S2E13: Workplace Empathy - Part 1 of 2 - Why Values Have Value and How Routine Emotional Maintenance Can Improve Your Organization
Angel Leon: Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of ASCII Anything presented by Moser Consulting. I'm your host, Angel Leon, Moser's HR Advisor. This week, we're doing part one of two of a very interesting topic that I know you'll enjoy. We'll be talking about workplace empathy. What is this, you ask? How can empathy be a primary ingredient of your workplace culture? How does empathy affect leadership? All of that and much more will be answered in today's episode by our guest, Liesel Mertes, an acclaimed workplace empathy expert. Having experienced her own loss and struggle, Liesel emerged with a deep understanding of what employees need to feel supported at work after a disruptive life event. As the founder of Handle with Care, Liesel works with groups that want to boost employee satisfaction as well as attract and retain better talent. Liesel works with companies spanning industries from RB manufacturers to diplomats, to tech companies, both locally and internationally. Her favorite clients are forward thinking organizations who know the value in supporting their employees with empathy and compassion. Her expertise is broad; loss, returning to work, cultivating resiliency, compassion fatigue, how empathy impacts the brain, and no disruption is considered less significant. On these topics, Liesel is a dedicated speaker, writer, consultant, and host of the Handle with Care podcast. Liesel earned a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and a Master's degree in Business Administration. She has worked in Nairobi, consulted it in Fiji, and led cohorts in Ghana. Her adventures brought her to Indiana where she is a proud mother, wife, and lover of time spent on the water. Through her actionable strategies, real life stories, and passionate commitment, Liesel helps people survive, stabilize, and thrive in the aftermath of adversity. Liesel, it's great to have you on ASCII Anything this week. Thank you for coming on and sharing your expertise on this fascinating topic. How are you?
Liesel Mertes: I'm well. It's always an unexpected pleasure to hear someone else read out about you. You did a great job.
Angel Leon: Oh, thank you. Well, you have a very impressive resume and some very impressive experiences. And empathy, overall, I mean, I think I can honestly simply define it as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. But in the workplace, this has, I feel, a larger footprint. I think you'll agree that empathy might be a superpower, something that comes naturally to someone. And when it comes to the workplace, it is key for leaders and managers to have empathy, to try and put themselves in the shoes of their employees, so that they can understand the nature of the situation.
Liesel Mertes: I agree. And I think the last, almost two years now, of the COVID pandemic has just placed managers, HR leaders, again and again, in these positions. More and more, as I talk with companies that, whether that's doing consulting work or speaking, I'll ask them," Do you feel like you're giving your people what they need to stay engaged in the midst of all of the disruptive life events that are being thrown at them? And the burden and mental wellness and the unpredictability of the market and job descriptions." And there's a scared and unsure look in their eyes as they say," Well, we hope so, but we really don't know." And empathy is a huge part of closing that gap of really supporting people consistently and well.
Angel Leon: So that is a great explanation about empathy. I really agree with everything you said, especially over the last year. And I want to cover that here shortly, but I want to start simple. I want you to define for us, what's empathy?
Liesel Mertes: So Brene Brown, guru of the moment, I'm going to take from one of her descriptions, from one of her books. And she talks about what empathy is and what it's not. She says empathy is about identifying with the feelings, not necessarily the lived experiences, of others. And let me unpack that a little bit. So in our workplaces this year, there have been those who have lost a parent to COVID, which would be a really hard loss. I'm privileged to have both my parents still living. If I focus on the experience of not having the same experience, that could also be an experience of racialized exclusion. If I think," Oh, I've never experienced that. I have no idea what that's like." All of those mental pivots actually move me further away from another person. Instead, if I focus on connecting to the emotions that underpin that experience, it'll get me a lot closer. So again, to return to that example of someone who has had a parent die. Although I haven't had a parent die, I could think what it might be like to have a parent die. I might be feeling really sad, I might be feeling really overwhelmed or alienated, and I have actually felt all of those things. And while this isn't a 100% match, I might assume that someone is feeling sad when really they're feeling angry. So we still have to have room to pivot, to orient ourselves to the person, right front of us. If we move closer to identifying with those emotions that underpin the experience, it will really help us identify in a more powerful way.
