S2E14: Workplace Empathy 2 of 2-Basic Emotional Maintenance and Other Empathy Tips For Workplace Success
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 bringing you part two of our conversation with Liesel Mertes, on workplace empathy. We hope you enjoyed our first part, which aired last week. Without further ado, here's part two of my conversation with Liesel Mertes on workplace empathy. So I have to ask, how is empathy linked to productivity?
Liesel Mertes: Well, it's a great question. let's begin with just the desire of the workforce, especially since we're dealing with the great resignation, as it's hard across industries to attract and retain people. This is more and more tied to millennials, solidly being a middle aged workforce, and younger generations coming up, it's tied to the pandemic, but people want more empathy at work. And there are data gathering organizations who have been asking about this for the last couple of years. So Business Solver, their Empathy At Work survey has some really tremendous data points. 82% of respondents in 2000 said that they would switch jobs for increased empathy. 78% directly linked the presence or absence of empathy to their productivity, like," I'll work better if they show me more empathy." Interestingly enough, only 50% of CEOs agreed with that, which shows that there's a disconnect between what people are saying they want and what leadership is giving them. But let's look even towards, okay, so maybe this will help you attract or retain. You might be thinking it will, it definitely will. But let's talk about how it actually affects the bottom line. So the Grief Recovery Institute did a survey. It was a long time ago now, it was in early 2000's. But they were looking across industries, what is the dollar related loss to American companies because of grief related instances? This includes death, it also included a divorce or the loss of a pet, it was really wide ranging. And adjusted for current inflation, that number is over a hundred billion dollars of lost revenue to American businesses.
Angel Leon: Wow.
Liesel Mertes: And that is related to increased sick days that are taken, the phenomenon of presentee- ism where I'm clocking in but my brain literally can't focus on it.
Angel Leon: Yes.
Liesel Mertes: Even they looked at a number of different sectors, heavy machinery, people are making more mistakes and errors. And the final part of this picture, to give a high level view, is that the presence or absence of empathy actually affects our brain connectivity. We have two hemispheres, well, we have a number of parts of the brain. But for this example, you have your lower brain, like your cerebral cortex, this is where we talk about the fight or flight mechanisms that come into play. And then you have the prefrontal lobes, which they are where more of our rational thought or sending nuanced emails with lots of bullet points comes from. And the goal is a free flow of information between this instinctual part and this rational part. And when we are stressed out and overwhelmed, that free flow of information stops. You're only in this emotive, fear based place. But actually, so how empathy comes into play is we have these mirror neurons in our brains that scientists studying primates actually discovered a little over 30 years ago. And that when those mirror neurons are activated, whether that's by somebody else's stressed out state or by somebody else's calm state, it actually helps move our brains into a parallel state. So if someone is overwhelmed, super sad, emotionally flooded the presence of your calm and identification actually activates those mirror neurons and helps them. So I talk about survive, stabilize thrive. It helps them stabilize. It helps return that free flow of information. You can't just demand that they immediately get back to those prefrontal lobes, like write good emails and lead a good meeting when you're feeling totally overwhelmed. But if you show them empathy and care and like, Hey, it's going to be okay with your tone, with your words like that actually activates their brain to do it on its own. So those are some of the pieces of how it affects productivity.
Angel Leon: It's very interesting. Everything that you mentioned from the, the surveys of empathy, of people wanting more empathy and unfortunately having leadership that does not see that as a valuable asset to have, because I, I oftentimes go back to my time as a manager and, and I don't mean to go often to that, but that was one of the things that I always told the people I manage, is that I'm here for you. I'm not this overarching, know it all person. I am going to guide you, yes, but I need your guidance because you guys are driving my team. And the success that we have is the success that you have. And whenever, I had instances where people lost parents, where people lost siblings, et cetera. And I'm using loss because I think that's one of the most powerful situations that anybody can face in their lives, and then having to come to work and just face those instances in an environment where we didn't operate like you were mentioning, heavy machinery or anything like that, but we still had to have processes done, and we still had to have stuff that we needed to go from point A to point B, and along the way, if there was a hiccup, then somebody might get upset. Especially in the HR world where if you're bringing somebody in and you don't fill out all their paperwork correctly, and then they get the wrong insurance, then that's crosstalk.
