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is compassion the same as empathy?

Compassionate Accountability: How to Build a More Compassionate Workplace

by | Jan 2, 2021 | Asking for a Friend, Asking For a Friend Featured, Courageous Cultures |

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In this Asking For a Friend LIVE interview with Dr. Nate Regier of Next Element, Karin and Nate talk about how to build a more compassionate workplace and share practical approaches for balancing accountability and compassion.

caring culture in the workplace

How Do I Build a More Compassionate Workplace (Transcript Excerpts)

“I just want to say right out, compassion is a leadership strategy. It is the way we do our work. It’s not something we do on the side. I coach a lot of leaders and one of the most common struggles they have is they have over-indexed to kindness and they’ve dropped the ball on accountability. Compassion includes both. If you’re compassionate without accountability, you can’t get anything done, but accountability without compassion gets you alienated, so the two have to co-exist in everything that we do to really be a viable business strategy.”

– Dr. Nate Regier

What is a Compassionate Workplace?

Karin Hurt:

Definitely. Let’s talk about compassion. When you say “Creating a compassionate organization,” or “Compassion in the workplace,” what do we mean by “compassion”?

Nate Regier:

Yeah, it’s traditionally been a very soft word, I think. When I hear “compassion,” at least when I was growing up, I thought of these famous people like Mother Teresa or Gandhi that were just doing all these incredible selfless acts of service for everyone out there. My parents were missionaries, I grew up overseas in Africa, and so I saw a lot of service and I thought, “Well, that’s compassion, is you go just help people.” But really, compassion as a culture, if you look at the root of the word, the Latin root of “compassion” means “with struggle, with suffer,” so compassion means to struggle with people. That’s the best definition of work culture that I’ve ever thought of is we are struggling together towards some common goal, something amazing.

Karin Hurt:

Oh, I love that. I noticed in your book you were talking about struggling together as opposed to conflict struggling against. Can you tell me a little more about that?

What Does it Mean to Struggle Together?

Nate Regier:

Yeah. Well, like you, we work with a lot of organizations and companies and leaders where conflict has created lots of casualties, or it seems to create casualties, which is why I named my book the opposite, but conflict isn’t inherently a bad thing. Conflict is simply the gap between what we want and what we’re experiencing at any point in time and there’s a lot of energy in that gap, to be sure, but the real question is: How do we spend that energy? Misusing the energy of conflict leads to drama, but when we leverage that energy, it can be a very transformational source of energy for us. I really believe that compassion is the actual mechanism to turn conflict energy into something creative.

Karin Hurt:

Oh, very nice. Would you say that compassion is the same thing as empathy?

What’s the Difference Between Compassion and Empathy?

Nate Regier:

No, it’s not. Many people think that compassion is empathy in action: “My heart goes out to you. I feel your pain. I feel your suffering. I want to go alleviate that suffering.” That’s what compassion, we’ve come to think of it as, but that’s actually not the case. Research on empathy shows that empathy actually triggers the pain centers of the brain and over time, a lot of empathy leads to burnout, like healthcare providers, people that are on the front lines. Compassion, though, the practice of actively being involved with somebody towards a common goal, actually triggers the dopamine and reward centers of the brain and it’s energizing and fulfilling. Empathy is actually one of nine strategies we teach to practice compassion, but it’s not compassion.

Karin Hurt:

Hmm. Oh, very nice. I’ve been thinking a lot about this in our work with our clients and the conversations that we’ve been having. We’re hearing a lot of people almost over-indexed on what they would say is empathy or compassion and now I’m hearing, “Okay, and we need to keep the business going.” I mean, has the pendulum gone too far or are you hearing that? How do you do both, showing up incredibly compassionate, and run a successful business?

Nate Regier:

I just want to say right out, compassion is a leadership strategy. It is the way we do our work. It’s not something we do on the side. I coach a lot of leaders and one of the most common struggles they have is they have over-indexed to kindness and they’ve dropped the ball on accountability. Compassion includes both. If you’re compassionate without accountability, you can’t get anything done, but accountability without compassion gets you alienated, so the two have to co-exist in everything that we do to really be a viable business strategy.

What is Compassionate Accountability?

