Compassion Conversation Series
Why compassion is a foundation for any manager. A story from the field of contact centres.
In this conversation, I am stepping outside of the international development and public sector and speaking to Martin Teasdale about the role of compassion in leadership and management within contact centres. Martin shares why compassion is a foundation for any manager and how he discovered vulnerability is the key to creating compassionate conversations. He also demonstrates how compassion in companies can be brought forth with more awareness and through an intentionally crafted onboarding policy.
There are certain moments in people’s careers and working days where *the* only answer is compassion. You *can* still follow policy and procedures *and* be compassionate.
— Martin Teasdale
This article features in a series of interviews where I explore how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? 10 professionals offer their personal stories and perspectives.
Martin Teasdale is the founder and host of the UK’s first podcast about the Call & Contact Centre industry called ‘Get out of Wrap’.
From University Martin started on the phones as a call centre agent and loved the industry. He progressed from Agent to Team Leader and then through the management ranks to Director. Martin spent 2.5 years running teams in Istanbul and has also worked in Spain and Germany. Now a Director at BPA Quality Martin is passionate about the people in the industry and sharing best practice.
SJ: What resonates with you when you think of “compassion” in your profession and workplace?
MT: In the contact centre industry you can quickly progress from a phone-agent to a team leader, to a manager and so forth. This rapid transition means that you can find yourself in your early 20s managing a team of 15 people in a fast-paced environment where every performance is meticulously measured. While the technical side of progressing at this speed can be navigated, the emotional intelligence side of things is not taught. There is a need to have an open conversation about compassion as it is a core foundation of people-management.
If we can take people through a process whilst exhibiting and making the forum compassionate — and still get the same end-result — why would we not do that?
I believe you can get the same end-result, if not a better one, by evidencing compassion.
SJ: What has been your experience of compassion in your sector throughout your career?
MT: When I started in the industry, being kind and compassionate was to some extent frowned upon by senior leaders in the industry. When I first became a manager, some of the things I was told was “not to worry about being popular because people needed to respect me”. This attitude lends itself to breeding managers who are authoritarian — and this authoritarianism is born out of a lack of experience, a lack of understanding and a lack of vulnerability.
My personal experience has been that “vulnerability” is the ingredient that will in fact endear you to your team.
I have learned in my managerial roles that all people are fundamentally good and want to do a good job. This may not always manifest in their behaviour or in their communication due to fear, embarrassment, shame or any another emotion or experience. Therefore, treating anyone with compassion should be the number one thing we are taught as soon as we have influence or authority over people in a working environment. Firstly, the importance of being compassionate should be emphasised and then, it should be detailed what it means in practice in this workplace.
SJ: What is a concrete example of how compassion plays out in practice based on your experiences?
MT: I was working in a large contact centre where we had to employ many people quickly. Overnight, my responsibility grew from 100 to 200 people. The demographics of quick hires in this sector tend to be predominantly young people entering their first job. As a manager, I would get involved if employees got into the serious end of bad performance or behaviour.
There was a young guy who was talented and a bit rough around the edges. For multiple reasons we were at the point of dismissing him for his behaviour. I spoke to him at the final stage of our HR process. I listened to his appeal and shared a personal story with him: I was once made redundant, and I felt terrible. However, what was particularly important was that I used this moment to look at myself and take ownership of what had happened. The worst mistakes in my career are also the ones I have learnt the most from. I shared all of this with him.
We dismissed him and years later he contacted me, sharing that our meeting had been one of the best ones he had ever had because I had been kind, calm and compassionate towards him (his words, not mine!). He now works in a senior role and shared that our meeting had been fuel for his career.
No matter how bad the situation is or what the agenda of a given meeting is, you can always bring compassion into it. You can always deal with it in a compassionate way.
SJ: What did you learn from this experience about compassion?
MT: This experience was reassuring for me. If you have been told that you must act a certain way as a manager it feels reassuring to know that another approach also works and makes a difference in people’s lives.
