If we are not finding ourselves in working environments where compassion is displayed or evident, then I believe we are less likely to be compassionate in wider society.
— Jules Mason
In this conversation, I am speaking to Jules Mason about the importance of compassion in how we interact with each other in organisations and why it is crucial to take the time to know our colleagues. Among other things we talk about compassion in relation to remote-working, organisational changes and emotional intelligence.
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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.
Jules started his career in UK student politics and since then has more than two decades’ experience of working at national and international not-for-profits, ranging from children and young people, to disability, health and international humanitarian response. Outside of work he has volunteered as a trustee (he is currently a trustee of INASP) and served as a chair of school governors; he is also an avid sports fan — tennis being his favourite sport.
SJ: What resonates with you when you hear the word “compassion”?
JM: Compassion is a warm and emotive word to me that implicitly relates to how you engage with someone. I think of it as the softer, emotional side of connecting with people rather than the typically “colder” procedure of simply getting something done. It is more about how we make it work. Compassion is about the “us” in that process and about how we treat - and interact with - each other.
SJ: I am curious to hear what you think of the difference between empathy and compassion?
JM: Empathy for me is when you are trying to stand in someone else’s shoes and seeing things from their perspective. Compassion on the other hand feels more integrated into a person’s DNA. Compassion is the way in which a person interacts with others, inquiring into how they feel personally and how the other person may feel and communicating openly in a particular moment. It is making space for being in something together. Compassion feels rawer and is probably more honest than empathy.
SJ: What is an example of this from your personal experience?
JM: The lock-down and pandemic situation have significantly altered the ways we interact with each other at work and how we lead our daily lives. In this case, it becomes about finding a way through together to adjust to a new setting.
Early on, I would share with my team that there are going to be days where what they want to achieve is just not going to happen. On these days, I encourage them not to fight it or feel guilty and instead spend time on what they need to improve their state of mind before getting back to the task. We are all in a challenging situation together and living through it in different ways. Compassion in this case is about recognising that while we all do need to deliver at work, we are also in a different place now.
Let us be honest about the hard days and build in trust that we are going to get done what needs to get done.
SJ: From my perspective, it sounds like you are implicitly encouraging your team to act self-compassionately. What do you think about this?
JM: Yes, and particularly encouraging them to not feeling guilty about it as well. It is easy to put more pressure on yourself when you are working from home and when work and personal life blend into each other. It is more compassionate towards yourself to work through the personal challenges you may encounter rather than feeling guilty.
SJ: What is an example of a project you have worked on that has been successful because compassion was practised?
JM: Compassion has been an important component in some of the change projects I have been involved in.
Rather than communicating an organisational change, a more compassionate approach entails speaking to stakeholders before it happens.
The context for this communication is: “I know this proposed organisational shift will impact you and I know you are concerned about it. I will talk a bit about why this change is proposed and then I am going to spend time to listen to you and bring this back to senior management.”
When I worked at the British Red Cross, I used this approach when we changed the election process for the trustee board. Moving away from geographical elections meant that the role of volunteers was altered in the selection process, leading to a perceived loss of status of the volunteer role. I went to the four different regions, listening to the concerns of volunteers and brought this back to the board.
While the fundamentals of the organisational change remained the same, amendments were made to accommodate some of the concerns. In the end, this made the change more accepted. Doing a consultation on a proposal was a compassionate way of introducing change in the organisation.
SJ: On the flip side of that, I would be curious to hear about a situation or a project that you have experienced in your career that has not gone according to plan because there was a lack of compassion.
JM: My career started in student politics where I early on decided I wanted to become the President of the Students’ Union. I ran my first student union campaign like a political campaign, influenced by my activities in local politics in Southampton.
I was focused on getting elected so I could achieve the three big things outlined in my manifesto. This was all I cared about. I did get elected and I did achieve close to all the things I wanted over a two-year period, including being re-elected.
However, in retrospect I see that I had large amounts of compassion for the Students’ Union as an entity where funds, staff and engagement was needed — but less compassion for my team.
I know now that people matter more than just the processes in place.
I find it interesting and important to support my team and help them find their way instead of saying “these are the things I want to achieve guys, suck it up!”. The 22-year-old Jules that stood for President was not wired to think about anything else than “vote for Jules”.
Today I know that without compassion for how my team is feeling they cannot achieve.
SJ: From where you are standing now, what do you see as some of the challenges to bringing forth more compassion personally and systemically?