Karin Hurt:

Okay, terrific. I’m going to ask you about that in a minute because that’s some of the favorite parts of your work. I just love this compassionate accountability. But before I do that, I want to, just in case you’re just joining us, I’m here with Nate Regier from Next Element. We’re talking about some of the compassion in the workplace, particularly from his book, Conflict Without Casualties. Nate, I’ve got to tell you, compassionate accountability, when you talk about what that looks like, and you even in your book give a really good example of a peer coaching conversation that happened. I’d love to unpack that a little bit for us.

Nate Regier:

Sure, sure. Well, like I said, we’ve noticed that we can’t over-index on either end of this pendulum, that we have to find the balance. I think in the balance where conflict, or sorry, where compassion and accountability intersect is most obvious and needed when there’s conflict. Let’s say that I have a situation where maybe a peer of mine is not meeting a work expectation and I’ve got an issue with it. I care about that. I’m ultimately responsible for it. Maybe a client relationship is at stake and I want to talk to them about that, so this difficult conversation to balance compassionate accountability has to start at a place that we call “openness.”

Nate Regier:

How do we reinforce that we are two equally valuable human beings? Nobody’s going to get hurt in this conflict, but we’re going to talk about the tough stuff, so I might start by saying, “I’m feeling really anxious about what’s going on here.” Then I got to get clear about what is it. Explain the situation without blaming anybody: “Here’s what I saw,” or “Here’s what’s going on, here’s what I found out.” Then the accountability part is what we call “persistence.” Every compassionate conversation has to include talking about “Why does this matter?’ What’s most important? What’s at stake here? Why would we even go to the effort to have conflict with each other?

Nate Regier:

I might finish by saying “At the end of the day, what’s really important for me is that we uphold our promises to our customer.” Then I would check back in with the person and say, “How are you feeling about this?” We bookend the conversation with safety, vulnerability, openness, and in the middle, we talk about here’s what’s happening, here’s why it’s important. That should be a daily conversation between leaders and their people.

How do I Hold a Poor Performer Accountable?

Karin Hurt:

Yeah. We always say if you are letting someone be a poor performer, that is not kind, right?

Nate Regier:

No, no.

Karin Hurt:

You are not serving them when you let people get away with things. How do you think about this now in this context where people say, “I get it, but I know what’s going on for people at home. I know what they’re dealing with. I understand. They got a parent in a nursing home, but their performance is suffering so much right now”? How would you coach in a situation where performance has definitely continued to degrade, but you also know that there is context and the context is not likely going away for folks for a while?

Nate Regier:

Yeah. Oh, such a good question. Just yesterday, I had this call. I spent an hour with an executive around this very situation. There’s plenty of circumstances that would invite us to have empathy, to realize that, “Yeah, there’s a lot going on in this person’s life.” I think it helps. We really need to distinguish the difference between caring about someone and having attention to results and that both of those can coexist. Of course, we’re going to give people breaks now and then. Everybody deserves a day off, everybody deserves to be able to just check out because something’s going on.

What is the Most Important Job of a Leader?

Nate Regier:

But over the long haul, leaders really only have three jobs. Job number one is to create a safe place where you really know what’s going on and people can talk to you. Job number two is to be a resource without solving the problem because your job is to build capability in others, not be the problem-solver. Then job number three is to always be crystal clear about the expectations, the goals, and the boundaries. When you do those three things and don’t cross the line, people can step up even during adversity because they know you care about them and they know that you’re a resource for them and they know what’s expected.

Karin Hurt:

What About Workplace Drama?

Nate, I’m curious: Sometimes I hear people say, “I’m worried that if I am too compassionate, I will bring on the drama.” I know you are an expert in workplace drama, that was your first book, so I’d love just to shift gears a little bit and talk about that.

Nate Regier:

Well, I really appreciate that question. Michelle and Luisa have commented on this already here about how do we draw that fine line. Again, that conversation that I just showed an example of, that hits three very important points along what we call the “compassion cycle.” All are necessary and you can’t have one without the other. One of the ways that we can contribute to drama or cross that line is if we only do one without the others, like if we are always just reinforcing the non-negotiables, always talking about the rules, always bringing the hammer down, that’s going to lead to the kind of drama that we call “persecuting,” where we’re just attacking, blaming all the time, trying to use fear and intimidation to get what we want.