If your foundation is compassion, you can build on this with knowledge of the systems and the processes.
The moment you become a manager in my industry, you also become a social worker. You will sometimes need to be a performance-reviewer, sometimes a stand-in caretaker or authoritarian figure. You will need to play many different roles. For all of them, you need to have compassion as the foundation.
SJ: Sharing a personal, vulnerable story from your own experience seemed to also contribute to creating a compassionate space for the conversation. This is not always an easy thing to do, especially in a work setting. What do you think has allowed you to do this in a position of senior leadership?
MT: This was a lesson I learned from my mistakes. Initially, I felt like I should know everything and avoided showing any weakness towards the team I was managing. At the same time, our performance was terrible. I was stressed and eventually - born out of desperation to understand how to improve our performance - I said to my team: “You know, I really do not know what I am doing half of the time.” Straight away they said: “We will help”. I realised it was fine to just be me and it was needed for our performance to improve.
It has been interesting to explore the importance of kindness and compassion as my career has developed into managing other managers in this sector. As a manager, it is important to understand where your team members are at a certain point in time. Over the last two years of pandemic especially, checking-in with people has become the top requirement of a manager. An important element of compassion is being able to truly listen. I have personally been guilty — both in my professional and personal life — of going into solution mode and have learned that truly being there and listening without judgement is a key dimension of compassion.
SJ: What do you think happens when compassion is not present? What does it look like, from your perspective, when it is not there?
MT: I can remember an exact moment where a company lost my interest as an employee because of the way some of their senior leadership spoke to me. I remember thinking: “If this is allowed to happen and if this is how a senior manager conducts himself, I do not want to work here.” With my experience and knowledge today, I may have reacted differently. At the time, it simply felt like a hard “no” for me. When I walked out of the office a week later and saw the company values written on the wall, it felt like a complete let down. I knew those values did not mean anything to the senior leader.
When compassion is not present, I think people eventually quit. If not immediately, then further down the line. What I have also learned is that company values need to be supported by behaviours and actions.
Values can so easily just be words on a piece of paper. It is how you care for your staff on a day-to-day basis that truly shows your values.
SJ: How might you consider incorporating more compassion into your company or in your sector as whole? If we were to brainstorm on it right now, what would you include?
MT: I think it starts with the onboarding policy. For any new hire that has some level of responsibility for other people, there needs to be a briefing and a framing around the behaviours, ways of interacting, communicating etc., that are needed and expected.
Interpersonal skills must already be discussed during onboarding before any potential future leadership training. I would argue we need to use words such as “compassion” and “kindness” — calling it out from the get-go — and setting people up for how they conduct themselves in a compassionate and kind way. There might be some scenarios that are discussed around compassion and spaces that are created for a culture of being more open and vulnerable towards each other, for example through a mentoring scheme.
We need to instil the norm that it is always a whole person coming into the (virtual) workspace.
SJ: What do you think is the main barrier to bringing forth more compassion?
MT: To some extent is it awareness about why compassion is important, why we should do it and what it means. Another barrier is just getting started with bringing in compassion as a conversation. Often people do not get started with an initiative because they do not yet see exactly how something is going to be put in place within a company. We need to remember that we can work out the details as we go along and that an awareness about compassion that gets anyone from the Chief Customer Officer to the Director of Finance onboard is crucial.
SJ: Let us conclude with a strong call to action around raising awareness. Some studies are now showing that compassion benefits the financial bottom line of companies too as discussed in the book “Awakening Compassion at Work — The Quiet Power that Elevates”. Articles that may support creating awareness and dialogue around compassion within company include:
· How to Foster Compassion at Work Through Compassionate Leadership, Positive Psychology
· Power Can Corrupt Leaders. Compassion Can Save Them, Harvard Business Review
· Compassionate Leadership is Necessary — but Not Sufficient, Harvard Business Review
This conversation is based on Martin Teasdale’s own personal views. They do not represent the views of BPA Quality or any organisation that Martin has worked for previously.