Why I took a class about compassion

and what I learned

Part 10: The employees won’t be compassionate to each other if the culture and work environment won’t support it.

And this means that the employees won’t be compassionate to themselves, which is most disturbing.

I took a personality test a while ago and when the results returned, I was stunned. The results themselves weren’t surprising (in fact, they were scarily accurate and on point), but I was surprised by the idea that some people act one way at work and another way at home. It was and continues to be foreign to me. My results showed that I act the same way at work as I do at home with minor differences. Not a surprise. It’s why I never fit into corporate America. I can’t pretend very well and I wear my heart on my sleeve. My facial expressions always give my thoughts away.

I guess most consider that to mean that I’m an authentic person.

A company culture is like a collage

But most of the world does pretend to be someone else at work. Some do Academy Award performances to find their way through a workday. That may be why work environments can be so inhumane. Some colleagues may construct personal walls and fences, not allowing themselves the ability to feel their emotions and act like another emotional human to colleagues. These types may refuse to admit to their weaknesses and only recognize their strengths, and decide not to use that knowledge to find ways to collaborate and build a team. We are told that at work you need to be tough, put up that hard veneer, the stiff upper lip, work hard, and expect the same from others. It's business, don’t be emotional (even if someone literally destroyed your life).

The problem is that as a human being, it’s just not possible to do that and maintain your mental health. I did try to live this way early in my career and I failed at it, miserably. So, I have to ask the question, is that how you should really treat other people not just at work but anywhere? I’d say no.

If that’s true, then why do people do this? Wouldn’t it be better if everyone were themselves and worked towards the company mission and vision and goals and contributed in the best way possible?

The answer is yes. But often company cultures don’t support that. To understand this better, it may be helpful to consider what a team is at work. What does that really mean or look like? And why do we have them?

But before we consider the most basic element of a team, the employee and how we view “the perfect employee,” let’s look at loyalty: what it is and why it matters.

There are two flavors of loyalty – the employee’s loyalty to themselves and then their loyalty to the company. Often, we perceive loyalty to be between two people or entities and it can be. But let’s start with why it is important to allow employees to be loyal to themselves first.


On one team I worked with, some business analysts were trying to define the data fields for the database. They got so committed to one approach for how the data elements and their connections should work that they felt that they defined the database in their spreadsheet. They then told the developers to use that model as-is to define how the database should work. To them, the spreadsheets were the database plan rather than a tool that identifies fields and relationships that the developers could rework for a better data organization. I gently cautioned the team that the business analysts simply didn’t have the expertise to know what the best database design for the system to scale could be. The path I would have recommended would have been for them to outline how they expected the database to work and to describe to the developers how the fields are related. That would have allowed the developers a way to create something new and possibly better.  

Database design wasn’t the business analysts’ strength, just as defining the data elements and how the calculations worked wasn’t the developers’ strengths. We needed developers with experience in database design to provide advice and guidance to get the system to work. Sadly, the business analysts’ insistence caused many revisions rather than direct collaboration to create a better solution. The team members learned about their individual strengths and weaknesses in the process of defining the database structures, which is good. But they spent a lot of time determining this.

I have seen this situation in too many teams. Taking time to consider one’s strengths and weaknesses are set aside in favor of believing that if there is a will, there is a way. Colleagues in other disciplines may make work activities appear to be straightforward to do on the surface (especially if the person responsible for completing the task has years of experience and does their job well), so someone may watch them and believe, “If that person can do that, then I can do that – no problem!” Once this confident person starts doing the work, they discover the impact of details they never previously considered, then realize what they didn’t know about that discipline. In these situations, respect for experience, expertise, or knowledge fades in favor of a blind confidence based on the belief that you can do anything (see research too and this research). Although the belief that you can do anything is a nice fairy tale to tell children so they develop self-esteem and believe in themselves, a better mantra for work environments may be “be the best ‘you’ possible and do what you do best.” To do that, you need to explore who you are and know your limits by discovering your own strengths and weaknesses. It’s a more compassionate view of selfhood.   

We are noticing today how self-esteem has supported false confidence in individuals so that they aren’t as competent as they may believe. We have many names to represent different aspects of this, like the Dunning-Kruger Effect, the Peter Principle, and their opposites, Imposter Syndrome, or having the ability but not the confidence to execute because you know what you don’t know. Someone with the Dunning-Kruger Effect or Peter Principle may present themselves as someone who is being helpful and useful when in fact, they are inexperienced. They don’t know what they don’t know. To someone with those beliefs, that means that anything and everything is possible without limits. And this helps no one, especially in work environments.