Nate Regier:

On the other hand, though, maybe we’re just always nice. We’re always like, “I care about you. I’m sure things are going to get better. I’m going to give you a break this time,” and we’re so kind that we become what’s called the “victim” in drama, that we’re actually compromising our own boundaries and the standards of our company and our teams just to be nice. That, again, doesn’t help anybody, but it’s another kind of drama.

Nate Regier:

Or we might cross the line and start giving what I call “nonconsensual helping,” which is another fancy word for giving advice that nobody asked for. Nobody asked you for help. Be a resource, but don’t rescue them.

How Do You Help Leaders Who Lack Compassion?

Karin Hurt:

Yeah. Oh, that’s fantastic. Michelle is asking, “Do you have any advice on how to work with leaders who don’t seem to practice holding space for compassion?” I had a leader we were working with one time. He says, “I’m just missing that gene.” Yeah, so how do you coach someone like that?

Nate Regier:

Yep, yep. Thank you. We’re very explicit about how do you coach for compassionate accountability. It starts with, “I have to be the model. I have to be the one practicing compassionate accountability in every interaction.” When I do that, my behavior is providing people bridges to join me in what we call the “compassion cycle” and save face while they’re doing it. It’s like when I practice those kinds of conversations, between the lines, what I’m saying is “Here are the rules of the game. Here’s how it’s going to be when we interact. I’m going to treat you as valuable, I’m going to treat you as capable, and I’m going to treat you as responsible, and I’m not going to vary from those things.” What we find is, as I continue to have these conversations, people will eventually join me and start participating in this new game with new rules. I don’t have to teach them about it. I don’t even have to tell them what I’m doing, I just have to be compassionate, and that gives them another way to play the game and another way to engage with me.

Karin Hurt:

What If your Boss is the Jerk?

Hmm. What if it’s your boss? What if you’re working for a non-compassionate boss?

Nate Regier:

Well, here’s the other thing, and what a great time to reinforce this, we can’t control anybody except ourselves. All we can do is practice these principles ourselves. We coach a lot of leaders to lead up and lead their bosses with compassionate accountability and it works. I coached a lady who had felt like she was being underpaid for years and she felt intimidated by her boss like he wouldn’t appreciate it, didn’t care, and we coached her to use this formula that we use for compassionate accountability. She went and talked to him. He doubled her pay after that conversation.

Karin Hurt:

Wow. Wow.

Nate Regier:

She chose to conduct herself differently. You know what Einstein said, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change,” and so it starts with us.

Karin Hurt:

Yeah, I think that is so important. We teach people how to treat us, right, and how you’re showing up in every interaction.

Nate Regier:

Yep.

How Do I Create a More Compassionate Culture?

Karin Hurt:

You talk a lot about culture and how people rub off on one another and that also really can be a really negative thing. If you have someone who is very aggressive and not compassionate, then people see that and then they are acting in those same ways. What do you do from there? Because I know you do a lot of work about culture. How do you shift a culture?

Nate Regier:

Yeah. Thank you. That is a great question because ultimately culture, Seth Godin said it best. He said, “Culture is people …” What was it? People around you will do things like this, right?

Karin Hurt:

People around you … It’s my favorite.

Nate Regier:

Yeah. I think David reminded me of that the other day. Another way to think of culture is that culture is the sum of every interaction between the people. That’s all it is. How do we start to deal with those interactions? We realize that compassion can feel really esoteric, ethereal, kind of like how do you actually get your hands on it? We need to make it operational, so the first thing we’ve done is identified what we call the “compassion mindset.” What are the three switches we have to turn on inside to be able to start practicing this stuff?

Nate Regier:

Then we teach the three skills of compassion: openness, resourcefulness, and persistence. Each one is critical component and each one has three strategies that are behavioral, they’re observable, and we know when to use them. Then we put it all together in what we call the “formula for compassionate conflict,” which is what we call “Open, Resourceful, Persistent, Open; ORPO.” We teach people how to do that. It’s what I role modeled earlier in the conversation with my peer. The mindset, the skillset, and then the formula. Once we have those things on board, anybody can learn them and anybody can apply them in any situation where there’s a potential conflict.

