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Making Compassion Part of our Daily Work

Gently and naturally enriching our cultural soil

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This past spring, Joy Harjo—poet, artist, musician, and member of the Muscogee Creek Nation—celebrated her 70th birthday. Born in Oklahoma in the spring of 1951, Harjo has seen and experienced a good deal of suffering in the world; harm inflicted on the planet, on her people, and on herself as well. In March of this year, two months before her 70th birthday, Harjo released her fifth album, entitled I Pray for My Enemies. She plays saxophone and flute and also sings, in a style that Harjo calls “funkified spoken word.” The tenth cut on the album, “Once the World Was Perfect,” is based on a version of the creation story of the Muscogee Creek Nation. A year after the start of the pandemic, Harjo sings, “We lost our way in the dark, forgot who we were, then had to find our way again.” In her book A Map to the Next World she writes, “True power does not amass through the pain and suffering of others.” I have read and listened to only a small part of Harjo’s abundant work, but everything of hers I’ve come across shows amazing insight and an impressive ability to bring both pain and beauty together in hard-to-hear-the-truth, but at the same time, still uplifting, ways. She sees the suffering, but she also sees a way out. Harjo’s work, for me, is inspiriting (Webster’s defines this as, “to fill with courage or strength of purpose,” which makes it an apt adjective for Harjo’s insightful work). In an interview with João de Mancelos, Harjo shares:

Love is a force that’s been downplayed, relegated to romance. By love I mean compassion, a compassion that makes a story that is able to continue with dignity, despite shame, despite all attempts to thwart it. Compassion enables a people to see beyond the senses, beyond the mind, to the level of god in which all life is connected. We acknowledge our enemies, those who have tested us, those who hate us, but retain a dignity and keep singing. It is easier to pick up a gun or a bomb and kill those who have killed you. That is called “power” in this postcolonial world. Real power is in compassion. Poetry has taught me this.

In the foreword for Monica Worline and Jane Dutton’s Awakening Compassion at Work, Raj Sisodia says, “We live in a world of extraordinary pain and suffering.” Sisodia goes on to echo some of Harjo’s sentiment, stating:

In such a world, it is imperative that individually, as well as through our organizations, we work toward alleviating the suffering and bringing greater joy. … every organizational purpose at some level needs to be a healing purpose. If we are not part of the healing, we are part of the hurting. Healing begins with compassion. That is the master key.

The Dalai Lama drives home the gravity of Sisodia’s statement: “Love and compassion,” he says, “are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” What follows are some reflections on the compassion that all of these wise people have called for. How I’ve come to realize we can do a better job of bringing it more consistently into our organizational ecosystem; how in the ecosystem compassion can be the metaphorical equivalent of composting; how, both compost and compassion, practiced daily over long periods of time, can slowly but surely add up to make a hugely positive difference in our ecosystems.

If you haven’t yet read Worline and Dutton’s wonderful Awakening Compassion at Work, let me wholeheartedly recommend it here. I read it for the first time right when it came out in 2017, and have been revisiting it a lot of late. Awakening Compassion at Work is a detailed, action-oriented, data-filled, how-to handbook that combines the spirit of Joy Harjo’s poetry, the good business sense of Raj Sisodia, and the spiritually sound call to action of the Dalai Lama. It brings them all together, along with a good deal of carefully gathered data, into practical, down-to-earth approaches we can all use to make compassion a consistent contributor to the quality of our organizational cultures. While much of the work-world might ignore it as irrelevant, I’ve come to see compassion as a natural, and ultimately essential, part of human existence. Like the humilitykindnessjoyhope, and spirit of generosity I’ve written a fair bit about in recent months, compassion has a quiet power—one that can help us heal the wounds in our organizations, as well as the wounds each one of us has suffered as individuals. As Jack Kornfield says, “Compassion is the heart’s response to suffering.”

When Worline and Dutton inscribed my copy of their new book for me back in 2017, they signed it: “To someone who lives the message of this book.” It’s a kind statement, and in rereading their work, I can see that we already do much of what they write about so well. That said, we can, I say compassionately, do much better still. Unlike subjects like Customer Service, Open Book Management, Visioning, Lean, or Servant Leadership, we have never really talked about compassion here at Zingerman’s in any kind of formal context. We don’t have an “organizational recipe” for it, and I hadn’t placed it into the metaphor of the organizational ecosystem. Now seems like a good time to suggest we change that; to consider adding a recipe for compassionate work to what we do here every day. The more I study it, the clearer it seems to me that compassion can help quiet conflict (by encouraging us to turn anger into empathy) and help create equity (by challenging us to caringly lift up those who have less), all the while helping us all to move towards greater inner peace and a more caring organizational culture. We have little to lose and a great deal to gain. 

