Building the Compassionate Workplace

Have you noticed the absolute glut of mental health articles released recently? Reported levels of anxiety and stress are at an all-time high and just this past year 2019, burnout was classified as a syndrome by the World Health Organization. That means the signs and symptoms associated with chronic workplace stress has been identified as a legitimate health concern. While the WHO stopped short of calling burnout a medical condition; it’s a known occupational phenomenon in the context of working life.

What are the signs and symptoms of burnout?

According to WHO, burnout is characterized by “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”

Are we surprised that burnout has hit the front burner?

Absolutely not. The bulk of our time at The Roundtable is spent working with leaders on shifting their behaviours in order to flourish in a VUCA world. And relatedly the most in-demand skills as identified by recent studies from IBM are power skills: time management, stress management and dealing with uncertainty. We also spend time on values and purpose and ensuring that our leaders align their behaviour to their values and building new practices. We coach for resilience; we talk about finding focus and mindfulness-based practices that you as individuals can employ to create positive frames of reference.

Finding values, aligning to purpose, building mindful practices. These are critical tools to offset the risk of burnout but working on individual resilience alone or individual mindfulness practices are the only half of the equation. It’s like handing a person in a burning building a cup of water and telling them to put out the fire. The stress associated with burnout needs to be tackled at a systemic and organizational level as well. What’s interesting is that passion and purpose-driven roles are often more susceptible to burnout.

In a recent study from Gallup, the top 5 reasons for burnout are largely within the control of the leader: unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from the manager, unreasonable time pressures.

What can you as a leader do?

The title of this post is a dead giveaway but it really does start with compassion in the workplace.

Notice, that we didn’t say empathy. Empathy is very important because it’s the element in you that confirms you are indeed a human and not a robot. You relate to the emotional response of the other. But compassion builds on that empathy and drives to action. An empathetic leader notices what’s happening (they feel); a compassionate leader notices what’s happening and responds (they act).

Recent studies related to compassion have found that this not only benefits the receiver of the compassionate act but also the giver of compassion. Likewise, increased compassionate actions have shown to have a “butterfly” effect organizationally in terms of greater organizational commitment, pride in the organization and improved organization-wide resilience.

Compassion is contagious.

It’s no longer the individual person left to fight the fire with that little cup of water; there’s a firehose to douse the burning building.

Our upcoming webinar on February 20th will dive into the topic of compassion as it may be one of the best sets of leadership behaviours to develop in order to insulate yourself and your team from burnout. This webinar will dive into the specific leadership behaviour that you need to amp up in order to be a more compassionate leader as well we’ll provide some simple tools to consider to build your own compassion practice.

Leading in Times of Uncertainty

As you well know and are likely fully experiencing, this is a tremendous period of uncertainty for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, we’re seeing some of the worst human reactions in response to uncertainty.

Dan Siegal, a neuropsychiatrist has popularized a theory of the “upstairs brain and the downstairs brain”. Our upstairs brain is responsible for empathy, planning, decision-making creativity, logical reasoning and morality. While our downstairs brain is responsible for the basic physical actions (breathing, blinking) as well as emotional impulse (fear, anger).

While Siegal applies this theory to parenting and childhood development, to my layperson view it holds true for adult behaviour. If we look at some of the recent behaviour, (ahem, toilet paper hoarders) then we can see the downstairs brain completely triggered by uncertainty hard at work reacting and shutting down the upstairs brain.

When I refer to a “triggered” brain, it is the “fight, flight or freeze” response that has been activated in reaction to a certain fear factor. David Rock, of the Neuroleadership Institute popularized the term “SCARF” as a simple acronym to summarize this fear response. The SCARF model explains how we humans can be triggered by any number of things, Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. 

When triggered, we begin to act from a version of our worst selves. We are fearful, we are scarce in mindset and action and we create physical and emotional distance. Unmet expectations, misunderstood communications, impacts to status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness can all drive us to work from our downstairs brain.

                                                                      This current climate takes the challenge of being a leader to 10x

If belonging and certainty are primary drivers in creating safety and security for us and our teams (and I’ll bet that covers a large portion of the population) then these are challenging times indeed as leaders. How do we as leaders create certainty when we don’t know what the next day holds? How do we create belonging, connection and relatedness when we are given the guidance to physically distance ourselves from others?

                                                                      The short answer is to shore up the psychological safety within your team.


If we want those around us to be innovative, creative and productive, they need to feel safe and operating from their upstairs brain. Safe to be candid, safe to take risks, and safe to make mistakes. 


When we create an environment that promotes honesty without fear of repercussion, we create psychological safety.  When our teams have safety they develop, innovate and achieve. There are 5 key factors that a leader can directly influence to build psychological safety that we’ve identified from research and have summarised below.

  1. Risks & Mistakes – creativity and risks are encouraged; there is vulnerability to discuss and learn from mistakes.

        Key Questions to consider:

  • Is taking risks and trying new things openly encouraged?
  • Can team members admit mistakes openly?


  1. Commitment & Consistency  – there are clear and consistent approaches and a commitment to follow-through.

      Key Questions to consider:

  • Are there clear and known communications and decision processes in place?
  • Do all members follow-through and do what they say they’ll do?


  1. Candid Communications – there is encouragement of open and honest communication practices involving two-way feedback. 

        Key Questions to consider:

  • Do we actively solicit feedback from one another?
  • Are opinions expressed openly and candidly?


  1. Belonging – there is encouragement of actions that support and create connection between other members of the team.

       Key Questions to consider:

  • Does everyone feel heard, supported and encouraged by one another?
  • Do we know one another and have a genuine interest in one another’s lives?