Karin Hurt:

Wow, interesting. Let’s talk a little bit more about each one of those. Behaviorally, I’m all about practical. Behaviorally, what does openness look like if you were trying to teach me to be more open?

Nate Regier:

Yep. Openness, at its core, is about creating a safe emotional space or emotional transparency. This is not about just what I have in my head, it’s about showing you my heart. There are three strategies. One is disclosure, where we simply share how we’re feeling with people. Another one is validation, where we show people that their feelings matter and that we’ll hold them with respect. Then the third strategy is empathy, which I mentioned before, and that’s the strategy of saying “You’re not alone. We have felt the same thing, and so your feelings are not alone, they’re not out …” How often do people feel like “I’m the only one going through this” or …? The leader I talked to the other day said, “I don’t know who I can talk to because I don’t think anybody feels what I feel,” and so I can say, “Wow, I remember what that was like when I got promoted. I’m with you.” That’s openness. Three strategies. Very important in creating a place where people feel safe enough to talk about what matters most and I know that’s a big deal for you as well.

Karin Hurt:

Yeah, absolutely. Okay, and then resourcefulness, because a lot of that is you talk a lot about not solving problems for people and that is actually disempowering.

Nate Regier:

Yes.

Karin Hurt:

I imagine resourcefulness has something to do with that?

Nate Regier:

Well, resourcefulness comes next. Openness is where we get out how we’re doing. Then we go to resourcefulness and then we say, “Okay, so how are we going to go about this? How are we going to understand what’s happening?” Resourcefulness truly is about problem-solving, but it’s about doing it in a way that increases capability, and so we’re exchanging information, we’re building on our strengths, we’re leveraging successes from the past or successes that other people have had that we can learn from, and so these are all strategies to build capability. Sometimes leaders ask me, “Well, how do I know if I’m being resourceful with my people?” and I ask them, “There’s just one question. This question is, ask the people you work with this one thing: After an interaction with me, do you feel more or less capable than you did before?”

Karin Hurt:

Oh, that is such a good question.

Nate Regier:

If the answer is yes, you’re doing the right thing. If the answer is no, you’re probably rescuing them instead of being resourceful, so we teach very specific strategies on how to be curious, how to ask good questions, how to leverage people’s strengths, how to help your people become more capable and be a catalyst for growth rather than being the one that’s solving all the problems. That then leads us to the next one.

Karin Hurt:

Yeah.

Nate Regier:

You were going to ask a question. What were you …?

Karin Hurt:

No, just I love it so much, I want to make sure we stop there because that is such a powerful question. If every leader went out today and asked that question, “After a conversation with me, do you feel more or less capable?” because if there are bullying behaviors, if there is fear and intimidation, people are not going to feel more capable, they’re going to lose confidence. One of the most important things we do as leaders is to build confidence and build people’s belief that they are capable as well as building their capabilities, so I love that one so very much. Okay, let’s go to the third.

Nate Regier:

Yeah, persistence. Well, I do want to give a shoutout to Courageous Cultures because your book is packed full of what it means to create a curious place, and so anybody who’s working with us or working with our model and wants to develop resourcefulness, just go read your book because it is an incredible place, incredible, chock full of stuff. Okay, so now we understand …

Karin Hurt:

No, wait, I’m going to interrupt you, first of all, to say thank you, but also because we have another question. Khaled is definitely-

Nate Regier:

… Oh, yes.

Karin Hurt:

… He’s somebody I’d met at a Project Management Institute conference. He was in one of our sessions. Thank you for always being on Asking for a Friend. He’s asking a great question here: “Is resourcefulness equivalent to coaching or is it a different thing? And if so, how is that different?”

Nate Regier:

Great question. Resourcefulness is to coaching what empathy is to compassion. Resourcefulness is one of the skills that we would coach a leader in, but it is only one of three of the skills of compassion. We provide a coaching strategy with how does a mentor or a coach invite someone to continue to move around the compassion cycle from openness to resourcefulness to persistence back to open. There are key decisions a person needs to make at each juncture and we teach coaches how to recognize when it’s time for that decision and how to invite and facilitate that so that people continue to step up to higher levels of compassion and higher levels of accountability over time.

