For me, compassion means to pay attention to, and derive meaning from, one’s own and other’s experiences. Ultimately, it means noticing.
— Ajoy Datta
In this conversation, I am gaining Ajoy Datta’s perspectives on compassion in his work and research on organisations. Ajoy shares his perspectives and experiences around how we can turn towards the sources of stress in an organisational setting and explore them. What are the small things we can focus on to bring compassion forth in teams working in an increasingly fragmented world? These are some of the questions that Ajoy delves into.
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This article features in a series of interviews where I explore how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.
Ajoy Datta is an independent consultant with over 20 years of experience in the global development and humanitarian sector. He specialises in 1) organisational change using a systems psychodynamic framework, 2) influencing policy and practice and 3) strengthening knowledge systems. He straddles the boundary between theory and practice, having undertaken research and evaluation increasingly as team leader on one hand and on the other consulted to teams, provided training and coached individuals. He is based in London, dances the 5 Rhythms and plays the Turkish Reed Flute.
SJ: What resonates with you around the word “compassion”?
AD: Having concern for how other people are feeling resonates with my experience as a person, as a professional but also as an area of study. For example, caring about the levels of stress within a team, within an organisation and within an individual makes me curious. While work may inevitably create stress, is there perhaps something that can be done to alleviate the stress? What is behind this stress and what conversation can we have around it?
SJ: How do you think about the sources of stress in an organisational setting?
AD: This is where my curiosity comes in. For example, could stress relate to the nature of the work? How much of our stress levels relate to individual characteristics? How much is to do with the group and the organisation? Is it something to do with the nature of the role? Maybe stress is experienced in the group and then channelled into an individual in a certain way? Maybe the history of the organisation plays a certain role?
There are many ways to think about the sources of stress and how to begin expressing care towards the felt experience.
SJ: From my perspective, it sounds like turning towards these sources of stress in a work setting and investigating them is an act of compassion. Would you agree?
Rather than turning away from the discomfort and sweeping it under the carpet, bringing stress at work into a clearing to shine light on it allows us to explore it in more detail. This is best done in a group rather than in dyads or pairs.
From a systemic perspective, it’s unlikely that solutions can be found through a 1–2–1 conversation given that several people may need to contribute to changing their practices. Moreover, if dealing with a thorny issue, the pair may get stuck in a loop unable to move forward. In this context, the pair can use the group as a resource to provide additional perspectives and to ‘do the work’ of releasing more constructive energy.
However, this will need to be done in a sensitive way because if you are talking about it in a team, it will require vulnerability and courage.
When something is painful, we naturally don’t want to go there. Talking about an experience of something uncomfortable and reflecting on it in a group setting is a muscle that needs to be exercised.
It is a skill and an action that is difficult to do. It is paradoxical because we need to do it in order to release difficult emotions — yet we don’t want to do it.
SJ: What is one setting or moment that has made you go “ah, this is where compassion is present right now in this organisation”?
Observing the gains from compassionate approaches and actions are sometimes quite modest in my experience. It can be hard to sense what has really changed, particularly in the short term. I therefore like to focus on the small things.
Earlier this year I did a consultation with a mid-sized charity, where I worked with a Senior Leadership Team (SLT) most of whom had only recently taken up their role. It was tough to ‘go below the surface’ and stay with some of the issues (I thought) they were grappling with because of the difficult feelings that would arise. The SLT tended to steer conversations away from the difficult questions, especially those around identity, difference and diversity. However, in one of the final sessions, there was a moment when a difficulty experienced by the group landed with the CEO.
There seemed to be some acceptance amongst the SLT about their role, and I wonder if this was a sign of compassion. A sign of compassion towards the work of others and acceptance of their lived experiences.
I also experienced a moment where the SLT expressed curiosity towards what staff might be experiencing and feeling. Having these open questions asked by the SLT (and not me) felt like a sign that the SLT had found and demonstrated compassion.
SJ: Based on this experience, would it be accurate to say that acceptance and curiosity would be some of the key words for compassion to emerge?
AD: Yes, this allows people to be seen and heard, which I think is truly at the core of compassion.
SJ: What were the outcomes of the consultation you led?
