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Inspiring Culture Change Through Connection & Compassion

by | Apr 27, 2021

I once taught a course to a dysfunctional group of executives who had strong enemy images of each other. Team trust and cooperation were low. Two people in particular were locked in conflict. After some time we were able to create a safe place to open up a dialogue.

The first said, “I don’t cooperate with you because every time I share something with you, you take it over and do it yourself and cut me out of the loop.”

The second said, “I take things over because I don’t feel any cooperation from you. You don’t work with me in the spirit of learning together, so I just do it myself.”

The first then replied, “The more you cut me out of the loop, the less inclined I am to share things with you and to cooperate.”

The second responded, “And the less you share things with me, the more inclined I am to just do things myself.”

It was a vicious circle created by insecurities and miscommunications, which were firmly underpinned by each seeing the other as an object and enemy. Neither understood what was at the root of their conflict; they both believed their dissatisfaction was rooted in the other’s seeming inadequacies and inflexibility.

Their story is no different from thousands of others played out in organisations every day. When stuck in a head-to-head battle, we often fail to see what is really going on, and thus are unable to inspire culture change.

Employees are afraid to be transparent because they might be seen as weak, and leaders fail to help their employees resolve conflicts that arise because they don’t recognise there’s more going on than meets the eye.

So what really is going on? What can leaders do when they find themselves or their employees stuck in a similar battle? The real problem lies in seeing each other as the enemy, and in believing that other people are objects to our success.

Here are two solutions for resolving the dissatisfaction that comes from conflict, and creating true culture change in your organisation:

See the Worthiness in Others

First, it’s important that leaders see the worthiness of others. As leaders, we can positively affect our team members by seeing them through the eyes of generosity — seeing them as who they really are regardless of their behaviour. We help brighten their light by first seeing their light—even, perhaps especially, if they can’t see it themselves.

When we see others through a positive light, it gives them permission to shine, and safety to fail. They’re more willing to be honest with others because they are free from the pressure of proving they are enough, or proving they are right.

Be Compassionate

Another thing leaders can do to foster trust and workplace satisfaction, thus being a catalyst for culture change, is to cultivate compassionate leadership.

Wisdom without compassion in leadership can feel cold, aloof and indifferent. Compassion without wisdom can turn us into good-hearted fools. But when we add both wisdom and compassion to our leadership equation, we wish for everyone, our boss, our team-members, our colleagues to be as happy and fulfilled as we would wish for ourselves to be.

The word compassion comes from the Latin meaning “to suffer with,” or “the act of suffering together.” There is a deep connectedness that happens when we witness the suffering in others and see how they are just like us in that suffering. As writer and theologian Katherine McHugh says,

“That healthy connection means that I will stand with you in your pain and you will stand with me in mine; and we will bear it together. We CAN bear it. It is the opposite of fearful aversion that does not want to look, that feels like it can’t look. This keeps us tucked away in our separateness, holding on for dear life with the delusion that such and such could never happen to me. This paradigm contains the seeds of suffering for everyone.”

Compassion allows us to face the more difficult things in others and ourselves without running. Our heart can stay open, and in that, healing and connection can occur, and trust proliferates. Only in this state is organisational culture change possible.

When we are compassionate we sense and connect with the other, and we feel their pain as if it were ours. We don’t back away. If guidance is needed, we offer it. If listening is needed, we offer that.

We surrender to the intelligence of watching and listening, and reality informs us of the next step as we act from our deepest wisdom. Leaders who can act from this place are a gift to their teams and stakeholders, because they are the only ones you can inspire true culture change.

How Separateness Causes Dysfunction in Teams

When our hearts are closed, a sense of separateness governs our perceptions and behaviours. With that disconnectedness comes a tendency to view ourselves and others as objects that we use to achieve our goals. If people get in the way of our goals, we can very quickly close our hearts and go into avoidant, compliant or aggressive behaviour, as did the executives I mentioned earlier, who were caught in an endless cycle of blame.

We may then further dehumanise each other with labels like “idiot” or “selfish.” This habit of seeing and treating each other as objects is a cause of tremendous suffering, both at work and at home. Furthermore, it prevents our ability to create culture change as leaders.

