In a previous role, I was the human resources (HR) director for a non-profit organization called Safe Harbor, which provided outreach services to survivors of domestic violence. My role primarily involved supporting staff who were experiencing high levels of burnout and compassion fatigue from regularly caring for individuals who were actively experiencing the deep and painful effects of trauma. In that position, I learned a lot about trauma and the range of behaviors it elicits, such as paranoia, yelling or physical violence. Out of context, these behaviors can appear unreasonable or combative, but when we look at them through a trauma-informed lens, we understand that these behaviors are the body taking whatever measure necessary to feel safe and in control. Providing trauma-informed care means seeing these behaviors as a normal response to traumatic circumstances and bringing empathy and understanding to our intervention, while also prioritizing one’s own safety.
This has been a useful lens to take forward in my work as a HR practitioner. When I hear about rising levels of depression, stress, anxiety and burnout, I often think about how these are very normal responses to the abnormal circumstances we are living in, both collectively and individually.
With the amount of uncertainty, fear, and violence that we hear about or experience day-to-day, how could we not feel levels of depression and/or anxiety? This is exacerbated by the reality that, despite the traumatic circumstances we live in, we still need to perform well and achieve at work to maintain job security and support ourselves and our families. So, when I am faced with performance management issues, rather than judge an employee’s poor performance, I now ask myself, “What else is going on for this individual? What personal challenge lies behind this behavior?”
Work environments can be very dehumanizing and fragmenting places when achievement is valued over well-being. We need to find ways to hold space for each individual’s lived, human experience, and to treat them with compassion. A truly human-centered leader recognizes that we are all just human beings responding imperfectly to challenging situations and strives to provide the safety and tools needed to navigate these challenges. They understand the complexity and diversity of human experience and recognize that this can’t — and shouldn’t — be left at the door.
Observing the Unspoken
For leaders in hybrid or remote organizations, how do we empathize with others when we don’t see them in person? How do we adopt a human approach when we communicate in a distinctly non-human way? It’s hard to open up to or ask for help from someone you have never met in person; and it’s also difficult to empathize with someone as their whole self when you can only see a small part of them through a box on a screen.
In an in-person work environment, rapport and trust is built by spending time in each other’s orbit, not just in meetings but through small talk and observing each other’s behaviors. The impact of in-person encounters became clear to me recently when I attended a silent meditation retreat. During our time there, the other participants and I didn’t share anything through words. Instead, we sat near each other in meditation, engaging through eye contact, facial expressions, and energy. I was surprised by how much of a sense I got for who a person is, at their core, without exchanging any words. In many ways, the hybrid workplace of today is the opposite: We only hear each other’s words, and we miss out on all the other information that can be gleaned from being present with someone in person, from observing them, noticing how they engage with others and experiencing their unique energy. The opportunity to observe the unspoken is a missing piece in today’s work environment.
A Mindful Approach
So, what can we do to be more human in a hybrid world? For me, it starts with mindfulness. Mindfulness is bringing awareness to our awareness. It’s the ability to observe our thoughts and feelings from a greater vantage point, bringing to light the lenses through which we see the world, and recognizing that our opinions aren’t universal truths. Mindfulness fosters curiosity because it invites us to step back and ask, “If I see it this way, how do other people see it? What other perspectives are there?” In the workplace this translates into: “What is it about my colleague’s life experience that makes them see this differently to me?” Or, “What current challenges are they facing to make them react like this?”
Mindfulness also involves getting curious about yourself – about the mood or energy you are bringing to work that might affect you or others. It’s about cultivating a form of mindful noticing, part of a process we at Impact refer to as “Notice, Decide, Act” — which is the key to leadership action. First, notice what is going on for yourself and others, beyond what’s obvious on a superficial level. What mood, energy or behaviors are you or others exhibiting, and why? Next, decide what action to take: How can you create a psychologically safe environment in order to bring these feelings into the open without fear of judgment or reprisal? How can you respond in a way that acknowledges this and holds space for it? Finally, take action.
For example, I try to practice sharing my emotional state at the beginning of every meeting. This means that, if I am feeling low energy or low mood, I can communicate that to my colleagues from the start and let them know that it has nothing to do with them. My colleagues are then able to engage with me where I’m at; we can still get the work done, but I don’t have to pretend that everything is fine. By modelling this authenticity and vulnerability, I show others that it is safe to do the same.
Furthermore, in my practice as a facilitator, I often choose to begin sessions with a mindfulness exercise, asking people to bring awareness to their external (physical) environment, and then to their internal (emotional) environment. I then invite them to accept whatever they are noticing without judgment, only awareness. What I’m trying to do is create a container in which people can feel safe to bring their whole selves and their normal human reactions. The range of human responses (i.e., anxiety, calmness, agitation, excitement) shouldn’t be ignored. When everyone has an awareness of what they are bringing emotionally to the table, and they can name it within themselves and share it with the group, it allows for more authentic and vulnerable connection; there is no energy wasted on pretence.
Hybrid organizations can still be human centered, it just involves a more mindful and compassionate approach. For leaders, practicing mindfulness, modelling vulnerability, and creating safe spaces for others to bring their whole selves to work are great places to start. And any organization that accepts and welcomes this will find themselves with a wealth of opportunity: opportunity to create stronger relationships, deepen trust, improve well-being and retention, and advance collaboration and innovation.