Awakening Compassion at Work helped me see for the first time that compassion could be taught and put into practice using the kind of quantifiable, teachable, repeatable, and really practical “recipe” that we love so much here at Zingerman’s. We haven’t formally adopted the recipe yet, but as I’ve reread, I feel more and more like it’s incumbent on us to do so. Like composting, it would be easy to put it off; the world won’t come crashing down around us next Wednesday if we don’t. But as both climate change and tension in our communities continue to worsen, the case for each is becoming increasingly both urgent and important. 

Here then, without further ado, is my take on Worline and Dutton’s four-step recipe for compassion. 

1. Notice the pain and suffering that surrounds us.

Most of us go through our workdays passing right by the pain of many of the people we work with. While we can’t stop the entire company every time one of our peers is hurting, we can start to consistently acknowledge the reality that people we work with every day are often struggling, and then actively keep our eyes, ears, and hearts open to noticing it. Really, any of our colleagues could have close friends who are gravely ill, or their significant other might have just lost their job. They might want to request a raise but are afraid to ask, or maybe they’re unclear about expectations but were taught elsewhere never to ask for help. They may feel frustrated when they believe that we as leaders have let them down. They could easily feel excluded for reasons of race, religion, sexual preference, age, language, or a host of other factors. They may feel pressured to socialize, or, conversely, they want to join the “club,” but feel like they’re not welcome to do so. It’s not easy to bring these things up, especially to a supervisor. As Lacy Johnson says about Kiese Laymon’s writing in the amazing memoir, Heavy, “It requires vulnerability [like Laymon’s] to describe the nature and depth of one’s own pain to the person who caused it, but it is radical to move in allegiance with that person through sorrow and toward triumph and abundance.” In a compassionate culture though, we can, caringly, go forward together.

The odds are that you and/or someone you’re close to are struggling with things like this right now as I write. The abundance of everyday suffering means that none of us can catch it all; my own view on things is skewed and limited since we can only ultimately see through our own eyes. We don’t mean to, but inevitably we all skip right past someone’s suffering without saying anything. Intentions are good, but as artist Carolyn Finney inquires: “If you cannot fully see me … Do I really fully exist?” Since diversity dictates that each of us experiences the world differently, if we teach this recipe to everyone, then collectively we can do much more than any “heroic” leader could ever do on his or her own. One person composting is nice; an entire community doing it is a radical act of ecosystem restoration.

2. Interpret that suffering in a way worthy of our attention and empathy.

In other words, in our world at Zingerman’s, I might say to be “mindful of the story we tell about someone’s suffering.” As poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil says, “Stories don’t exist as free floating in space. Someone has to be the voice that’s telling the story.” In this case, that someone is us. What we choose to believe about the situation at hand can radically alter our perceptions. A staff member moving very slowly on shift could seem like someone who “just doesn’t care,” but compassion allows us to shift the story behind it. Instead of lack of commitment, we could come at it with more positive beliefs, wondering, perhaps, if maybe the staff person is in physical pain? Or maybe they’re confused? Or they could have big issues out of work that are weighing on them? In our 2032 Vision for the ZCoB we wrote, “Leaders in the organization are committed to helping each person who works here to be themselves in their own unique way in the world.” Engaging with our colleagues compassionately helps them be more complete people at work.

3. Feel concern for the suffering of others.

This kind of felt concern, I would imagine, is significantly impacted by the sort of stories we tell about any situation that is at hand. For me, that means empathically approaching anyone who might seem to be suffering, even in small ways, to learn more (only where appropriate, of course). We want to find a good spot to gently see if something might be amiss (as I wrote last week, “Right time, right place, right people”). It’s important to approach these kinds of conversations from a place of genuine care and concern. We need to get ourselves centered and be prepared to see things as best we can with empathy. As poet Yasmin Mogahed makes clear, “Compassion is to look beyond your own pain, to see the pain of others.”

