Compassion In Practice – An Interview with Sarah Cox of L.L.Bean – Part 2

In the first part of our interview with Sarah Cox, the HR Director of Talent at L.L. Bean, Sarah shared her thoughts on compassion within organizations.  In the second portion of the interview Sarah shares her insights on helping leaders express compassion, and reflects on cultivating her own practice of compassion.

In your work, how do you help leaders become more compassionate?

I think about it more as something we invoke that exists already in people, versus something that people have to acquire from outside themselves. In my work with leaders I experience an abundance of compassion existing already in every functional discipline. And my job just becomes about paying attention to that, finding how each group is expressing that compassion, and then helping them do more of that. If we work with it, there’s so much more potential in the team, department, function and they increase their individual and collective capacity in some way.  They get more done and they do it without forgetting that sense of relationship and kindness.

It’s hard for me to imagine consulting to any leader about their leadership without working with compassion in some way.  That said, it can be particularly acute when they are having a conflict with a direct report. I often end up asking something like, “How can you imagine what it might be like for that person right now?  Let’s just open up our frame a bit and imagine a situation where what they are doing right now is very reasonable behavior.”  Often times, when there’s a conflict between a boss and a direct report, it’s because they’ve really hooked each other in some way and that leader is stuck on telling that employee all the ways in which s/he is wrong. My work then becomes inviting the leader to unhook for a minute and imagine what might be motivating the direct report to behave in this way. Usually, a couple of go-rounds will help the leader get past “I don’t know, I don’t care, and that person is driving me crazy!” Everyone’s going to have that moment!  But, if we can hang with the compassion for just a little bit and make the frame bigger, that direct report who looked belligerent a moment ago now might just seem afraid.  And that’s a whole different way to think about what that person needs from his or her leader. That’s a way of operationalizing compassion that is extremely useful to move through those kinds of conflicts.

Are there other things that you notice, limiting leaders’ abilities to express compassion?

Fear. Particularly when we, as leaders, are faced with others who are very different from ourselves or who we perceive to wield some power over us. That might be in situations where there are people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, races and socio-economic contexts, or in the hierarchy of our organizations – any of which can foster fear. The fear can create a boundary to compassion that we must overcome. In those moments, we all need to feel compassion toward our fear, and then get on with the work. It’s the way to keep moving toward each other, by allowing the compassion to be just a little stronger than the fear.

How do you develop compassion within teams?

There is something about compassion that gets released when working with teams and a lot of the work we do around the LEA and the IDI (MRG assessments) in the context of teamwork. I’m thinking of a project we’re doing right now with a leadership team, and I a lot of what we’re focused on is helping them become more compassionate toward themselves and each other.  The assessments allow them to see that each of them is a blend of strengths, potential liabilities, and vulnerabilities, and through the team discussion they discover they can actually talk to each other about this, which is a very compassionate thing to do. They have this great excuse of the data that’s been brought up in the LEA and IDI, but that’s just the price of entry. That gets them in the door and gives us some shared language, but fundamentally what they’re doing is expressing compassion toward themselves, each other as individuals, and as a team. It releases all kinds of great generative energy that otherwise can remain stuck.

Have you seen instances where people reject the offer of compassion? 

Absolutely. I’m thinking of employees whom I’ve led, and leaders with whom I’ve worked who are not in a place to pick up the thread of compassion when it’s sort of lying there between us in some way. The beautiful thing about it, though, is that it doesn’t have a shelf life, it doesn’t need to be picked up right then. As long as I don’t pull it away, it will just lie there, indefinitely. In some cases I’ve gone years with it just sort of lying there between us, wondering if it’ll ever get picked up and then sometimes it just does and you think ah, look, it just got picked up!  How did that even happen? There was one person in particular with whom I had a prickly relationship and I just kept laying it down there and it did take years, but we ended up having a very productive relationship. It took patience.  I think a lot of our early interactions involved him pressure-testing whether or not he could trust me, and whether or not the way I was operating was going to be consistent, steady and not manipulative. It took him a long time to trust that my offer of compassion was genuine.

Where do you find inspiration for your own compassion?

My first answer is children because that’s typically what I experience with children. Particularly with younger children – just go sit in a classroom with four-year-olds and pretty much, that’s what you get. Beyond that, I actually have to say our senior vice president of Human Resources, because she can execute compassion across a policy continuum that I don’t always have at my fingertips, and it impresses me every time. Her ability to think about how a change will impact the individual is exceptional. There are so many important decisions that could easily be made from purely a fiscal, business standpoint because “it’s not market practice”, or “nobody else does that” or “we can save this much money if don’t offer that”.  All of these things we could do for the wrong reasons, but we don’t because I hear her voice saying, “Let’s play this out. What happens to the person when we do that?” Her ability to do that so consistently and accurately really shapes how policy gets written. We often think of compassion as a more affective, emotional element, and in fact I believe it has to be demonstrated and upheld by things like how we write policy for our organizations, how civil we are to one another, how we use manners with one another, and how we execute in real and concrete ways. If we don’t have structural elements to reinforce compassion, I don’t think we have compassion. We may have heartfelt, good intentions, but that’s something different, not quite enough. Over my career I’ve learned a lot from her in this regard and we’ve had good, long conversations about how to operationalize compassion and ‘do the right thing’ in ways that affect thousands of people’s lives. That is HR when it is done well.

How do you cultivate your own practice of compassion?

One of the key components is to be compassionate towards myself and understand that I have so many vulnerabilities and so many things yet to learn. If I allow this to be true for me then my immediate response is to allow it to be true in others as well.

I also strive to take a big view. If I am struggling to find a compassionate stance with someone, I keep broadening the lens through which I am seeing that person or situation to the point where I can (finally!) see it compassionately. I also read a lot and look for compassionate people to be near – on the written page or in person.

Early in my HR work I was influenced by Peter Block’s principle of extending goodwill. I got trained in his consulting skills model early on and it was liberating because it felt natural and gave language to something that resonated for me. Actively extending goodwill toward someone even when I experienced them as being difficult became an important part of my own practice, and it grew from there – and continues to grow. After all these years I am clearer about those moments in my work when I am faced with a choice:  I can either decide to be ‘right’ or I can actually be helpful. Of course, the compassionate choice is to be helpful. But that fork in the road presents itself over and over and as practitioners and leaders (and as spouses, partners, and parents), I feel like that’s a pivotal choice point. You can feel the allure, the tug of being right, with its self-satisfying and charismatic pull.  I’ve gotten better (not perfect!) at noticing when that’s happening and committing to operationalizing my compassion by trying to actually help the person with whom I am working. Ask a question instead of telling an answer. In the simplest way, that’s a very compassionate way to operate.  Instead of saying “Let me tell you” ask “What do you think?” That kind of inquiry, along with the belief that everybody, every day is showing up and doing the best that they can, shapes my job, which is to help others move forward.  That’s the work.

About the author

As president of MRG, Tricia uses her penchant for bursting into song and bringing out the best in people in approximately equal measure.

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