Angel Leon: Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, just to unpack what you just said, even if I haven't had the experience that the person in front of me has had. To use your example, I'm lucky, like you, that I still have both of my parents alive. But if I have somebody that works with me, that reports to me, or that's just my peer and they just lost their parent, maybe I haven't had that specific experience, but I might have had some of those feelings in other experiences that can help me identify myself with them.
Liesel Mertes: Right. And all of this is in service of ultimate goal of giving people more confidence to move into these situations. I talk about having tools in your empathy toolkit because lots of times these feelings, I mean, they touch on our own situations of loss. They make us feel uncomfortable. I mean, we're not good at talking about pain. But if we, as coworkers or managers... Surveys have been done asking people, who would do you most like to check in with you when something has gone sideways? The least likely group that people say," Oh, I want them," is HR. And this is, no offense to you or other fantastic HR professionals, but we want to turf this whole responsibility of care of people. Oh, well, that's the HR department. Or that's the EAP department. When really, if we can have a basic set of skills and actionable strategies of understanding where we go sideways in these dynamics... Okay, if I know where I tend to go off the rails and end up not supporting someone, then I can do things better by putting these strategies into place. And we can really take the load off of HR and build a lot more trust, cohesion, vulnerability, and just a sense of comradery within our teams.
Angel Leon: Oh, I certainly agree with everything you said, especially the part... I mean, I look at it from a leadership standpoint. If I'm a manager, if I'm a leader, I want my employees, the people that report to me, to know that I'm there for them. That I have their trust so that if a situation comes up for them, they can come to me and talk to me about that situation and I can just help them in any way that I can. I can be that first line of, basically, usability from an organizational standpoint. And then you bring that up, maybe to the HR person, that then maybe they have different resources that can help with, going back to the loss example. The loss of a parent. Then maybe they can have a resource that can help with that loss, that can help with the grieving process. Maybe they have the EAP that can provide some assistance. That they can get maybe a licensed professional that they can talk to. And maybe those feelings can come out in a different scenario, but at least as a leader, I've bridged that gap. And I've been able to just make that first connection, that first introduction between the employee, the issue, and how I can cooperate or support that employee.
Liesel Mertes: I love how you just described that. It ties into a concept that I use oftentimes in my consulting work, which is being a workplace first responder. Because in the physical care, we've figured this out. A first responder, they don't have to go to as many years of school as an orthopedic surgeon. They know what they are and they know what they are not. But what they do have is they have this basic toolkit and set of skills that they can deploy to help stabilize someone to their next level of care. And it's that same idea, exactly what you said, in the social and emotional realm. Lots of times when I begin talking with managers or CEOs who wouldn't really define themselves as naturally empathetic, you can see their eyes kind of cloud over. And they even asked the specific question," Am I going to have to be a counselor? Am I going to have to be a psychotherapist?" And the answer is no. There's a dozen re reasons why you shouldn't, involving legality, involving skillset. The same way that the first responder is, again, he's not a neurosurgeon. Or she. But if you can have these basic skills, you can help stabilize someone to whatever next level of care they need. And sometimes, just like a first responder who comes and gives somebody a knee brace when they've twisted their knee, sometimes that is all they need. They don't need those next levels of care. But yeah, so I agree. I like that concept that you described.