How do we shift our understandable frustrations into meaningful compassion? One way is to simply sit with our anger long enough to let it melt away. As I wrote in Part 3:

I’d advocate for the advice of the Indian mystic Osho. In Life, Love, Laughter, he says, “When anger comes you are not to do anything; just sit silently and watch it. Don’t be against it, don’t be for it. Don’t cooperate with it, don’t repress it. Just watch it, be patient, just see what happens … let it rise.” … “Just as night becomes day if you can wait a little,” Osho says, “in the same way, anger becomes compassion.”

Long time mindfulness teacher Jack Kornfield invites us to meditate on it, thinking of the person with whom we are frustrated, reciting the phrases:

May you be held in compassion. May your pain and sorrow be eased. May your heart be at peace.

There are numerous studies that show that this sort of loving-kindness meditation has hugely positive benefits both for those who do it, and those toward whom the love and kindness are directed. It is, I can see, one of the most effective ways to “compost” what would be wasted, taking destructive, negative, energy and turning it into a life-giving kindness and care.

4. Take action to address or alleviate the suffering at hand.

I know, as I said last week, that we aren’t here to serve as therapists for our peers. Still though, our commitment to their growth and well-being means working to help them make their way towards mental health. When the people who work here feel better, they do better work, which helps both them and the organization to do better still. The action we take in the context of compassion can be any number of things. Many of the ones that I know are listed in Secret #46 on The Spirit of Generosity essay in Part 4. We can offer access to much needed resources, caring, or support. Sometimes just listening helps, both the one who’s being listened to and the listener. As I heard Annemarie Anderson say at the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium last weekend, “Listening to others will bring you a joy you may not have had for a while.” 

In Awakening Compassion at Work, Worline and Dutton put great emphasis on this fourth element. Compassion, they suggest, is really only meaningful when we actively do something to help reduce suffering. While “feeling compassion” is well intended, without taking action we will still have done nothing to help our coworkers in this context. As Worline and Dutton write: “This action can be more or less skilled and can be coordinated with greater or lesser competence—so this aspect allows us to show the variety of work and the skill involved in creating compassion in workplaces.” There is, I know, no guarantee that the action we take will fix the problem or eliminate the pain, and I also know that we will never alleviate everyone’s pain and suffering. Still, as Worline and Dutton write, and as I also believe, taking the “right action” once or twice a day is far better than doing nothing. As Shawn Askinosie says, “The universe conspires to help us serve other people … If you take a small movement in the direction of kindness, humanity and compassion, your prayer will be answered.”

So what does this look like in the context of the organizational ecosystem, with compassion as a metaphorical corollary to compost? As the folks at Rodale Institute write, “Everyone is agreed, natural compost is the ideal soil additive for garden and landscape.” Note that in their concise statement compost is an additive; not the end goal of creating a garden. Same goes, I believe, for compassion. Like compost, it’s a small but still meaningful way to take what would have been wasted and turn it into something that brings health and benefit. 

What is compost? “Deep Green Permaculture” says:

Composting is a process where microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and protozoa are utilised to break down plant matter and other biodegradable materials into a dark, crumbly, decomposed organic matter that resists further breakdown, known as humus.

Humus, you may or may not recall, in the ecosystem metaphor is humility. I love the contextual congruence, and also, its continuity. Compassion, over time, creates humility. Humility—like humus—just “is.” It can’t be broken down any further. The more we practice compassion, the more humility we get in the ecosystem, the more health we end up with, the better things will go, the more team players we encourage and attract. As Worline and Dutton write, “Compassion heals, but it’s up to you to bring it out, spread it to every corner, and manage its impact.” Which is of course, just what a good gardener would do with compost. Writer and business podcast host Marty Wolff says, “Composting is taking organic waste and allowing it to ferment so it becomes the rich soil it originally came from. Same is true with compassion. When we apply that healthy, caring compassion with each other, this enriches all those we touch, which will then ripple out to others and help us be kinder and more caring toward our fellow world citizens.”