Karin Hurt:

Okay, good. We actually have another question, so I’m going to just riff on these questions and then we’ll let you close with your final element here. In Conflict Without Casualties, you stated that there are only three roles, the persecutor, the victim, and the rescuer, and drama is all about negative attention behavior,” so you have someone who has read your book carefully here.

Nate Regier:

Wow. Great question.

Karin Hurt:

How would you respond to this?

Nate Regier:

Yeah, I would say that drama is always about real issues, but the way we’re tackling those issues is we are seeking to feel justified about our negative behavior and we’re creating an adversarial relationship around the issue. The issue is real, but the way we’re handling that energy of conflict is destructive, distracting, and leads nowhere but away from our best-laid goals.

Karin Hurt:

Hmm, so when you talk about reducing the drama, I think for me, in your book, it really kept coming back to, “Are we struggling together or are we struggling against?” It was really interesting because I was in the middle of some conflict as I was listening to your book and I was walking and I was thinking about, “Huh. How do we shift this to be struggling together? Because we all want the same thing.” At the end of the day, what the conflict I was involved in, we really did want the same thing, but the tension was there. It was weird.

Nate Regier:

Well, and that leads to the third skill of persistence, which is now we’ve understood the situation, we understand options, we have choices to make. Persistence is about saying, “Okay, let’s follow-through. What does really matter most? What is this about? Is this about quality? Is it about respect is about boundaries? Is it about a relationship that we both care deeply about? Let’s get clear about that so we can make some new commitments to each other about where we go from here.” That’s hard work.

Karin Hurt:

Oh, that’s beautiful. I love that so much. Okay, do we have any last questions from our listeners on Asking for a Friend? I’ll do one last call for questions. As I’m doing that, Nate, what have we not talked about that you think is so important for people? I know, a lot, but that are so important for people, particularly right now?

Nate Regier:

I think we, I just want to reinforce, again, that compassion is a way of being with people that preserves dignity. It builds capability and it, in crystal clear ways, reinforces responsibility in every interaction, so there’s never a wrong place to practice compassion or a wrong time. Now, we’re going into the holidays. Karin, you and I are really lucky that we have families that we love and want to be around and get along. That’s a luxury that maybe some families don’t enjoy, or maybe some people are alone now during the holidays, or maybe they’re just getting a barrage of social media on Facebook because they posted something and everybody is hating on them, or maybe they’re really feeling the drain and distress of this extended pandemic, and so I think compassion can be practiced on ourselves where we each day try to reinforce, “How am I valuable? How am I capable and how am I responsible for me every day?” That way, we can be that anchor in the storm and keep that centered focus when everything seems to be going crazy around us.

Karin Hurt:

Oh, wow. I want to make sure we get that. How am I valuable, how am I capable, and how am I responsible for me?

Nate Regier:

Responsible, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Karin Hurt:

Wow. Just think about that, such an affirmation. If you really think about that, especially when you’re stressed and regrounding yourself in that, “Hey, I actually have a lot to contribute here.” I love that. We got a “super,” there. Great. Okay, well, tell us a little bit about where people can find more about you. I know you all want to connect with him on LinkedIn. What could you share?

Nate Regier:

Well, LinkedIn seems to be working really well these days for connecting, so you can find me on LinkedIn, our company’s website is next-element.com, and you can purchase my books anywhere books are sold. There’s Conflict Without Casualties, we’ve talked about today, and my newest book, Seeing People Through, is all about personality diversity and leadership and so both of those are great places, but if you just look up my name, I love to get connected. I’m just looking forward to hearing from you.

You can read more articles by Nate Regier here.

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And if you like interviews like this, you won’t want to miss our most popular Asking For a Friend LIVE interview of the year, on creating connection and celebration in remote teams—including getting better at remote small talk (with Debra Fine and Scott Friedman).

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders resolve workplace ambiguity and chaos, so that they can drive innovation, productivity and revenue without burning out employees. She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Winning Well: A Manager’s Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul and a hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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