Angel Leon: Oh, thank you. So I've been both in the place of a manager, I've managed in a non- HR role, I've managed in an HR role, and now I'm a non- manager HR person right now. So I've been on both sides of the coin. So I realize that our role as leaders, and anybody can be a leader, it doesn't have to be specifically somebody with a title of a manager. Because if I'm the coworker, say our producer Brian, and producer Brian comes to me and he confides in me an issue. I can maybe provide that same level of comfort that maybe his manager can. Maybe provide that so quote/ unquote" CPR" right then and there, and then just help him to maybe then... Okay, maybe the right step would be to go to my manager and talk it out with them and they know what's going on. And then that person then goes around and goes to HR. So yeah, no, I've always... Whenever I was confronted with situations like this when I was a manager, and even as a non- HR manager right now, that's my first step. My first step is always to go to," Okay, how can I help you immediately?" Because there is a definite immediate need, we just need to figure out what that is, and then we go from there. We talk it out and I oftentimes use the term baby steps. We take baby steps towards resolving the issue. Not everything gets resolved in one day, obviously. Some things are larger because that's just the nature of every issue. So then we just at least take some steps to make sure that we're addressing those things right away.
Liesel Mertes: Right. I talk about that critical first day responses, first week, and then first month. And all of those are rough benchmarks, where there are some important things that you can do to make sure that you're not losing the thread of support. And also just checking in on things like workflow or dispersal of projects across a team. And there's so many. There's the pivotal moments with the individual, there's also pivotal moments in how you communicate to the rest of your team. So if somebody has to be out for a funeral, if you, as a team lead, communicate with the rest of the team," I cannot believe that Angel has to be out. This is our busiest time of year. We're going to be slammed. It's so inconvenient." If you communicate that sense of stress and overwhelm and that you're just annoyed because someone has not met their efficiency quota, what that subtly plants in people's minds is, I better not ever be in need because look at how our organization deals crosstalk people who are in need. And so I actually, I'll coach leaders through, what does it sound like to give of that news for the first time? You can give that same news, even that people have to pick up extra work, and it can sound instead like," You know what? Angel has to be out for the next couple of days. He's had some substantial stuff go on in his personal life. And this is a busy time of year, and we're all going to need to pick up some extra work, but I want to let you know as the manager, I'm going to be here to help you be successful. This is part of what we do as a team that comes together because we're a culture that really cares about supporting each other. And who knows when any of us could be next?" That's such a totally different tone, but we just don't put intention into thinking about these things or these discussion. Then we end up shooting from the hip and not realizing how we've created toxic, work- obsessed cultures that won't leave room for the whole person.
Angel Leon: Yeah. And that brings up a point that I wanted to touch on during this conversation. And then that is the differences between sympathy and empathy. Because these two terms obviously are different, but they can sometimes veer into each other's territory, if you will. Sometimes we might feel the urge to feel sympathy instead of empathy. When we're using sympathy, we might be feeling pity for another person without really understanding what it's like to be in their situation. Whereas with empathy, you're putting yourself in that other person's shoes, experiencing their emotions while going through that process.
Liesel Mertes: Yeah. I think that's a great definition. And if anyone wants to see it really visually, in a beautiful way, you can YouTube Brene Brown on sympathy versus empathy. And there's a great little cartoon with an animated bear down in a hole. And it's that idea of sympathy as being at the top of the hole, looking down, being like," It's got to stink to be down in that hole." Versus empathy, being able to drop a rope down and not stay in the mileu of just inaudible gazing. But at least that identification of, I've been in the pit as well. And it's interesting, especially the higher profile, that the need for social and emotional care in the workplace has gotten over the last year or two. That data is rising, even the conferences I speak at. I used to be a lone voice in the wilderness three years ago. And now this year, I mean, we're talking about trauma, we're talking about stress, we're talking about lack of connection. And there are some heavy weights in the world of psychology and all kinds of things who are jumping in. Whether we call it languishing or is empathy the right term? Or does it need to be compassion? And you can really get, in a scholarly sense, deep in the weeds on what is the best term and how should we say it? I don't necessarily think that that is the primary best use of energy. We need just a primary school beginning of skilling up in these things, but yes, it's a fascinating study of words.