Liesel Mertes: Oh, yeah. That makes people mad.
Angel Leon: Yeah. Yeah, that's a big issue. But I always told my people that if they had an experience like that, where they lost somebody that work was here. We were going to handle it, that they needed to step away for their own good, so that they could take time to process however they wanted to process the grief. Now the old cliche is," No, I'm strong, I can be here. Work actually takes my grief away." Everything that you mentioned is true, when we are in a state of grief to continue using that example, that doesn't necessarily become true because your grief is still there, anything can trigger it. Loss of a pet, loss of a loved one is something that is going to come up at some` point during your work day that it's going to trigger that sadness. And then whatever thing you were doing in front of you, it's going to just stop.
Liesel Mertes: Yeah.
Angel Leon: And so I feel like everything you said is just, I lived it.
Liesel Mertes: Yeah. Anybody who has been around the block in management, they know these moments and they know where they've done it well, and they know where they just intuit that it could have been different, but they really weren't trained or skilled in it. I experienced this profound personal loss, which helped launch me into this work. I had a daughter die in the middle of my first semester of an MBA program. So I'm the mother of five children, four of whom are living, and Mercy Joan died after just eight days of life. Profoundly, so hard. And in the midst of it being so hard, I also had even going through it, this meta level reflection of how am I in a whole expensive master's degree program that is all about managing people and we're not spending five minutes of a single class session talking about this? I really am glad to be on leading edge of training and equipping and re- equipping managers. And I hope that five, 10 years from now there are whole classes, there are whole robust discussions that are going on to help the next generation managers. Because this is going to happen in the lives of your people, guaranteed. They're going to have a disruptive life event. And they're not always bad, we've talked about death. You've had a disruptive life event, a new baby is a disruptive life event, albeit a joyful one. Relationship transitions, miscarriage, infertility, all kinds of things. It's always been coin of the realm, but even more so as we're in the midst of the pandemic.
Angel Leon: Yeah. And well, first of all, I'm terribly sorry to hear about your loss. That now to bring the empathy side, I can't imagine what that feels like, because honestly, I've obviously never experienced it, but it just saddens me to hear that very much.
Liesel Mertes: Thank you.
Angel Leon: And you bring up a point about how it's going to happen, it's already happening in my eyes. I think it's always been happening, it's just that we, in our business world, I just don't think that it really got the attention that it really deserved because many other things were happening and you can pile on the excuses. But the pandemic brought up as we were mentioning before, just so many things to the surface that now people are seeing as important, that they're realizing and recognizing what really is important to them beyond just coming to work and earning a paycheck and paying their bills, et cetera. That all is still important, anybody that's listening, don't take me wrong. But a lot of people realize that, hey, maybe being at home and spending time with your kids, with your significant other, or maybe that's actually very fruitful, that brings out some of the best in us. I know that sometimes our kids can drive us insane, you can probably attest to that.
Liesel Mertes: crosstalk As my kids.
Angel Leon: Yes. But think about it, especially before the pandemic, I never thought about being here every day. Whenever my son's school went back open and he would go to school, I never thought about actually, because I live in a cul de sac, walking to the end of the street to pick him up from the bus stop every single day and just coming, having that connection, because before then it would just come after the work day because I would go pick him up at daycare and then we all live busy lives. But the fact that I was able to walk out to the end of my street, have that connection right then, ask him how his day went or he would come out of the bus and tell me the first thing that came out of his mind. And so that would then drive basically, the rest of the day. But those things, those unnatural things that weren't happening before, because we all had these scheduled lives where we took the kids to school, went to work, go, go get the kids from daycare, bring them home, cook, get them ready for the next day, et cetera. Now, all of a sudden that all just got scrambled.
Liesel Mertes: Yeah.
