“…how to engage and connect…recognising our shared values was crucial. These laid important foundations for our dialogue. In an organisation that emphasises rules and targets, compassion and empathy for others has been lost. Restoring this to our workplace conversation has been empowering, and opened up the possibilities of change.” Jane Lanley – a changemaker in pursuit of greater equality in her workplace
In my last post, I posed the question: “What gifts can compassion bring to us when we are engaging with social challenge, change and collaboration?” Well, this past week I got an inspiring answer to that question, courtesy of one of my clients – Jane Lanley (not her real name).
I wrote about this woman in Engagement – What’s is it? She has bravely raised the issue of gender discrimination/inequality in her workplace. Here is our story. We were at a meeting together where one of the speakers talked about the importance of promoting gender equality. I commented that in doing so we often focus on numbers, i.e., how many women in senior roles in a workplace, and engage very little with the crux of the matter: values, beliefs, behaviours and culture change. Jane came up to me afterwards and said she wanted to know more. I sent her the Runnymede Trust report, Snowy Peaks. She read it and told me that she valued how it affirmed her perceptions of what was going on in her workplace. I sensed that the story in the report helped her to feel less isolated and more confident in her conclusions. This is important because, when she raised the issue with colleagues, some were more than ready to respond with: ‘Oh, you women are being too sensitive.’
After a meeting where the Chief Executive in her organisation announced a new member to Executive Board, she spoke out about the need for change – asking if the new Board member was ‘another White male.’ She subsequently drew upon the findings of recent research from the organisation’s equality team and wrote a letter setting out her concerns about gender equality. They weren’t her concerns alone. Amidst bullying and sniggers, she got over a hundred signatures from other staff members before sending a letter to the Chief Executive.
I saw Jane two weeks ago. She mentioned that she was scheduled to have a meeting this week with the Chief Executive to discuss her letter. She was clearly nervous about it and I offered to help her prepare. On Tuesday last week, we had an hour-long coaching session. Jane started out the conversation in what I would call typical activist positioning. She was focused on the power and status gap between her and the Executive, on his lack of ‘enlightened’ understanding of the situation, and on the likelihood that the meeting would start off with him reeling off a list of all that he has tried to do for gender equality to date. She also kept reminding herself of how invisible she would be to the Chief Executive – to the Oxbridge man in a suit.
“I felt invisible, and [I came] to realize how I could be visible without being aggressive.”
By the end of the conversation, Jane was in a different position. Firstly, she came to recognise that she can control her visibility in the meeting – and this need not require her to be aggressive, loud or adversarial. Secondly, she saw the Chief Executive in a different light. For example, she supposed he could be equally as frustrated as her by the situation. After all, he seemed to genuinely feel he had taken a lot of positive steps to address the issue. Yet, he had been publicly exposed as having made little progress on the matter. She speculated that he might be struggling with the organisational culture himself – like her he is likely to be surrounded by supporters and aggressors alike. She considered that he didn’t lack a serious interest in the issue, but lacked a full understanding of it.
She also, by the end of the session, had thoughts about what they might have in common, e.g. a desire to uphold the values of their organisation and a passion for social justice (she learned he was once an energetic political activist). She became determined to go into the meeting in the spirit of pursuing common interests and collaboration. And she realised that the very skills which made her good at her job could also be useful in managing the meeting effectively: the ability to be a an active listener and to engage people with the tasks they tend to resist the most.
Jane went into the meeting nervous, but confident and looking forward to making a connection with the Chief Executive based on shared values. We haven’t done the full debrief on the meeting, but she has reported via email that it went exceptionally well. He made good eye contact, asked questions, listened to her observations and acknowledged he needed help finding the answers. They not only found common ground but he committed to taking personal responsibility for delivering an improvement in the situation.
What does this have to do with compassion? Compassion is about understanding, non-judgment and forgiveness. Expressing compassion can mean putting away the labels, asking the ‘why’ when it comes to someone’s behavior and remembering our common vulnerabilities. It seems to me that this is what Jane did. As a result she connected with her Chief Executive in a way that laid a foundation for frank discussion and a commitment to collaboration. As a result, she took a significant step in her journey to create change – and brought the Chief Executive with her.