When we are mere objects to each other, we can’t see the hurt and confusion underlying poor behavioural choices, and neither can we see the light and beauty that is the essence of who we are. And our actions follow from that delusion.

One of the most extreme examples of this is the atrocity of genocide. In 1994 in Rwanda, Africa, for example, the Hutu majority slaughtered an estimated one million tribal Tutsis in one hundred days. The term the Hutus used for the Tutsis was “cockroaches.” On a plaque at the Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda, is a profound quote: “If you knew me and you really knew yourself, you would not have killed me.” All physical and emotional violence is based on seeing “the other” as unreal, inhuman objects and enemies who are different and separate from us.

In the corporate world, we’re certainly not killing each other, but the subtle violence that comes from dehumanising one another is an ever-present problem nonetheless. I have never met a client who does not have an enemy image of at least one person or group of people, whether suppliers, clients, colleagues, direct reports or a boss. Unfortunately, this is the norm; in fact, it’s so normal that it’s easy to think I’m overdramatising.

Dehumanising is natural in business because so much of what we do is task-driven, and we often view others as getting in the way of our completing of tasks. But we can never forget that underlying our tasks are relationships. And whether we like it or not, healthy relationships are central to long-term organisational success, culture change, effective leadership, and our own happiness.

Mindfulness and Connectedness

If we were to stop seeing each other as the enemy, we could help each other. In the light of compassion, our insecurities would dissolve and we would hold nothing back from each other. Getting to that place isn’t easy, but it is possible and it’s something that must happen in order for effective work and culture change to take place. Mindfulness is the key that unlocks the door to this kind of openness, trust, and collaboration, all of which are prerequisites for culture change.

Neil, a client of mine and former CEO of a large airline company, shared with me how his mindfulness practice has helped him in this regard. His job required that he work with people from a wide range of ethnic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds to create trusting relationships. He told me,

“Mindfulness has created a natural openness and natural empathy in me, which I think is the basis of compassion. I’ve learned to really understand where people are coming from, to really see and connect with them. Being mindful of their personal motivations and circumstances leads to incredible loyalty and trust, which in turn creates enduring relationships. It also helps me to resolve conflicts, because you can’t do that unless you understand both sides equally well.”

This type of collaboration is desperately needed in organizations, not just as a method to avoid conflict, but also to incite culture change.

In July 2014 the professional services firm Deloitte Australia published a report entitled “The Collaborative Economy.” “Collaboration,” the report explains, “is employees communicating and working together, building on each other’s ideas to produce something new or do something differently. A collaborative organization unlocks the potential, capacity and knowledge of employees generating value and innovation and improving productivity in its workplace.”

Deloitte was asked by Google Australia to quantify the value of greater workplace collaboration, and their findings were astounding. The value of faster-growing, profitable Australian businesses with collaboration at their core was put at $46 billion. If companies were to make the most of opportunities to collaborate more, however, that number could be increased by $9.3 billion per year.

Consider the benefits of collaboration. Companies that prioritise collaboration are:
• five times more likely to experience a considerable increase in employment
• twice as likely to be profitable
• twice as likely to outgrow competitors.i
Collaboration is essential for business success and growth and culture change. But far too few businesses have a collaboration strategy. As a result, they are missing out on significant benefits, primarily that culture change is impossible. Part of the reason they’re missing out on that cooperation is that, cooperation primarily requires trust. Trust in and of itself is also extremely valuable in organisations, and absolutely necessary for culture change. A separate study showed that high-trust organisations outperform low-trust organisations by 286 per cent.ii

Mindful leaders are key to fostering a heart-connectedness with all stakeholders that allows for trust and collaboration to take place, which opens the door to culture change. As a leader, one of your greatest sources of power to incite culture change is your ability to influence the way your people feel.

Remember that seeing the worthiness of others and cultivating compassion enable you to lead out in ways that bring satisfaction and success to you and those you lead. Rather than seeing others as objects you and those you lead will see each other as worthwhile human beings, worthy of love and consideration. The trust, collaboration, and culture change that result will be clear indicators of success.

Because sharing is caring