Why I took a class about compassion

and what I learned

Part 11: Management accepts that the company can have flaws. They acknowledge strengths and weaknesses.

I have worked with managers who universally accept where their organization is versus those who do not. A leader I work with regularly tells me the limitations he sees with his teams. Another leader I work with constantly considers the limitations of her clients. And I work with leaders who don’t see the limits of their teams or customers. They believe that they can do anything. Although admirable, it’s not true. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, genius and limits. By not accepting that some goals are not possible, you set your team up for failure; as a leader, such a belief sets you up for disappointment.

Leadership and compassion

I worked at Hewlett Packard (HP) when Meg Whitman was CEO. When she came onboard, she told investors that HP wouldn’t have the growth that they expected for five years. I remember that day because all of us employees expressed nervous chatter over the phones, in email, and online chat. I thought she was insane. So did many of my colleagues. I mean, she told investors that we were so in the soup that they wouldn’t see the returns they wanted in at least five years. What type of leader does that?

First, she wasn’t wrong about the situation. At the time, too many people were leaving HP by choice or through layoffs. And their reputations for having “interesting” work styles preceded them. Hiring manager friends told me that when they received applications from former HP employees, they threw their resumes away because no one wanted to hire anyone who worked in such a culture. Most hiring managers feared the emotional nonsense that HP employees would bring to their companies. My friends all told me that taking a job at HP at that time was nothing more than career suicide. Not only was it not as profitable as it could have been as a company, but you could find waste and general inertia everywhere.


Five years (at least) to fix the place sounded right, too. But to tell investors that? At that moment, I couldn’t tell if she were crazy or brilliant. In some ways, she reduced pressure on the employees and herself so we could do the work needed to become a functional company. And that alone was a compassionate action.


Her being forthright about what was happening in the organization set a new tone for her leadership as she redefined success for us. She admitted what was happening openly so we could do what we needed to do without the ongoing stress of trying to satisfy Wall Street. We also recognized the value of being honest and direct, speaking up to improve a situation, and having a plan for others to understand what we are doing, why we are doing it and helping others to align to it to get the work done.


About three years later, HP was humming away, and she reported gains to Wall Street. Her honesty and acceptance of where the organization was financially and operationally had allowed her to make changes through digital transformation efforts and reorganizations. She let some underperforming executives go and restructured the organization to meet her goals. She also created a culture that rewarded success and allowed space for failure to exist so employees could learn and the organization could eventually see growth. I remember her saying in an employee presentation, “sometimes you have to break some eggs. Stop being so careful and get the job done.” This built trust among us to make the changes we needed to make.


Another company that does a great job of knowing what it is to realize itself is Patagonia. Their mission: we’re in business to save our home planet. They work on several projects to achieve this goal. For example, they have programs that directly impact the environment through clothes recycling, some programs that improve worker conditions at factories globally, and even some programs that reduce human trafficking. 


One strong example of how they are working to save the planet is their Supply Chain Environmental Responsibility Program. It is designed to reduce their entire carbon footprint for manufacturing across their supply chain. This program covers environmental management systems, chemicals, water use, water emissions, energy use, greenhouse gases, and other air emissions and waste. The program also defines internal standards for Patagonia, utilizes industry-wide tools like the Higg Index, and recognizes third-party certification programs, such as the bluesign® system. These industry standard tools not only help suppliers objectively prove how they are meeting Patagonia’s expectations, but it encourages and hopefully inspires them to implement best practices to meet the needs of other organizations globally.


And of course, these processes are integrated into how Patagonia makes supply-chain decisions to approve and manage new and active suppliers as well as their manufacturing facilities.


But Patagonia’s work doesn’t stop at their own company. It has been an active co-founding organization of several collaborations and industry groups, including the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, the Textile Exchange, the Regenerative Organic Alliance, the Outdoor Industry Association’s Sustainability Working Group, and Climate Action Corps. They leverage their influence beyond their own supply chain into the supply chain of countless other companies to develop industry-wide benchmarking and support large-scale collaborative improvements.