Angel Leon: Well, I think everything you just mentioned, obviously the pandemic just extrapolated everything out. Just reading into everything that's going on right now, from great resignation where people are just quitting their jobs for a plethora reasons. Obviously more flexibility, things like that. And those things, the pandemic actually just made them larger. Because the pandemic, if it had one good or bad effect, I want to say on the workforce, is that it proved that a lot of people can work remotely and work remotely effectively. And so now that people are getting vaccinated and cases are coming down, et cetera, now organizations have started to call those people back. And those people are saying," Whoa, whoa, whoa, I've demonstrated over the past year and a half that I can be effective and productive while even being at home. Why can't I just stay here?" And so people are starting to throw around terms that we've always heard, like burnout, and as you mentioned, disconnect and low engagement. But those terms have always been around. It's just that the pandemic just kind of extrapolated everything and just brought them up to the surface and brought them up to the surface and just put them at the forefront of everything that everybody else is feeling. So while I was okay over the last year working from home, now I don't really want to go back to the office. I really have shown that I can work productively at home, that I can go for a walk, a 15, 30 minute walk, that's going to refresh my mind. And that I can go right back to work, sit down in my office, and then do everything that I need to do, at the same rate that I was doing it. And probably even, sometimes even better than when I was in the office.
Liesel Mertes: Yeah. These are freighted conversations that people across industries are having. I can think of a company I've consulted with recently who, two thirds of the workforce were frontline workers. They were in shipping, they were in the wharehouses, and the other third is at home. And even what you've said, these people who, they don't want to come back to the office. And they're saying it's so good to be able to be at home. Can you imagine some of the resentment in those discussions with the people who are like," We have never even had an option, now you're whining about..." It's just so easy to... And I'm not saying that someone's right or wrong, but understanding the emotional space that everyone comes from. And that doesn't have to dictate your ultimate decision. But so many HR professionals and executive teams... I mean, you know, they're finding themselves in the thick of it. Of like, how do we hear people? How do we communicate care and understanding and where they're coming from? And yet still make a decision that might be different than what they want. Or in line. And I can think of a large company that I'm talking with, and they direct the working parents group, and there were tons of articles at the beginning of the pandemic of, as the needs of working parents and the complication of at home school. And all of these single or non- parenting couples who were like," Well, what about us? Don't we get special accommodations and special time off?" And you can see how working parents would be like," Screw you. You don't have to do it." And how these other people could think," You're getting all these special accommodations. You chose to have kids." And all of these things are really framed at the fabric of our human interactions. And empathy doesn't magically make those issues go away but it really puts the radical humanity of the other person at the fore. And you don't have to agree with someone to empathize with them.
Angel Leon: Right. Yeah. And in that scenario you bring up, with the working parents and the non- parent working individual, that is a tough thing to mediate. Because I feel like both sides are right. I'm a parent, I just had a baby, he's actually crosstalk.
Liesel Mertes: Congratulations.
Angel Leon: Thank you.
Liesel Mertes: That's small. That's recent.
Angel Leon: Yes, oh no, he's about to be four weeks old tomorrow, as of this recording. So recording on a Monday, so tomorrow he'll be four weeks old. And-
Brian: Point of information from the producer, Angel is still technically on paternity leave. He comes back to the office officially tomorrow.
Liesel Mertes: I hope that this is a super worthwhile conversation, that makes it worth doing it on your leave. And congratulations to whoever birthed your baby into the world as well.
Angel Leon: Yes, yes. No, my wife, who's in the room, actually, right now with him. No, I love doing the podcast, so when they emailed me and said," Hey, we're going to do a podcast about empathy." I said," Sign me up. I will stop anything. I will carry the baby, do the recording." But my wife graciously took him to the room and said," Okay, well let you record."
Liesel Mertes: And you might end up editing this stuff out, but what is the name of your baby crosstalk?
Angel Leon: His name is Arthur.
Liesel Mertes: Arthur. I like that. Oh, we are a nickname family with all of my children, and I can already think of a handful of great nicknames, if you are a nickname family, that an Arthur could have.