AD: My assumption is that people did feel seen and heard. There was a moment in the conversations, towards the end, where people clapped. While you could have many interpretations of why they clapped, one assumption could be that people felt happy and joyful — the staff in particular. You could argue that they felt happy about finally connecting with the SLT who to some extent had been avoiding them. The SLT were new in post, still in transition and perhaps identifying with perceptions staff had of them of lacking compassion.
What has happened in the organisation since is hard to know. Because these sorts of conversations result in some discomfort, staff may choose to revert to old behaviours to keep themselves safe and comfortable. In the end, this is all guess work!
SJ: Perhaps it could also be the case that once the issue has been brought “into the clearing” to use your words — and if action isn’t consistently taken around it — that this could potentially lead to disappointment among staff members? Perhaps inaction could even do more harm than not being seen and heard in the first place. What do you think?
AD: Gone are the days when leaders were expected to control things. Today, the so-called “followers” — to use that term — are expected to give feedback and to sometimes take the lead. In the end, however, leaders still have formal authority. The question is then: Can there be a negotiation?
Leaders need to make decisions but then is that being explained? Particularly if staff don’t agree? Is that decision being explained or are leaders going off and doing their own thing regardless of what their staff feel?
The social process and importance of negotiation emerges out of concern for others. When leaders move without considering the impact on others it can be painful for others.
The phrase “move fast and break things” comes to mind.
SJ: What would a good negotiation process look like according to you?
AD: You need to ask some of these questions:
“When it comes to making decisions, who are you holding in mind?”
“Whose concerns are you holding in mind?”
“Who is representing who?”
You probably can’t have an organisation of 1000 people in the same room, so there’s something about representation.
There is something important about explaining where you are coming from as a person with a stake in an organisation, whether you’re a leader or not. For those with more power, the question becomes: How can you use that power for good?
We all talk about leaders making decisions which others don’t agree with, but can the leader explain why they are making that decision?
SJ: What do you consider to be some of the challenges to bringing forth more compassion in organisations?
AD: From a personal perspective, I am currently learning the challenges of leading a newly composed team for a time bound contract. Bringing different people together from different organisations in a virtual setting can be challenging — especially when the team is big and involved in different components.
Being compassionate towards each other in a new environment where resources are limited and lack of clarity around roles and responsibilities is hard.
I have tried to enable the team to reflect on their working dynamics together, which has been met with some silence and avoidance.
When you haven’t got any working history together it is hard to trust each other with your feelings and experiences. In these instances, I think there is a need to persevere, otherwise the quality of relations suffers and it becomes hard to be concerned for one another.
I think that points to some of the structural issues around how we live in these fragmented times.
SJ: What do you think would help overcome some of those challenges and bring forth more compassion in an organisational setting?
AD: In the Tavistock tradition, there is a concept of “containment”. This is a process a team goes through to make sense of what is happening and understand the causes of stress. In many cases, we project our own stress onto others. The process of containment helps individuals process their emotions in the team and take ownership of them.
The question is: What do we do in a team where there isn’t enough trust to have these conversations? We might then resort to having smaller group conversations, sometimes even in pairs. In a fragmented context where talking in a group feels scary, this is perhaps the only place available to share and process.
SJ: What do you think needs to happen before people can share openly in a room together? You have mentioned trust, what else is relevant?
AD: There is first an acceptance that this emerges over time. Entering the room to share is the first step — and importantly — make it a regular occurrence.
When we know the same people are showing up for the same period of time — or on the same platform in a virtual world — we feel safer.
If you are going to share your inner world with others, there is also an important element around boundaries and holding a boundary. In my current project for example, people come and go. This makes it harder, over time, to notice what is happening for different individuals.
SJ: There is something powerful about repeated action over time. What else comes to mind around the topic of compassion as we wrap up this conversation?
AD: I am sitting with a hope that organisations can put into practice the rhetoric they use around compassion, stress, and mental health.
My hope is that organisations can really care about their staff beyond treating stress as an individual, isolated issue.
A first step towards this is to be curious, asking questions and creating space for people to ask their own questions. Something as basic as holding your door open as a leader during a particular time of the week and inviting staff to come in for an informal chat signals “I am here to listen”. This is a great starting point.
This conversation is based on Ajoy Datta’s personal views. They do not represent the views of any organisation that Ajoy works for or has worked for previously.
You can find Ajoy’s work at https://ajoydatta.com/
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