that situation? And this definitely leads back to your Harvard Business Review article. I wanted to touch on that.

Liz Kislik
Yeah. So you’re being paid to generate certain results. Wherever you are in the organization. And if you’re somewhere in the middle of the organization, you have to know what those expectations are. Now, here’s the tricky thing. If if you can figure out what you need to deliver, and can kind of do it your own way with your people. That’s a much more advantageous Same situation, then if you have requirements for delivery, but also have requirements, often cultural norms for how the work needs to get done, and how you’re supposed to treat your people, whether you believe in that mode or not. So you have to know what results need to be delivered, that’s crucial. You have to feel that those are legitimate results to deliver. And that your people are capable of doing it. And think about how you’re going to make that happen. And some of the most important things are while you are figuring this out, to be managing yourself, so that your people see, yes, there’s pressure from above, but you are working on how to make this right. And part of how you do that is by finding the balance in what you tell your team, how much you share with them, your team does not need to know that you are suffering, they can know that there’s a challenge, okay. But for your team, it’s not about you. It’s about the work, and it’s about them. And if you can protect them a little bit from your own struggles as you’re trying to figure this out, but not pretend that you have everything under perfect control, because you don’t and they will recognize that. So there’s a kind of authenticity. That is not, here’s everything about me as a manager, and here’s my manifesto. And here’s why you should care about me. And the organization is really the problem, we’re good together and the organization is forcing us. That’s not a responsible stance. That’s too much about how you feel personally, when your responsibility is to get the work done with these people. So it is I mean, it’s such a balancing act, it’s a plate spinning act. But if you can get your folks aligned to doing the work, assuming of course you have the resources and the tools that they actually know what they’re supposed to do. And that it’s not that the entire workplace is screwed up. If you can get the work done and deliver and therefore build credibility with your leadership. Over time, you usually end up with significant more leeway in terms of how you actually operate.

Russel Lolacher
I’m so conflicted about the comment about that balancing act, because I was I was listening to and as soon as you said it’s a balancing act, I’m like, yeah, yeah, it is. Because there’s this part of you that wants to be more human at work is there’s a lot of articles about vulnerability and bringing your full authentic self to work. But then you talk of boundaries, and you talk of not giving the full scope of yourself. So where is a bridge too far? Where do you feel that line is when you’re trying to be compassionate, but you’re also trying to say, You know what, maybe this is too much information.

Liz Kislik
For myself. I look at my life as a parent. And I’ve learned a lot from that, in terms of how you balance these things. And I’m going to give you what will sound like an unrelated example. So I was very afraid of dogs. As a kid. I don’t know why, but I was. And when I first had children, I realized that if I was afraid of dogs, it was very likely that my kids would be afraid of dogs and I didn’t want them to. So I pretended I was not afraid. And I did the things that people who are not afraid of dogs do you know I held out my hand for the dog to sniff and I spoke to the dog. All of that I modelled dog love instead of dog fear. Well, two things happened. My kids aren’t afraid of dogs and I’m much less afraid of dogs too. When you are responsible, you have to be the container. That’s like a wishy term. That is part of whether it’s therapy or psychology or compassion or whatever but in effect you are holding the space for the other people. You are the one who looks to yourself. To be decisive to be understand needing to recognize what’s going on with others. That’s first because you are leading, and you are making room for them to be who they are. And you’re careful. So to your specific question, you’re careful about not violating your own values. But even that only goes so far, in the sense that when you are accepting an organization’s money, you have to do their job. And if you feel that your values are too violated to live with that, it’s important for you to leave that organization and find one where your values are more aligned. So if you feel that the organization really treats people badly, and that human resources is not helpful, and your boss is not helpful. And in fact, you cannot hold back the tide of terrible behaviour, I would encourage anybody in that situation, to be looking for a new job, not necessarily to run out that day, you have to take care of yourself and your family and all that stuff. But if you feel that the demands of your organization are wrong, I don’t know why you’d want to be a leader there.