Although it’s admirable to try to be everything to everyone, you aren’t being loyal to yourself. Forcing a developer to become a business analyst or project manager (or vice versa) will result in a leader watching a team or system crumble because they are in the wrong role for their personality. They may be disorganized, don’t understand boundaries, or are poor communicators, and these actions cause a project to derail. This takes a toll on the team’s patience and project timelines and budgets (lots of revisions and rework). 

Alternatively, I have seen businesspeople fashion themselves as creatives because they believe that they can write or draw and think they will enjoy being “creative.” They’ll create copy or designs that aren’t effective because they believe that they are talented a d this type of work is “simple.” In the end, they waste everyone’s time because the team is cleaning up their work. Wasting other people’s time during a project with pressing deadlines for your own desire to learn a new skill is not compassionate. In some cases, you may have caused a colleague or employee to work through a weekend of what was previously family commitments for them.

Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses can stop such patterns. Include individuals who have the necessary skill sets on the team so it runs more effectively and efficiently. It’s great to learn a new skill set and expand your own knowledge, but not at the expense of your team members. This is where self-loyalty crosses into loyalty to your team and colleagues.

Loyalty to the team

Have you worked on a team where everyone seemed polite, nice, and caring, but you noticed that people withheld information, not completely speaking their minds? A place where there were cliques, secrets, and lots of venting behind closed doors? You may have also noticed that roles and responsibilities weren’t well defined and that some employees were more equal than others.

You may wonder how one employee could be more equal than the others. One factor may be how that employee expresses loyalty to management and if that aligns with how management defines employee loyalty. A leader’s definition of loyalty may be cultural yet personal, based on a their experience of company loyalty developed during childhood while observing working family members. Sadly, there are many who define employee loyalty as putting the perceived company needs above their own personal interests. Ironically, such definitions are consistent with martyrdom. Management may find such behavior flattering at first, seeing an employee willing to do whatever it takes for the company to taste success. But in the end, martyrdom isn’t a sacrifice. It becomes obvious that martyrdom is a subconscious call for attention and a sign of imbalanced team dynamics. It’s unclear how you can be effective at work if you are sick or distracted by family, financial, or other concerns. But if you are feeling insecure about your role or job, have the need to prove your worth, or feel that a day away from work will cause you to feel amazingly overwhelmed upon return, you may decide to never stop working and sacrifice yourself and your life to save your self-esteem, self-image, or personal identity.

A while ago, a colleague experienced a personal tragedy. She did take the time off that she needed, but on the day of the tragedy, she didn’t leave work right away. She was in shock over the news she received and to cope, she continued working as if nothing had happened. It took a while for her to process what she heard and realize what was happening in her life.

A few weeks later, during a phone call with management, a senior leader commented how it was remarkable that she continued work even after hearing the news. I wasn’t sure how to respond when I heard this. Yes, she did a great job but she was in emotional shock. If I were her manager, I would have wanted and expected her to leave on the spot to take care of herself rather than work. Although it’s impressive that she continued with her day, I was confused and curious as to why this was mentioned. I wondered if her coping strategy was perceived as a type of loyalty.

I know from my own experience that I will work when tragedy strikes to keep my mind off the sadness that I’m feeling. I may believe that I am doing a pretty good job during those times. However, I’m sure that I’m not functioning mentally at 100% during those times; I am probably focused at about 50%. I really should take time off to grieve, be angry, feel sad, or just be, and working during those times isn’t really helping anyone. In a way, I’m not even myself, and I’m avoiding processing my feelings. Sometimes at work, we need a colleague or leader to remind us to do that – take time off to process emotions and just be.

But again, to management, working to keep your mind off problems can be perceived as a form of loyalty.

In another case, I heard about an employee who received news about a loved one testing positive for COVID while at work. Rather than immediately leaving to go home because she was likely infected, she stayed the day and shared her story about her loved one having COVID. No one asked her to leave. No one told her to spare the office from infection. No one even told her to mask. She spread it around all day. Although this may seem like loyalty on the surface, staying at work to help the company, how is this compassionate to other employees?

Although I work for myself, I have experienced clients planning my life around their needs, telling me how I could work on their projects over the weekend. I may work over the weekend by choice, but that’s my choice, not at their command. Needless to say, I don’t stay working with such clients very long. But to these clients, me working when they want me to work to meet their needs is considered to be loyalty rather than me contributing to the project I am contracted to complete or meeting the requirements outlined in the contract.

Have you been part of a global team where one group always gets the late-night or early-morning call? Does it feel like some team members may be expected to be available all hours? That’s another case of a mismatch in loyalty. The organization would be considered to be loyal and compassionate to the team if it would find a meeting time that is within reasonable business hours across time zones or require only some of the team to be present. There would be mindfulness regarding holidays and time off. Would some team members attend a meeting at an odd time of day to accommodate another team member? Yes. Once in a while, this is fine, but not regularly.