Angel Leon: We are. We haven't found anything that's stuck yet, so far. I mean, you can go through... There's tons R2D2, from Star Wars. I'm getting a thumbs up from Brian. You could go with so many of them. We haven't really found one that we're like," Yeah, we should do this one." But as soon as we do, we'll let everybody know. No, but he's great. So I'm sorry, folks, we got off topic, but we'll bring it back here in a second. But yes, so I could see where that discussion between parents and non- parents is really a sticky situation. Because I honestly, personally, I don't see that neither side is wrong. I see that both sides have very valid arguments. If the individuals that do not have kids prove that they were as productive as they were before the pandemic, why isn't it okay for them to just stay home too? To be able to work from home. As the working parents, I mean, I can attest to that. I have Arthur now, but I also have a seven year old. And so he was going to school. He was doing work here. So we had to juggle everything. And at the same time we were, both my wife and I, were working parents. We both were able to prove to our significant employers that we could do the job from home. And so then I think that is a great example of empathy, of just sitting down and actually talking out the pros and cons, and just putting into each individual's place.
Liesel Mertes: Yeah. A line that I use is, you don't know what you don't know. Which should put us in a posture of curiosity. I also have a whole section... when I facilitate, we talk about imagination and empathy. Because, like you were saying, so I also, I am a parent of four children in the midst of the pandemic. What that means is that I really have no idea what it was like for someone who was single, who was shut up in their house, who is only communicating over Zoom. And I actually have to work for it. I'm not intuitively going to get it. I remember knowing a person or two at that time, and they talked about how lonely they were. And in my mind, my gut level response is, I would love to be lonely. I have not been lonely in months because my house is crawling with people. And we got bunnies and we did all the things. But how it relates to meta level point, which gets to how we organize teams, how we manage organizations. Every organization actually already has a defacto way that they are dealing with people's disruptive life events. When I talk about doing sessions to skill people up, they'll think," Oh, maybe this is a whole new thing." No, the reality is, you have a way of doing things. You just haven't codified it or trained for it. And oftentimes you're reaping the ill effects. If you have a manager who has just resigned him or herself to say, let's say herself, because empathy is not a gendered thing. I'm not good at it, this shouldn't be expected of me. Work stays at work, home stays at home. And she's constantly making decisions that don't honor the whole person and make it as a culture of fear, where anything that would detract from a coworker's productivity is only going to be used against them. Then what people on her team are doing is, they'restuffing their disruptive life events. And those things will come out. They will come out in your body, they'll come out in some big explosion five months down the line in some meeting where somebody's like," Oh my gosh, why are they so angry and stressed out?" And really it's because you don't have a good system to be getting this kind of information on the front end. It's better to know about things when they're at their beginning point and when they're small, when you can be helpful or supportive, instead of reaping the whirlwind four, eight, 12 months down the line.
Angel Leon: No, I agree with everything you said, which actually it brought up something that I wanted to ask you about. And that is, from a leadership perspective, how can a leader be more effective and more empathetic? Is there a way for a leader who, somebody who might be listening in right now and might be asking the same questions, or having the same thoughts that you just mentioned. How can that person be... instead of taking, I hate to say the easy way out, of just saying," Okay, I've resigned myself. I can't do this. Here you go. Here are the keys to the kingdom, somebody else can do this." How can they then just come in and kind of just," Okay, give me back the keys to the car. I'm going to put this on drive and we're going to go."