Russel Lolacher
Is it everybody’s responsibility at every level in an organization, I hate saying the word level because I’m such an anti hierarchy guy. But is it everyone’s responsibility to be compassionate at work because I’m, I’m looking at people that are maybe needing to be compassionate up towards executive as much as executive might need to be, quote, unquote, compassionate down, is it everybody’s role,

Liz Kislik
so thank you for raising that about compassionate up. If you’ve ever heard the term managing up, the best underpinning for managing up is actually caring about your boss. Same, the same stuff holds, understanding what’s important to your boss, and helping your boss is what will strengthen your relationship with your boss. So it does run both ways. I think if there’s a should about it, everybody should be compassionate, whether they’re at work or not, I mean, it just makes your life more livable as a human. And because it orients you toward action, it gives you the chance to feel that you have had impact on whatever situation you’re in. And one of the things that makes people feel competent at work and satisfied with their work is when they can accomplish things. I’m thinking about Teresa Amabile, a and and the the progress principle, I think it’s called the ability to accomplish makes us feel good. If we understand the humans who are part of the the territory, part of the the terrain of work, we can accomplish more and feel better about it, I think it’s a virtuous cycle. The challenge is that just like there might be all kinds of potholes in the road. There are lots of people who have not been raised to be compassionate, or have not had some kind of breakthrough experience that shows them how much better it is. When you’re only thinking about yourself, there are lots of things you don’t know you don’t know your turning radius, you don’t know when you’ve knocked into somebody necessarily. You don’t know when you’re making it harder for somebody else. We’re all afraid of pain and loss. And so people get defensive and turf conscious as a way of making sure that they don’t experience pain and loss. If you can lessen the rigidity of that if you can think about our pain and loss together shared. Then you can work with other people to build better solutions. Be more practical with problem solving, get more done, and more people succeed together. It’s actually more success all the way around. And then you feel good to when you’re in pain and loss detection mode. You know, you’re hyper vigilant you’re looking for who’s gonna hurt you. You have your shields up all the time. It’s very hard to work with other people that way.

Russel Lolacher
Now, what if you get to a point where you’re trying to foster compassion and other people Is it just asking them questions? I bring this up because I was watching your TEDx. And I thought I love this tactic you used which was around extremism. You didn’t talk. You didn’t label it that in the video. But it was the idea that if somebody says somebody’s difficult, you throw out the word evil to sort of throw them back like No, no, they’re not evil, almost a way of triggering their own compassion by taking them to a bridge too far. How do you get people to be compassionate? Because I love that that tactic.

Liz Kislik
I think, what has worked. Time and time again, is actually just saying, What do you think is going on with that other person? Yes, I do the evil logic check, you know, when people complain, because in any work group, when people have differing needs, things to accomplish, etc. And someone else is not being helpful or is coming up with too many problems, all that kind of stuff. We tend to feel that that person is against us. And so then we can think about them very harshly, and in unkind ways. And it’s remarkable how much gossip and backbiting and backchannel and, you know, nasty things get said at work about others. And so when that’s coming up, when there’s clearly resentment, I’ve always found it helpful to say, Okay, now let’s take it from that other points person’s point of view. Here’s what you need on this project team. Given their role, what do you think they need? Sometimes this is called perspective taking. I want everyone to think about what’s going on with themselves because self awareness is is the basis of so much, but then to also think about what’s going on with the other person so you can understand them better. So you can feel less resentful of what they’re doing. And if that doesn’t work, and sometimes it doesn’t, I mean, some of us are very challenging to deal with. One of the things that I do all the time, and I tell people that they can try, if I can’t figure out why somebody is behaving the way they are, I try to think about what they would have been like when they were about nine years old. And if I can see the nine year old, there’s a way in which my heart softens toward them. And then I can think, oh, that kind of kid. Okay, I can figure out how to work with that kind of kid. I’m not talking about trivializing them or infantilizing them. I’m talking about looking for the kind of essence underneath all the years of being in workplaces and being in hard relationships, and looking for what’s good about them, and what’s frightened about them. If you can try to figure out why the other person would need to resist you need to do it for survival, for their belief about success, then you can come up with multiple gambits to try. And you can actually run a series of experiments and see which ones work.

