Personal understanding is essential in the workplace

I was pleased to read an article this week in HBR entitled “What your coworkers need right now is compassion”. It began by suggesting now, at a time of a global pandemic, it is much easier to be judgemental about our work colleagues, which can lead to relationships becoming damaged.

The article referenced therapist Esther Perel who pointed out that people have different coping mechanisms. Your way of dealing with an economic and social crisis is unlikely to be the same as mine, and while we are dealing with pressures in our life it is easy to forget both that others are also feeling pressure, and that they will handle things differently. In normal times one person’s crisis would be theirs alone—parental health problems, relationship problems, financial problems,…—but that normal situation is not what’s happening now.

The author, Amy Gallo, also says: “Accept that your coworkers’ home lives are now relevant to you.” Our colleagues chose to do this job, but not in these circumstances. Many people took on a job expecting to travel to a workplace each day, physically distancing themselves from their home life, and therefore presenting themselves in “work form” to their peers. Moreover, they probably had years of expection and practice of doing that. Now things have changed. People who still have to travel to a workplace generally chose that job with a reasonable expectation that they could go there without fear of being exposed to a dangerous virus from a colleauge, a customer, or a work surface. For them, again, things have changed. Suddenly our lives are not what we wanted, expected, or trained for, and we carry that with us wherever we are.

Work relationships have always been important. Now they carry a greater additional weight of everyone’s lives, and society, taking a dramatic negative turn. It would be a mistake to ignore that. That is why our coworkers’ home lives are now relevant to us.

However, I’d go a small step further. Our coworkers’ home lives have always been relevant to us, because those work relationships have always been important. The weight of one factor may be greater, but the distinction between work and personal lives was never absolute. To work well with people it has always helped to understand their motivations and the pressures they are under, and those motivations and pressures can come from anywhere.

In fact, personal understanding in the workplace was essential not just in the past, and is not just essential today. When all this is over it will be essential in the future, too. We should not stop the compassion we offer today.

Photo by Max Guitare