Krista Tippett believes American culture has made progress in the emotional intelligence department. Unfortunately, says the host of the nationally syndicated public radio program On Being, the office is one of the last places to convey how far we’ve come.
"Forget about earthquakes and fires," she explains. "Everybody has a story about how bad people can be to each other [in the workplace]."
Tippett, who went from being a foreign correspondent for The New York Times in divided Berlin to divinity school before she started On Being, envisioned the radio show as a way to provide a place for civil conversation about such divisive issues as spirituality, sexuality, partisan politics, abortion rights, and evolution.
Over the past ten years she’s amassed a dedicated base of 600,000 listeners and become well-versed in the art of bringing together those with opposing views —like the time she hosted evangelical Christians struggling with the question of gay marriage— in a way that transcends bickering and encourages understanding.
As social media encourages over sharing and technology blurs boundaries to the working day, office mates and business associates tend to make up our primary communities. Corporate hierarchy sets people up to behave badly, Tippett observes, even at organizations that are supposed to affect social change. A 2011 study suggests success is in the hands of executives who "don’t really care what you think." Ultimately, she says, "you can never get away from the human condition."
Behind On Being is a diverse staff, too. One that faces similar challenges, Tippett admits. Though she’s quick to note, "I don’t feel like I cracked it," Tippett does offer some insights to help navigate the fraught landscape of differences in the workplace.
Tippett talks a lot about compassion as a virtue in the workplace, but not in the let’s all hold hands and sing "Kumbaya" kind of way.
On Being hit the airwaves a decade ago, so Tippett has made the "painful transition from startup to institution." But going from the "guerrilla warrior" who felt like she was fighting all the time to leader meant completely restructuring the corporate culture to reflect the value of compassion inherent in the work they are doing.
"Being intellectually hospitable is a virtue that I bring into the interview space," so Tippett says she also took the value and virtue of being present in the moment into other workplace tasks. Anyone can achieve this, even with something as simple as an email. "I pause before I press send," she says.
Follow the Leader
Even though old fashioned leadership structures persist, Tippett says they’re not all bad. "Structure is something that calms our nature; we know this of toddlers." She doesn’t believe chains of command should be flattened, rather that the new breed of decision makers should be trained to be emotionally intelligent.
Just because adults understand the need to suppress fatigue in the workplace, for example, may not stop the tantrums when team members are burned out. A sensitive leader will encourage communication and head exhaustion off before it plays out in a destructive way. Good leaders, "get that under control by being intentional and conscious of it," Tippett says. "Creating safety for a person who is struggling is as easy as a conversation."
Acknowledge Our Basic Humanness
Tippett confesses that with a deadline-driven show and her exacting standards of excellence, she’s not above being grumpy. Holding herself and others to that standard excellence was good, she says, but found a disconnect "between the [radio] content created by the voices of wisdom [I was interviewing] and the way I was really irritable on deadline."
She also realized that being nice didn’t mean sacrificing excellence—just that her team's workflow needed some tweaking. "We needed to create structure to bracket out mistakes so we could be better to each other," she says. For the show it was as simple as an extra read through of script. Pointing to neuroscience, which indicates that we humans need practice in order to change our behaviors, Tippett says it was essential to keep incorporating that change to override the default to get snippy with coworkers when things weren’t up to snuff.
Have the Conversation
It’s nearly impossible to check your personal beliefs at the door of the office, Tippett acknowledges. "It’s too much like a family—everyone’s emotional life is out there on the surface." To avoid bad encounters and be our most professional and productive selves, Tippett says it's important not to try to dismiss the human condition, but have the sticky conversations and practice being a better listener.
"Another thing we know from science is that change is stressful and some people are more susceptible to stress than others," Tippett observes. Unfortunately, stress and fear bring out the worst in us. "Fear usually looks like anger," she adds.
While a workplace is in flux (especially in startup mode) most people can reason that they have to make a change, but it doesn’t make it easy, even for leaders. "We need to acknowledge that we’re human and not robots. It’s hardest in positions of power when people are acting out of worst instincts what they tend to do looks destructive and it’s hard to feel compassionate when they are making other lives a living hell," she says. What’s needed then are "bridge people" who can step in and create a different space. In larger companies, this could be an HR representative, or in smaller companies this could be the leader of a different division.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Referring to the work of Dr. Richard Davidson, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studied the brain patterns of Tibetan monks while meditating, Tippett says practicing compassion and mindfulness daily is a way to alter patterns of behavior at work.
This can mean becoming a better listener by taking the time to practice every day, says Tippett, just like playing piano or ball. "Over time you see progress," she says which is really helpful to bring about change.
But be realistic about progress, she cautions. "You are not going to be perfect every day. It’s about turning up the next day and doing it again."
Tippett thinks meaningful work is something everyone longs for. "I’ve been told many times, ‘You have the best job in the world,’" she says but people don’t really realize that the time spent interviewing a guest is only about 5 percent of what she does. "The rest of the time it is a job with fund raising, deadlines, and internal politics," she says. However, "if we are called to excellence and practice these ways of being human, that leaves us not feeling beaten down by others at the end of the day."
[Image: Flickr user Claudio Alejandro Mufarrege]