Angel Leon: And so everything just went to the side and now you're having these experiences that maybe you wouldn't have if life were still the same way it was before 18, 19 months ago.
Liesel Mertes: Right. Well, and it's the pandemic, another thing that I always want to bring into the conversation about disruptive life events in the workplace is also we're in the thick of an ongoing racial reckoning in the United States, like protests in the streets. People elevating the profile and the importance of saying for Black, for brown, for Asian Americans, that we have experiences that you are not aware of and they're actually really hard to swallow or they're toxic or they're deeply offensive. That's an important conversation to have, and there's all kinds of baggage that people are bringing. And I am not specifically a diversity, equity, and inclusion trainer, but conversations about empathy, like, okay, can we move into hard conversations, or are we always backpedaling? Are we bringing our bad habits of you just need to feel better? Or a commiserating Candace who is another type. Commiserating Candace always has his or her own hard story like, oh hello, you want to tell me something difficult that happened? I've experienced something just like that. People from minority cultures, they're getting the empathy miss all the time. And so there have been a couple of different factors that are causing you pain points, but they're not just pain points. They're also opportunities to live into some of our best selves, to work on these bad habits, to work on these backwards ways of communicating and to not just say," Oh, I never want to talk about these things. Can they just go away? Please don't ask this of me, this has never been asked of me in my working life, I just want things to go back to the way they were." To instead be like,"Do you know what? This is a great opportunity to be, even at a place like Moser, a workplace of choice. You guys get those distinctions and that kind of things all the time. And to just keep leveling up in this area too, we want to keep being a workplace of choice. We know how to embrace hard conversations and not have them just consistently blow up in our faces."
Angel Leon: Yeah, no, I agree with everything you said. That, obviously see the events of last summer, last year, it just brought a lot more emotions to light, and as a Hispanic myself, I can definitely relate to everything you said. And so that actually segues nicely into one of my last questions. And that is how can we create a culture of caring for one another when we're all essentially remote right now?
Liesel Mertes: Yeah. It's more complicated, isn't it? We're all grappling with that. Because it's a big question, let me give you just some really actionable tips, this isn't everything. One that's really basic is body language over Zoom is huge, the importance of affirmative noises to people," Ah, okay." Leaning in, if I am leaning in, if I am nodding, it shows that I'm listening. Even sometimes in sales conversations, I'll be taking notes. I have this little notebook that I love, but I always tell people that I'm taking notes because all they can see is me looking off.
Angel Leon: Yeah.
Liesel Mertes: Stage left. And they won't know if I'm checking Facebook about some high school boyfriend who's on a trip to Aruba, and just wanting to see if he's put on weight or, they don't know. So thinking about your online presence and posture. A great basic way to start is also think about how do you start meetings? Are you just jumping right into work or do you budget in the time? I tell people to do stoplight check- ins. So it would sound like this, Brian, what sort of energy are you bringing? Angel, what sort of energy are you bringing today? Are you red? Like I'm present, but actually it's hard for me right now? Are you yellow? You're here, but with some reservations? Or are you green? You're fired up, you're ready to go, lunch was great. Set, and you don't have to force people to elaborate on that if they don't want to. Allow the space for them if they do, but it also gives you great information to follow up on later, if somebody is red and you're the leader, even if you're not the leader, maybe circle back and say," Hey, I noticed you were red today. Is there anything you want to talk about or anything I can help with?" So that's, again, and what that does, it throws some sharp elbows to show. There is space to talk about these kinds of things at work. Two other, this is not the totality of it, but these are just great things to remember because I hear it again and again in my consulting. Do not say take all the time you need if someone needs to take time off. First and foremost, because it is a lie, you don't mean it. If someone really needed two years to recover, you will not give them that much time. And what it does is it introduces ambiguity to whoever's reporting to you because they know you don't mean it, but they don't quite know how much time they actually do have. So then they're second guessing themselves, when do I need to get back with them? Is a week too long? Is three days too long? It's taking their mental space. Instead, lead as a leader, know how much time you can give in good conscience. For the next 72 hours do not check your phone, do not check email, let's