When I worked at HPE, I would sometimes talk to colleagues in the UK and India to find a suitable meeting time across the globe, and I would hear statements like, “Why don’t they get up at 1am to attend a mandatory meeting instead of me?” or “Oh shoot, I have to go. The Americans are up and now pinging me.” Obviously, they didn’t feel their boundaries were being respected regarding work hours.

To me, employee loyalty is nothing more than communication about your boundaries. Through your actions and your explicit and implicit expectations of others, you show what you are willing to do to prove your loyalty and devotion to others. Such loyalty may be in-line with or above and beyond what is outlined in contracts and agreements. Loyalty can also mean choosing to support an organization or person due to an emotional connection. But loyalty should never mean that one loses their power or for another’s gain or to keep a job. 

This leads us to understanding how people define the “perfect employee.”

How we define a perfect employee can be amazingly personal based on our own work experience and the experiences of our families and friends. We learn about what work is and how to conduct ourselves at work through others – from ethics to work styles. Studies about ethics at work show that we learn about an organization’s culture from colleagues. But if we take this thinking further, you could say that we first learn about work through our families. We watch how our parents and older siblings handle work. Or they may encourage us to get a job or open a lemonade stand. They transfer their values onto us, although we don’t realize it.

Growing up, we may hear mantras about the benefits of working hard and needing to earn what you get. Many are disillusioned when they enter the workforce and realize that who you know, your behavior and attitudes, and how you handle situations have a greater impact on what you earn for money, your position, your ability to be promoted, recognition, and more than showing up to work, achievements, and accolades.

The economic class you are from can impact your view of work and your value and ethical system. If you or your family are in jobs that pay hourly, being on time and available for your shift matters. If the work to do requires meeting deadlines, delivering on time is a requirement – and this has different implications depending on the job. Contractors may not work a defined number of hours each day, but they may need to devote more time to work when approaching deadlines to deliver on commitments. In those environments, weekends may be non-existent, or one may suddenly have a week or two off for rest because there are no projects. These types of workers have a different idea of what time off means. To them, time off may mean that they don’t have deadlines driving work or free time from projects.

We can contrast the contractor approach with an hourly employee who may treat such deadlines as an opportunity to request overtime. Alternatively, salaried employees may need to stay longer at the office with no direct compensation except hoping that they can have lighter workdays in the future.

If your job requires decision-making, you may need to be available to do that when the appropriate data arrives to make a decision or an immediate decision is needed. That is why decision-making responsibilities make the most sense for salaried employees – you can’t put this type of work into a timebox. An hourly employee could only make such a decision during their shift. A contractor would decide when they were available to make that decision.  

As you can see, these are all very different approaches regarding what it means to be responsible at work. That’s why it should come as no surprise as to why we are confused about how we should treat others at work and our expectations for colleagues.

Salaried managers of hourly employees may transfer the expectations of their managers and their responsibilities onto their team and expect their employees to have schedules that are more “flexible.” We read horror stories about this regularly. Although a manager only pays for a small slice of someone’s time and life through hourly compensation, such a manager may see their commitment in a salaried role as somehow applying to their team, as if they are “equal.” It doesn’t apply and, no, they aren’t all equal in such an environment. The salary is compensation for providing decision-making when needed during any shift. The manager should determine their own hours and trust the team to escalate as needed. Sadly, that doesn’t happen because the manager may not fully understand the role they have and its expectations compensation.  

Managers who need to be available to make such decisions often confuse their commitments with those who deliver projects on time, thinking that they are also available at all times. They may try to predict their schedules and control their weekend time. That’s also not appropriate. 

Add to these challenges our own definitions of the “perfect colleague,” and the confusion exponentially grows. Our personal descriptions of the perfect colleague are often based on a modified idea of the perfect employee, using our own experiences as a “template” for what we think will make our lives easier at work. Some sentiments include people who contribute and enjoy teamwork, those who want to see the good of the project, those who value unity, and the like.

But what happens if the organization rewards behavior that contradicts your view of what that perfect employee or colleague should be? What happens if the company has an internal belief system such as “the end justifies the means” or “only the bottom-line matters?” Adding this to the expectations we put upon ourselves and others can create a challenging environment. And what if these personal expectations and values don’t align with the organization’s expectations and the expectations of other team members and their values? There may be miscommunications, disappointments, and discord among individual and teams.

What does this a compassionate work environment look like?

I was a contractor working with a consulting firm, a new client for me. Within the first few days of interviewing their client for a project, I uncovered some challenges that their client was having. The issues were intricate yet delicate, so I got a little overwhelmed and nervous about what I was hearing and observing. Since it was my first time working with this consulting organization, I wasn’t sure how to handle what was happening. I know from experience that consulting firms handle issues in different ways. Some pronounce to the client politely that everything is wrong, so the client will hire them to fix these problems long-term. Some will share the news with a filter or spin. Some won’t let consultants share the news; distressing discussions originate from a senior executive. The presentation of these conversations usually depends on leadership’s communication style regarding how they prefer to discuss challenges. (For the record, it’s rare in consulting for regular consultants to be allowed to share blunt and challenging news.)