JM: In order to be compassionate, both from an individual and systemic perspective, you need to invest time to get to know people.
In our new, hybrid ways of working due to the pandemic, this is going to get a lot harder and will require more effort as we work remotely. For example, for new joiners at the ONE Campaign where I currently work, I make a conscious effort of emailing them because I know a warm welcome in the staff kitchen is not a possibility.
The challenge is to prioritise taking the time to get to know each other because it is that investment that will enable you at the time when it is needed to be compassionate with your colleague or to seek compassion from them as well.
The key question for organisations is therefore: How do you find ways to make that investment of getting to know the individuals in your team and in your organisation - especially as we are moving into a hybrid world of working between offices and our homes?
SJ: In your opinion, what is going to happen if we do not build those personal relationships?
At an organisational level you will not deliver. You may have some wins, but you will not fly because you are not able to tap into and unlock how each individual person can shine and understand how they flourish. If something flies, you are also probably not able to capture the learning and replicate it.
From an individual perspective, I think we risk facing a decreased level of enjoyment from our jobs which then impacts our mental health and well-being. The wider effect could be societal changes, because how will we interact with each other in society if we have lower levels of life satisfaction? We spend so much of our time working so if we are not happy in our jobs, this will have a significant impact on the rest of our lives and how we interact with society at large.
Understanding and building in the knowledge and insight about other facets of a team member — who they are as a “rounded individual” — actually helps me as a manager to be able to support and lead that team in a more compassionate way. If I can be alive to when there are things happening outside of work which impact them negatively, I am able to shift deadlines.
SJ: Why do you think we are not spending time building personal relationships and tapping into an individual’s resources?
JM: I think it comes down to emotional awareness and emotional intelligence. In my first job after working in student politics, my boss talked a lot about the importance of emotional intelligence.
Early in my career, I was therefore taught that investing in learning and then deploying emotional intelligence is what makes a team fly. Collaboration and innovation may still happen without it, but this may be a coincidence.
SJ: That is interesting. I am picking up from your story that having a role model in leadership may be important to cultivate and integrate compassion too.
JM: Exactly, and it is about where you may get to be exposed to that. I have had the opportunity to be exposed to different leadership styles, including through my volunteering experiences.
For example, when I was a chair of governors at a large secondary school, I remember how we supported the new Head with settling into the school, which was a big transition. The Head was a single parent, moving from across the country. Our focus was how we could alleviate her concerns on the personal side realising that only then could she be most effective in managing the school reforms and changes.
SJ: What is the advice you would suggest for bringing forth more compassion?
Take the time to get to know people as individuals and get to know the whole person.
JM: Make it clear at an organisational level that this is important underneath the value labels that may look good on paper such as “we are collaborative”, “we work in teams” etc. This is about how everyone interacts in the organisation and not just about line management relationships. It is about creating a culture and an environment where sharing and getting to know each other is actively encouraged.
SJ: What do you think is needed to create such an environment?
JM: From an organisational point of view, I think it is first and foremost about having the conversation about “what does compassion mean and look like for us in this organisation?”. A compassionate environment may look quite different in a students’ union than in an International Health NGO for example.
“Compassion” is a bit of a buzz word so there needs to be a conversation about what it looks like and feels like in terms of the way we interact with each other.
The conversation could be about how we make each other feel at ease or give each other the confidence to ask questions and interact more personally. It could equally be about how the workforce is equipped for this and how it feeds into learning and development. It may even be about how it ties into performance reviews for example relating to how your interaction with colleagues positively impacts on the team or on the organisation.
It might all be about compassion, yet it might not need to be referred to as such everywhere and could be more embedded into key processes and procedures.
SJ: Is there anything else you would like to say on this topic?
Compassion is a key part of the soft skills required for an individual to perform and thrive — not just to deliver, but to shine.
JM: At all levels in the organisation the focus and discussion should be around how to support and equip individuals to develop and strengthen their soft skills. If every organisation focused on this, it would positively impact society.
We talk about kindness, we talk about justice, but if we are not finding ourselves in working environments where compassion is displayed or evident, then I believe we are less likely to be compassionate in wider society.
SJ: This really speaks to the ripple effects compassion can create. Thank you so much for your reflections.
This conversation is based on Jules Mason’s personal views. They do not represent the views of any organisation that Jules works for or has previously worked for.
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