touch base again then and we'll talk about next steps. That can also buy you time to check with HR, check about policies, it's helpful to you. And it allows them to fully inhabit the rest you want to give. So don't say take all the time you need. One more, don't say, well, let me know if there's anything I can do to help. That again is very well intentioned. But when someone's going through something hard, when their marriage is falling apart, they don't have that much extra mental space to think, okay, what thing could I have you do? Or maybe they do, but what if they ask you something you hate? Like what if they say, can you feed my cats and you hate cats, and you don't want to feed their cats? Instead, think about what are some things that you can specifically offer within your purview? And if you're a manager, think about reallocating work, that's a primary way managers can care for people. But think about things like," Hey, I'm going to Costco later on. Can I pick up some snacks for you and your kids because I know you're driving back and forth to the hospital? I'm already getting squeezable apple sauce from my kids." Or," Hey, I'm getting GrubHub tonight. Can I just order you from your favorite place?" And then don't be offended if they say no or if they say they don't want it. You have put it out there, don't be afraid to put it out there again. But that's so much more actionable and tangible than just," Let me know maybe sometime if there's anything I can do to help." What that does is that makes you feel good, it rarely translates into something that actually helps the other person.
Angel Leon: Yeah, no, absolutely. All of those things that you mentioned are things that we do or we used to do in a manner that was just sometimes you do it because you think it's not offensive. You're trying to put out the hand just to give somebody that help, but be more direct, be more is specific. That's basically what it comes down to. And as you were mentioning, if you're a manager, if you're listening to this, be more direct. Like Liesel was saying, if you're offering somebody time off, don't say take all the time you need because you know you won't be able to give PTO for two years. So just offer a week, 72 hours, maybe three, four days, if it's something that happens on a Wednesday, offer the rest of the week off so that they can then just take those days plus the weekend and maybe come back on Monday. But yeah, no, I agree with those things.
Liesel Mertes: Could I throw in one?
Angel Leon: Yeah.
Liesel Mertes: Thing at this moment? Sometimes, like if we were talking in a group facilitation or over coffee, I can see it in people's faces. There are these moments where, so for listeners, maybe they're listening and they're like, oh no, I have been that person. I totally, somebody shared with me and I just jumped right into fix it mode or I didn't care for someone, like we can have a backward glance, ways in which we have not been how we would want to be or how we've come off. Those are good moments of awareness and I just encourage any listeners if you're having that moment of, oh no, I did that last week, that stinks, apologies are super powerful. I teach this stuff, I am not perfect in it. I do the apology thing all the time. And it sounds like this, I can think even with an extended family member of something I've had to do within the last six months. I've said," You know what? I really was not supportive of you during that hard season that you and your husband were having. I didn't check in with you the way I would've wanted to. And I realized I didn't show you the care I would've liked to. And I'm sorry about that. I wish that that was different. And next time, if something like that comes up again, I really want to do it differently." That declaration of intention and also owning your stuff is really powerful, especially within work settings. So don't be afraid to circle back, it's always meaningful.
Angel Leon: Absolutely, I agree. I've had many instances where I've had managers actually come to me and do exactly what you just did because A, they didn't feel like they should inform HR, or that I didn't feel like this would move up to a level of HR, so I apologize in advance. And that's something that, to me, it's very powerful because it does, it does mean that they, they might have just had a slight of hand. Maybe they just missed the opportunity to come in and brief us on it. But it is a very powerful thing, and it works both ways. If you were the individual with the issue and you've maybe neglected to go to your leader or neglected to go to the person you trust the most maybe, and I'm talking the workplace specifically, this can move out of the workplace into your family, et cetera, I'm sure. But in the workplace, if you neglect it and you've maybe shown a little bit of an attitude and a little bit of a condescending tone, and somebody, Mary over there that's your best friend, she probably noticed it. And she hasn't said anything because hey, maybe Lori's having a bad day. And so I'm Mary sitting over here not thinking about what Lori's going on, but then Lori finally decides to speak. So it does go both ways, those apologies. So I guess you answered my last question which was, how can we become more empathetic towards others in our daily lives?