I met with my manager in this consulting firm and asked him what to do. Without hesitation, he told me to tell them the truth. Of course, he added, maybe don’t tell them today because we are in it so early into the project, but tell them the truth because that’s what they hired us to do.

We found language to present what we observed in the client’s organization in an honest yet constructive way and included several recommendations for improvement. We found that many of these recommendations could be implemented within 30-90 days, with only a handful requiring additional strategic analysis to determine if such multi-year project ideas were worth pursuing.

Honestly, I rarely work with a consulting firm that openly encouraged me to be kind, honest, and direct with a client. Most prioritize client management over work quality or honesty. But this firm saw kindness, honesty, and directness as the way to build trust between the organization, its clients, and its teams. Maintaining honesty and trust in the culture is important to this firm, and it’s a value that influences their choices in team members, employees, and partners. When new team members join the company, they are encouraged to read Stephen Covey’s book, The Speed of Trust (great book! And it shows how trust really is key to building a great relationship with everyone, especially clients).

Culture reflects how the work is done, not the work and the deliverables produced. Culture represents less about the processes and more about how the teams collaborate to create a process. On this project with them, I noticed how we were aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses, using that to determine how we can all best add value to the final product. It helped us respect each other’s roles and contributions. For example, I worked with two designers on that project. One was junior, and this project was an introduction to design research for him. He enjoyed the work and started leading his own client solution for one of our findings. The other designer discovered during the project that design research was not his strength. I tried to leverage his design strengths as much as possible, which were amazing, but there were few opportunities where he could truly shine. And it was okay that this type of work was not for him. Not all types of work are for everyone.

In the cities where this consulting firm has offices, they support a sense of community inside and outside the organization. They sponsor and host various technology and design organization meetings and conferences. That’s actually how I first “met” this company. When I work with them actively, I have been invited to the employee events that they host as if I were an employee. Sadly, I haven’t been able to attend and need to go when I can. They are welcoming to all people who work with their teams. Additionally, they celebrate employees for their contributions and exhibiting the company’s core values – not only successful projects.

To summarize how they work:

  • On all projects, the expectations of employees and managers are clear.
  • Teams build consensus around roles and responsibilities and define clear processes.
  • People are valued based on their strengths and personal values.
  • The managers find ways to compensate for their team’s weaknesses, either by hiring employees with the appropriate skill sets and expanding the team or hiring consultants to fill the gaps.
  • There isn’t room for martyrdom. Everyone recognizes how hard others are working on the team, and if one team member is doing too much, everyone is ready to pitch in and help.
  • Employees are allowed to be self-compassionate and not just observe what they need but encouraged to request help.
  • Every employee shines by doing just enough every day.
  • They value and respect their employee’s boundaries and personal safety. There is no expectation for employees to work on the weekends or work when sick, bereaving, or during other personally challenging times.
  • They care about their employee’s health first. They discourage team members from working when they have COVID and encourage team members to do what they feel comfortable doing – masking or not masking, working from home or in the office. It is up to you.
  • Everyone is at ease working in virtual or in-person teams – both are seen as equally productive and valid approaches to work.
  • They support community, acceptance, and understanding.
  • There is an alignment of values – ideas of what makes a “perfect employee” or colleague are consistent among the teams and not based solely on personal experiences.

A compassionate work environment removes the suffering of its employees so that they can experience contentment when working together. They would feel that their contributions were valued and their humanity respected. The definitions of what success look like are clearly stated so employees and teams can collaborate with others to work towards such goals, or they could decide that another team or organization is more appropriate to do the work. They know their strengths and weaknesses and are comfortable expressing them openly. Such an organization accepts people for who they are emotionally and mentally rather than expecting more from them that they simply can’t offer. Everyone in the team is part of developing a larger vision in the world, which makes their work meaningful, while the culture and relationships with colleagues make it enjoyable.

Compassionate work environments are places that allow everyone to be authentic to themselves. To return to the opening sentiments about the personality test results, one day, a colleague at that consulting firm and I were talking about our personality tests. She mentioned to me that when she worked in corporate America, she had a work personality and a home personality. She became a very different person in each setting. The personality she needed for work was exhausting. Now that she works for that compassionate consulting firm, she has only one personality for both home and work, and she now feels that she is herself all the time. That is what it truly means to be in a compassionate work environment – she doesn’t feel the need to pretend to be someone else to get her work done. She is welcomed as she is and she contributes as she can. And it is that mindset that makes that consulting firm’s teams ultimately successful.


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