Russel Lolacher
I love that because it’s really understanding that everybody is human. And maybe it’s a matter to dig below the surface of the iceberg to understand really what’s going on, even if you go back to them as children. But is there a bridge too far, Liz? I mean, as much as I love how you’re saying, you know, working with certain people can be challenging, but there are ways around that. Is there a point where it’s just too much time and energy to try to be that compassionate with some people?

Liz Kislik
If it’s a work issue? Yes, there is. In the same way, that if someone despite being trained, despite being coached, just can’t develop the skill you need for them to do the job successfully. If they can’t behave well enough, so that other people can be comfortable working with them. The organization can’t afford them. You know, I do talk about this in the TEDx work is different from family life from personal life. You’re paid to do a job, if something about your behaviour is so challenging to others is so difficult, that you slow down projects that you prevent others from getting their work done. That you’re a bad team member, a bad teammate. Then the organization cannot afford you. And it is appropriate to say, here are the behavioural things that do not work, here’s the help, we’re going to give you to change your behaviours. But if you’re not willing or not able to change those behaviours, we can’t afford to have them here. And therefore, it won’t work for you to be here on this team anymore. There, it can go too far. If you’re trying to help a human as a human, so long as they’re not abusive, I don’t know, maybe you could stick with them for a very long time. It would depend on what it costs you personally, but in the workplace. If someone is deterring others from doing their work, and cannot learn to change their behaviour, you can’t afford that.

Russel Lolacher
But treat them like a human first and don’t jump to the conclusion that they’re poisoned right away. I love that you wanted to start with curiosity, as as you started this whole podcast with comments about how curious you you are. So I love that that yes, it can get to a point where you’re just, you need to cut bait. I don’t know why I’m using a fishing reference when I have no fishing skills whatsoever. But it can get to that point. But Liz, thank you so much. And I don’t want to leave it on a down note where it’s bait. So I’m going to ask you as our exit question, which is, again, what I asked all my guests, because I find it so meaningful, and so actionable, which is, what’s one simple action people can do right now to improve their relationships at work?

Liz Kislik
So I’m gonna give you a two parter, Russell, because exactly in the way that you brought us to what somebody could call, you know, the business see part of this. Compassion is not about being soft. It’s not about saying that anything goes, compassionate people have all kinds of boundaries and rules. And so I would say that the the double sided action is, open your heart, actually take the time to think how can I open my heart to this person, and always bring your data so that if you’re opening your heart, and you’re softening, and you’re finding ways to experiment with them, that’s fantastic. But the data of six times this week, they upset somebody else. And the next week, it was eight times and after that, it was 10 times, then you have to take action, you can still be open to them, but you may need to fire them.

Russel Lolacher
And here I was trying to leave on a positive note and we end up with the last word from Liz being you may have to fire them. But

Liz Kislik
That’s not negative. It’s not negative. Sometimes that’s what’s best for them and for the team. The thing is really sizing up the situation as the situation exists and facing it.

Russel Lolacher
Changes not bad whether it’s for the individual or for the organization, it just unfortunately might have to look like being fired. Liz, thank you so much for your time. I could keep talking. I absolutely love this topic and I love how passionate you are about it. Liz Kislik Thank you so much.

Liz Kislik
Russel, I loved your questions, and I really enjoyed speaking with you

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Russel Lolacher

Russel Lolacher

Digital Communication Director, speaker, advocate for healthier workplace cultures and kind candour. Host of the Relationships at Work podcast.