Liesel Mertes: Remember that you don't have to fix people in their sadness or grief, that sidelines people a lot. They think, what can I say to make it better? There's nothing I can say to make it better, so we move away from it. Remember that something is better than nothing. You won't be perfect in this, I get paid to teach it and I am not perfect in it. So be okay with that, don't expect perfection, be making repairs, and think about some of those practical things. How are you starting meetings? Here's a final note, empathy shows up or doesn't show up in your calendar, especially depending on when you're listening to this, the holidays are coming up. This is going to be a hard time for a number of people, people who it doesn't have to be a death, maybe there has been a separation this year. Maybe there are people that they're no longer talking to because of the political context and that is sad. All kinds of things. What that means, what I do, keep a running list around Thanksgiving. Week of Thanksgiving, week of Christmas, of people you just want to touch base with. Send a text," Hey, I know this could be a hard time of year, I just want to let you know I'm thinking of you and want to support you." Those things are, man, they're so powerful. So don't neglect your calendar. If you know somebody who's gone through something hard, maybe you do a great job the first day, immediately put in your calendar one week from now that you just want to check in, send them a text, send them an email. So work on displaying that intention in your calendar. And just know, again, this is one of the most exciting, powerful, leadership capacities that we are giving attention, data, and training towards. And it's a great way for you to grow as a leader and as a teammate.
Angel Leon: Absolutely. That's great, great advice. Always check in on those who you haven't spoken with, especially for a very long time. And take that time, especially during the holidays to make sure that you're checking in on them. Because again, you don't know what that person might be going through, and if you haven't checked in with them for a very long time, then could be a good time. Or even just now, just pick up the phone, send a text. So Liesel, I have a three questions that I always ask my guests that are coming on. So the first question is what's a commonly held belief about your expertise that you passionately disagree with?
Liesel Mertes: That empathy is just a personality trait that some people have and some people don't, and that's just the way it is. I really disagree with that, because I feel like it keeps us from developing a really essential, transformative and deeply human aspect of what it is and what we bring to work. Yes, some people do this more naturally and with more ease than others, but everybody can get better at it. And it really does impact your people and your bottom line.
Angel Leon: Yes. I feel that connections are made no matter what, whether you have it or not. If you make a connection with somebody, I feel like you can just take that and run with it and empathize with somebody, just be there for somebody, if you make that connection. And even if you don't, I still think that you can offer up those feelings, those sentiments, so that they can feel comfortable with you. And maybe as we were talking before, maybe if they're not up to the opening session, if you will, then maybe that'll least give them something to think about in the future. So what's something that everyone in your industry space should start or stop doing?
Liesel Mertes: Well, I'm in such an exciting and growing, like we are a small but mighty group of practitioners, so I don't know if we have quite had the longevity to make deeply entrenched errors.
Angel Leon: Or what about something that they should continue doing that you think is successful?
Liesel Mertes: I think that we should continue raising the profile on human connection and empathy in the workplace. There are other people who are doing work on vulnerability and shame and they're not all the same, but it's super important. And we should do that in a way that doesn't shame companies, but meets them where they are. We're all at a particular place in our company cultures and we can all be improving, but to welcome and give tools to people right where they are. Not everybody is a best place to work yet, but everybody can get better at it.
Angel Leon: I agree. And lastly, when you first started in your expertise, what was harder than you expected?