Please note that I don’t take any of the emphasis on compassion to mean we should ignore injustice or avoid bringing up issues where the organization or our community is out of alignment with its values. Jack Kornfield frames this issue very constructively:

Just as our compassionate heart can be touched by the sorrows of the world, we must also remember that it is not our responsibility to fix all the brokenness of the world—only to fix what we can. Otherwise we become grandiose, as if we were put here to be the savior of the humanity around us. Mindfulness and compassion are genuinely undertaken one step at a time, one person, one moment. Without this understanding we become overwhelmed by all the problems that must be attended to: the dilemmas of our extended family and community, the injustice and suffering worldwide.

To make compassion work, it’s clear to me that we need to start with self-compassion. Dr. Kristin Neff’s work on the subject is super helpful. A friend recently shared a story about hearing civil rights leader Bryan Stevenson say, “The systems are broken. People are broken. And you know, I’m broken too.” Without self-compassion, it is almost impossible to effectively make the systems and culture around us consistently compassionate. We are all beautifully, humanly imperfect. If we’re not patient with ourselves, if we don’t treat ourselves with dignity, then we won’t ultimately be able to treat others well either. As author Kiese Laymon says, “It’s sort of hard to hurt yourself and not hurt anyone else.”

Does compassion in the organizational ecosystem really matter? Yes, absolutely. Worline and Dutton offer a wealth of references about how much benefit it has on real-life bottom-line results:

The presence of compassion in work environments creates psychological safety, which is crucial to learning and innovation. Another is that compassion in work environments relates to resilience in profitability during downturns, in part because it is strongly related to both employee engagement and client engagement. More compassionate workplaces are more likely to attract and retain talented employees, since compassion relates strongly to commitment and loyalty. And finally, compassion at work fuels great service because when people feel more supported by co-workers and they have more role models for compassion at work, they are better able to handle customer or client pain and to customize their responses in ways that help customers feel that they have been treated to great hospitality.

Poet, essayist, and environmentalist Janisse Ray writes, “Many systems that we collectively have been living amid and on which we rely appear to be failing. The easiest thing to do is to give up. But so much needs to be done; every mind and body is crucial for putting new systems in place. We need positive contributions.” Creating compassionate organizations in systemic and mindful ways is one seemingly small but ultimately effective way to do what Ray is writing about. Composting is another that I’m sure is close to Ray’s garden-growing, climate-activist’s heart. If we—or you—put Worline and Dutton’s recipe for compassion into place in our teaching and our organizational ecosystem, our colleagues, our organizational culture, our community, and perhaps even the planet will benefit.

The other morning, I got an email from a staff member who is on leave, with organizational support, to deal with some mental health issues. It would be easy for her peers’ patience to wear thin and to hold negative beliefs about her. Instead, they continue to choose compassion. I asked her if it was ok to quote part of her note here and, compassionately hoping to help others benefit from her suffering, she actually encouraged me to do so. “You may quote me,” she said. “My story is no secret.” The work of Joy Harjo, Jane Dutton and Monica Worline’s book, the writing of Janisse Ray, and the compassion surrounding the suffering of our colleague have all given me the creative and compelling company reasons why this work matters so much. The note from the staffer gave me touching personal testament to back it up:

I want to appreciate everyone at Zingerman’s for being so supportive and helping me out through yet another episode. I know from experience that most places don’t take mental issues seriously or even care about them, and that’s not a good situation to be in. So seriously, THANK YOU. Not to sound dramatic but it really can be a life or death thing and I am proud to work somewhere that goes for the side of life.

Earlier this year Janisse Ray wrote a lovely article about Joy Harjo and the effort by her and others to create a National Park along the Ocmulgee River in central Georgia on a part of Harjo’s ancestral lands. In the article, Ray quotes Harjo, “The earth, she’s a circle.” Both composting and compassion can help us make that circle whole again; instead of wasting resources we can help return health and richness to our soil and to our organizational cultures. As Harjo said so poignantly in her remarks, “We all make our way back home eventually.”

In The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, Janisse Ray writes that she encourages her readers to “start building. Not skyscrapers or oil rigs, but lives that make more sense, that contribute to a lighter, more intelligent way of living on earth.” Building more compassionate companies is one small but meaningful way to do that. As Ray writes, “If we imagine it, we create it. The more of us who imagine it, the easier the creation will be. Our job is the birthing.” With both compassion and composting, we don’t need to wait. Each time we act on them, we give birth to positive possibilities for a healthier future. The near term cost is negligible, but the long term benefit is clearly big. And as Janisse Ray closes out her book, “Begin now.”


*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!

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