Liesel Mertes: 100%. There are things that they can do. The first is just a framing question. Instead of seeing empathy as a squishy personality trait that some people have and some people don't, leaders need to transition to say," This is an essential leadership capacity that affects my people and my bottom line. Therefore, I'm going to improve in it." And that's an important place to start. And maybe our conversation will go that way, but there's so much data. It does affect your profitability and it does affect the tenure, the attraction, the retention of your people. So first, it's that formative like, okay, I'm in. I want to skill up. Then I find that one of the best ways to begin skilling up is, I introduce people to this handful of empathy avatars, which are manifestations of the bad behaviors that we bring to these situations. I do that for a number of reasons. One, it depersonalizes it. It's not like, Angel, you do this and it drives me crazy. It's like," Oh, you are being a Fix it Frank at this moment." So, a Fix it Frank is always focused... Yeah, people laugh because they instantly identify. Fix it Frank, they are oftentimes promoted, they're oftentimes on executive teams or they lead in HR, because they're really great problem solvers. But if they lead with problem solving, and I give this example, we know it in our personal lives. If I have had a really hard work day where calls have kept dropping and the children have been terrible to each other and the dog has puked on the floor, and I tell my husband and partner Luke about it, and the first thing he says is," If you didn't feed the dog table scraps, he wouldn't throw up on the floor." I think," You are such a jerk. You totally missed me. I was telling you about my horrible day and you're so tone deaf." But we do this in workplace situations all the time. So based on your posture, I'll give you one more, there's seven. Cheer up Cheryl is another really common one. This type of person so desperately wants you to look on the bright side that she traffics all the time in cliches. A favorite phrase is at least, or all of those things like, it's always darkest before the dawn. Always trying to push someone. And that makes somebody conclude, one, you don't get it. And two, either I've got to conceal what I'm really feeling or I've just got to pretend. And again, this is like, you can't get the information you need. So there's seven of those primary postures that I introduce people to. And then there's some avatar- specific tips for a certain type. If you're a Buck up Bobby, always wanted people to persevere, you should do this. But just a basic rule of thumb for someone who's listening and intrigued, but still wants something actionable to come away with. Here's a great phrase to be able to say, you can say something like," I don't even know what to say right now, but I'm really sorry this has happening." Or," Gosh, that sounds really hard." Even that, even if that's just a starting point, that'll really go a long way of giving somebody a pause and being like," Yeah, I'm heard." Another thing is to do emotional mirroring. This other quick and dirty rule of thumb. Really start listening for the feelings that the other person is saying. If they appear very angry, think," They seem angry right now." And say back to them something like," That seems really frustrating. Because the primary thing that people want to know is that they are seen and heard in their overwhelm. that's the differentiating point from something that is hard, even in brain science, versus becoming trauma. Do you have community and people that see and hear you in that? So even just that act of saying something back to someone is really powerful. There are a number of other tips for leaders, but the risk of monologing, let me just pause there.
Angel Leon: Thank you for istening into this week's edition of ASCII Anything, presented by Moser Consulting. We hope you enjoyed listening to part one of our conversation about empathy in the workplace with Liesel Mertes. Join us next week when we bring you part two of this conversation in which we dive into how empathy is linked to productivity. So please stay tuned for that. And remember, if you have an idea or a topic you'd like us to explore, please reach out to us through our social media channels. In the meantime, please remember to give us a rating and subscribe to our feed wherever you get your podcast. Until then, I'd like to leave you with an Albert Einstein quote," Empathy is patiently and sincerely seeing the world through the other person's eyes. It is not learned in school, it is cultivated over a lifetime." So long everybody.
This week's guest is Liesel Mertes, an acclaimed workplace empathy expert. Having experienced her own loss and struggle, Liesel emerged with a deep understanding of what employees need to feel supported at work after a disruptive life event. As the Founder of Handle With Care, Liesel works with groups that want to boost employee satisfaction as well as attract and retain better talent.
Liesel works with companies spanning industries, from RV manufacturers, to diplomats, to tech companies, both locally and internationally. Her favorite clients are forward-thinking organizations who know the value in supporting their employees with empathy and compassion.
Her expertise is broad—loss, returning to work, cultivating resiliency, compassion fatigue, how empathy impacts the brain—and no disruption is considered less significant. Liesel is a dedicated speaker, writer, and consultant specializing in these topics. She also hosts the Handle With Care podcast.