How does this connect to compassion? By Patagonia being accountable to its mission statement, they have set goals to achieve while defining its own boundaries. But rather than tell companies “to get onboard or else,” they provide them with a process to be successful. By clearly communicating what it takes to be a supplier for Patagonia, they make it clear how to work with them in an environmentally friendly way and show them how they can be a supplier for other companies with similar requirements. Their suppliers are now part of something bigger than themselves and are working to improve the planet in their own way. And with Patagonia’s requirements for working conditions, they have improved their workplaces, reducing suffering and increasing happiness.


In contrast, some companies don’t accept what or where they are. Consider both Facebook and Twitter. Social media platforms are more than a place to post thoughts, memes, and links to articles. They are a community platform, if not their own society, that needs rules to be managed humanely. Sometimes Twitter and Facebook ignore that they have truly created such a society and act as if they are only an ad engine, pushing content to their users. It’s common for users to experience them not upholding community standards consistently. I know people who have lost their temper in their comments towards those who made bigoted statements or posted profane responses. Those who lost their temper got disciplined; those who made bigoted or obscene posts received no punishment.  


Personally, I have been subject to profane responses or posts and reported them, only to have the Facebook platform “moderators” tell me that they took no action because such posts didn’t defy community standards. However, when I told someone who wouldn’t drop a topic that they were acting like a dog with a bone, I was warned that I violated community standards by comparing them with an animal. Go figure.


By not acknowledging that social media platforms are an extension of society, social media platform leaders deny their role in human culture globally. When they don’t uphold such rules for civil discourse and clearly define what that means in their hosted communities, bullies are fated to appear and run rampant. As that happens, these platforms reject what their organizations represent to the population and communities they have created. It may be expensive to actively manage a digital community at the post level, requiring an employee to read each reported post and take appropriate action. But such specific rules and reviews could maintain a consistent experience for everyone in the community. Many are challenged by these platforms because they don’t do this, and that lack of action communicates to the community and society that these companies don’t feel that they are accountable to the community that they created. In fact, through this inaction, consciously or by accident, they are enabling something else that is insidious.


In many ways, by Facebook and Twitter ignoring their role in society by understaffing community management teams, they put themselves, their employees, and their users at risk of verbal abuse and the proliferation of propaganda and misinformation. By not taking their role seriously, they actively contribute to social harm and suffering. For example, we can consider the Cambridge Analytics and Internet Research Agency (Russia) crimes. Further, troll farms wouldn’t have had the opportunity to exist if the executives of these companies truly acknowledged what they created and managed it appropriately with clear rules and escalation paths about what gets you kicked off the platform. They valued the user data gathered to be sold more than individual mental safety. And this value system allowed and encouraged fake profiles to be created so it could increase their bottom-line numbers and traffic. By not being accountable for what they established as a virtual society, they have created an unsafe space that can be a challenging place to support compassion or genuine connection without risk of verbal abuse. (See article at Vox “How Trump Changed Facebook”)


When leaders are accountable, they are compassionate to their teams and suppliers and empower them to be better. HP, under Meg Whitman, accepted its place in the market and worked to improve its processes and bottom-line results by creating a more functional work environment. Patagonia continues to create sustainable environmental change by influencing best practices of the supply chain globally. To contrast, Twitter and Facebook have denied their role in society, and that has contributed to not just their challenges but society’s current strife and challenges.


Leaders should acknowledge what is truly happening in their companies to support change. To realize such changes, leadership needs to be compassionate to their teams,  giving them the guidance and space to make the necessary improvements. As a result, this work will inspire employees to have meaning in their lives because they believe that they are contributing to achieve a larger goal while improving the organization. In the meantime, their work will make the company more attractive to customers, also providing them meaning. When leaders and companies don’t do this, bad actors can take advantage of the system for their own ends. And sadly, as in the case of Twitter and Facebook, the bad actors can work towards nefarious ends, opposing the forces of compassion and loving-kindness.



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