Liesel Mertes: Oh, finding confidence in my own voice and value. I think that anybody who has started on an entrepreneurial journey, well, I can't speak for everybody. Many people that I've talked to, you have this idea and I was doing market research and I was having all of these focus groups and I was so excited about it, and the thought that somebody might actually pay me for it was so out in left field. So I was just helping somebody who is a couple of years behind me in a different area. But I was talking just this morning and I was remembering, oh my gosh, there's a time when I was doing this that if you gave me a$ 20 Starbucks gift card and were willing to tell me that I was doing a good job, I would be like, yes, this is the best thing ever. So yeah, just realizing the importance of pricing, realizing the importance of knowing your value and being able to communicate that. I think that's an essential skill of any business, but when you're just beginning as a consultant, that can sometimes times involve a lot more personal work and a personal journey. So, but doing the work to know yourself better is always worthwhile. And that ties into, you can feel free to edit this out, but something that I also feel like is really important right now. We talk about EAP programs or we talk about support in the workplace. And a lot of times those programs are being utilized more, they're still so underutilized because there's all sorts of defense mechanisms that we have about the type of people that go to counseling and thinking that we have to be, we, me, you, have to be on the edge of like a total emotional collapse to validate going to counseling. The EAP, it is confidential, your HR person and your manager do not know what you talk about. So many people are you using it, as someone who has benefited from personal counseling, from grief counseling, from marriage counseling, multiple times marriage counseling. It's why I still like my husband. Man, it's the healthiest people you know are going into their stuff in counseling and it will make you a better person in your household, it will make you a better person on your team. And maybe this is just the moment to nudge you closer, but you don't have to wait until your whole world is falling apart.
Angel Leon: Yeah.
Brian: Yeah, to that point, kind of look at it as basic maintenance on your car. My car is running fine, after the set number of thousand miles, I'm still getting the oil changed.
Liesel Mertes: Yes.
Brian: That will help it continue.
Liesel Mertes: Yes.
Brian: To run fine.
Liesel Mertes: This is something that I have posted about, we give more care to our vehicles.
Angel Leon: Than to ourselves.
Brian: Yeah, it's basic maintenance that prevents further, more complicated, far more costly interventions being required later.
Angel Leon: Yeah.
Liesel Mertes: 100%.
Angel Leon: No, these are conversations that, I work in HR obviously, so these are conversations that I'm oftentimes having with a lot of people about taking away the stigma of EAP programs, of the help that they offer because they are there to help you. I can't tell you the number of times that I've had a conversation with somebody and I've offered up our services, which as you mentioned, they're confidential. I don't even know that you're talking with somebody or when, or where, I have no, once I release you into that world, it is you and the individual, that is it. I, as an HR individual have no clue. And yet I still get so much pushback.
Liesel Mertes: Right.
Angel Leon: Because it is a stigmatized, and I hate to use that word but I feel like it is, it is something that people just don't see as a valuable resource.
Liesel Mertes: Yeah.
Angel Leon: Because like Brian was saying, you go take a car every 5, 000 miles to the shop to make sure that it runs. Why can't you just take yourself to a conversation with somebody that doesn't know you that just wants to listen to you and provide you with resources to ail whatever it is that you're hurting in?
Liesel Mertes: Yeah.
Angel Leon: Especially in those feelings and those issues, personal issues that a lot of people have. Yes, they might not be resolved with one conversation, they might need more time. But the fact that you're taking that first step, that just, it should take off a huge weight off your shoulders.
Liesel Mertes: Yeah. And if it feels scary, if it feels like a lot, sometimes it is, and it's still worth doing.
Liesel Mertes: And the great news is it doesn't have to be expensive. That's sometimes a sticking factor for people, sometimes it's totally free depending on your EAP program. Because they know the same way that people invest in preventative health, you get that free doctor's visit, two dental visits, it's a good investment.
Angel Leon: Good. So Liesel, it has been wonderful to have you with us on ASCII Anything, thank you so much for joining us today. If you're interested in Liesel's work, you can check out her podcast, Handle With Care: Empathy At Work. Which is available wherever you get your podcasts and on her website, LieselMertes. com. Thank you for listening in to this week's edition of ASCII Anything, presented by Moser Consulting. We hope you enjoyed listening to part two of our conversation about empathy in the workplace with Liesel Mertes. Join us next week when we continue to dive deeper with our resident experts and what they're currently working on. And remember, if you have an idea or topic you would 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 podcasts. Until then, so long everybody.
Workplace Empathy, Part 2 of 2:
This week we continue our discussion with 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.