Leading with compassion
When does a workplace become a home? A tribe? The future of modern corporate society? When Ulla Sommerfelt had enough of living in a corporate cage she decided to change the corporate world with compassion as her guiding principle. The best thing is, you too can create the office of tomorrow by leading with compassion today. Here Ulla shares how she leads EGGS Design with compassion as her guiding principle.
I used to work in a corporate cage. Maybe you know what I’m talking about: a cage where you keep getting trapped in a hamster wheel. Some workplaces are filled with fear, pointed elbows – there’s greed over here, power games over there; These are the toxic work environments that can make people sick. When things got tough, I learned to do the duck. You know: look cool on the surface and paddle like hell underneath…
Then I started to figure out that what people really need to be awesome at work, is autonomy, trust and leaders that truly care. Leaders that have their backs. And I realised as a leader, and by leading with compassion, I could give them that.Ulla Sommerfelt
My dream is to create the world’s best workplace – a journey I started a few years ago, together with some of the most awesome people on earth. We’re in the business of design driven innovation, so it is only natural that we designed our employee experience and the compassionate culture that we believe in. A culture with an awesome team that I am incredibly proud.
Compassion is not about being nice or having pity. On the contrary. Compassion is the ability to understand the problems and needs of others, and then act. Empathy is not enough; you need to act to create positive change. Did you know that empathy and compassion feel different to us, because they are situated in two different parts of the brain? Empathy belongs in the same place as suffering, so too much of it can burn you out. Whereas, compassion lies in the same area as love, so when you activate your compassion, it nourishes that loving feeling. This is why compassion is so powerful.
Compassion is not about being nice or having pity. On the contrary. Compassion is the ability to understand the problems and needs of others, and then act.Ulla Sommerfelt
Last year a colleague of mine experienced a terrible crisis in his life. His loved one through 22 years told him that she no longer loved him. He was absolutely devastated. So, what does a man do? Some guys would put on their iron face, go to their caves and just deal with it - alone. But not this guy. He did something that most of us wouldn't dare: He sent an email to the whole company. He just wanted people to know that they shouldn’t expect the same level of energy, tolerance and cheerfulness as usual from him because he was shell-shocked.
How would this have played out in a corporate cage? Avoidance? Talking behind his back? Scolding from management? How do you think it played out in our company? With support, hugs, compassion, and love that is how. We admire people who dare to show vulnerability, don’t we? That is probably one of the scariest things to do, what he did was so courageous. I get incredibly proud of people who feel safe to share their feelings and personal stories at work.
Because, if you´re in a place where you don’t feel safe, sharing can feel and even be harmful. If you share feelings, people might mock you or use it against you later. If you share Ideas, others might take credit for them. Information is power in a corporate cage, so people keep it to themselves. Or, if they share something of value with you, you bet you will owe them. It’s all about giving and taking.
Instead we seek to create a culture of “giving and giving”. Giving and giving is a fundamental principle where everyone wins.Ulla Sommerfelt
Sharing is in our company’s DNA. We share everything internally - from financial results, everyday moments on our digital platform, and we openly share what we know and believe in, both internally and externally.
When people share openly, it is an opportunity to see them, feel their potential, discover their talents, as well as listen to what they struggle with and what they seek to achieve. Sometimes we get a chance to catch a person doing something good. That is golden moment. Being seen is being understood, feeling valued. I remember how one of my leaders early in my career saw me and helped me - also when I failed.
Being seen is being understood, feeling valued.
In a company where creativity is an important asset, it is mandatory and expected to fail. Failing is how we learn.Ulla Sommerfelt
To learn and improve, it is also important to get the right kind and amount of feedback. And that is best given with compassion, so people know that you care about them and wish them well.
I have learned from the corporate cage, that getting no feedback makes you feel like nobody cares: you are not seen. No feedback, no growth. But too much isn’t healthy either. Especially too much negative. Like, when someone just yells at you.
A colleague of mine calls it “mental stoning”. Mental stoning – when a person screams in your face – just causes you to shut down, and you won’t learn anything from that.
We keep testing out new ways of giving constructive feedback. For example, some projects get a senior expert assigned to them to make sure that quality is high. We call these experts Grandmother and Grandfather. With the wisdom of grandparents, they give feedback with compassion.
Sometimes we do the “fish on the table” exercise. It goes like this: a problem is like a fish in your pocket; when you keep it there for too long, it starts stinking. We encourage people to bring out the problems – get them up there on the table - before they start stinking.
Every so often we make mistakes that deserves a Low Five. We came up the concept of “low five” as a contrast to the high five, because we wanted to give a cue to prepare people for some criticism. We celebrate the biggest blunders as “The Low Fives of the Month” in our all hands meeting.
Organisational ceremonies like these are great for building a culture. But what truly matters are the people! So, when we hire new people, we set the bar high. We want brilliant people, but we don’t want brilliant bastards. No work jerks without potential for compassionate behaviour. Mind you, the high performers without the cultural fit are the worst. It is tempting to keep these high performers because they get results, they bring in the bacon, but at what cost? They become role models for their high performance, but also for their bad behaviour.
So to make sure we get the right people on-board, we put them through a test on values and have a separate culture interview in the hiring process. Every person is handpicked – high performers with compassion is what we want.
Our employee experience manager remembers that signing up for her new job was a moment to celebrate, but the waiting time before she started, made her feel a bit lost. So, she came up with the idea of giving every new hire a gift card for a dinner for two – to celebrate with a loved one.
The first day at work the newbies get a warm welcome, hugs and a bottle of bubbles. Later, we welcome them on social media with great cheers, and in our all-hands meeting we have an agenda item called “New Kids on the Block”, where the newbies tell the story about themselves – their dreams and aspirations. So, we get to know them better.
The other day, some of our new people told me that, started working for us, had made them feel like a rock star and they had felt very welcome. When people move on to new challenges and workplaces, we give them a boomerang as a symbolic present. This is a signal that they are welcome back.
A compassionate culture also builds great relationships. We care about relationships that last.
Together with a bunch of people that I am incredibly proud of, I am on a journey to build the world’s best workplace – and that job will never be done. We experiment, we fail, we pick ourselves up. And most importantly: we pick each other up. We have fun, we succeed and we celebrate. When we succeed with compassion we win together.
Some leaders want to build an innovation culture, so they go out and buy…... a ping-pong table. My advice is: start with compassion.
Start seeing the potential in your people and give them the autonomy to be awesome and to be humans, not machines.Ulla Sommerfelt
You can buy cool offices – with ping-pong tables, you can buy fancy, new technology. Even people can be bought. But you cannot buy - a compassionate culture.