  1. Constructive Interaction – there is transparency in discussion, productive conflict and diverse perspectives are encouraged.

     Key Questions to consider:

  • Do my team members take accountability for mistakes? Are they defensive?
  • Are challenges brought forward and discussed openly?


                                                                                    Are you curious to learn more about our safety index?


Download the one-page assessment for you to use with your teams. Have an open discussion about how you can create a climate of psychological safety within your team to enhance certainty, fairness and relatedness in a world that is quite uncertain and now physically distanced from one another.

Three Simple Questions for Powerful Career Conversations

Often at Roundtable, we encounter leaders who are in mid-career and may be assessing whether or not their work is aligned with their passion. They may wonder whether they should do something else as the grass looks much greener elsewhere. They may be in what we sometimes call “the career doom loop” and are looking to disrupt themselves and shake up their career.

The “career doom loop” is one of our favourite models to frame up the stages of a ‘career engagement cycle’ and was created by Charles Jett. After spending decades as an executive recruiter, Charles saw a pattern in terms of how we feel at various stages of our career and created this simple model.


Most people when entering a new role start in quadrant 1; they’re excited about the possibilities but they’re not at the top of their game. Once you have mastered your position, you move to the second quadrant you’ve hit your stride, you’re contributing, your employer thinks you’re awesome.


It’s also at this time that you are getting clearer on the elements of the job that may be less appealing to you. Maybe you’ve mastered certain things and they’re no longer challenging. Maybe elements of your job just don’t play to your strengths. Maybe you’ve lost your passion for parts of the work that used to engage you. Regardless, at some point, you can start to slide into the next stage which is when the “doom looping” begins. 


You are in a job you DON’T like/that you are GOOD AT. (You’re still good, but you’re starting to check out.) It’s at this stage that usually one of 2 things will happen:


  1. You continue to slide to the final stage of the “doom loop”: you don’t like your job / you’re no longer good at it.  You’ve probably seen this around organizations.  It’s often called “dead wood”.


  1. If you are a high performing fast tracker, you’ll never even hit the fourth and final stageYou will likely pop yourself out of your organization and head to greener pastures where you can begin again at stage one in a job you like, but that you’re not great at yet.

The challenge for all of us as leaders is to find something that will re-energize and help us feel challenged again. This may be a new project, new task or potentially a new role. This is why frequent and regular career conversations are so critical.


It’s critical are that these conversations dive into uncovering the zone of genius either for yourself or your team member. The “zone of genius”, based on research from the Hendricks Institute, is the space when you are capitalizing on your natural or innate abilities. It’s that amazing state of flow when you’re doing really great work and it’s something that uniquely distinguishes you from others.


Consider adding these three simple questions into your next career conversation with a team member or reflect on them for yourself to get into your own zone of genius:


  1. Career Aspirations: What types of activities do you hope to be doing in 3 years?
  2. Capabilities: What are the strengths that you want to continue to build on?
  3. Career juice: What experiences would you like to have more of? What parts of your current job are giving you energy?

The Secret Sauce to Building High Performing Teams

VUCA. Have you heard of this acronym? It’s everywhere these days and, just in case you need a reminder, it stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The term first coined in the military is now regularly used in reference to the current corporate environment. Leading through growth, change and disruption is the name of the game these days. Increasingly organizations and the leaders within are required to adeptly navigate a VUCA landscape. 

What makes it a VUCA world?

We work in matrixed organizations where decision authority is often unclear and the ability to drive results is due as much to relationships as it is to direct positional authority. Today, the workplace is a maze of nested teams: intact, cross-functional, project, virtual — and the pressure is on teams to form, perform and reform at an astonishing rate. 

As organizational structures, roles and accountabilities continue to blur it’s the points of intersection that become increasingly critical. The end goal regardless of whether it’s an intact team or virtual team that comes together for a short-term project, is to create a tightly woven and cohesive team. Teams produce results that individuals simply can’t on their own. The most successful and most effective teams in producing results short-term are also teams that have developed the ability to be sustainable as well. A team is more than a collection of individuals. 

A team is a selection of people put together for a common purpose with identifiable goals, clear roles and accountability for results. As a result, the communications, structures and processes hand-offs within and between teams needs to be crystal clear. But is that all that’s required to create high-performing team? Absolutely not.

Wait there’s more?

The skillset that is critical for today’s leaders is to transition from coach to one to coach to the collective team. Research by Team Coaching International shows that fewer than 10% of teams are considered high performing. According to research by Google and others, one of the most crucial elements for team success lies in the relationships that exist within the team. Team leaders today need to be adept and agile at building, nurturing and restoring team relationships in order to cultivate high degrees of performance.

Are there some critical elements I need to consider to build a high-performing team?

Dr. Ruth Wageman, researcher and creator of the Team Diagnostic Instrument identifies that there are both essential and enabling conditions for high performing teams. The following is a short overview of the essential conditions that she has identified in her research. Use this to assess whether there may be some areas for you to hone in on as a team leader.


Purpose is one of the most critical elements to have in place for a team, so when you’re in the midst of a storm of VUCA, you’ve got a north star to follow. Wageman says that compelling purpose orients and motivates team members so that they are headed in the same direction—even when they are not working in the same place at the same time—and they do so with energy and conviction. 

Here are a few questions to consider on purpose. If you find you have a “no” on these, you’ve got a starting point for improving and aligning performance.

  • Is the purpose for our team sufficiently challenging?
  • Is the purpose for our team clear and understood by all?
  • Is the purpose for our team consequential (e.g. has a meaningful impact on others)?

Real Team

This seems like a silly thing but so often we bring together individuals as a group and call them a “team” simply because they meet regularly. Regular interaction, does not make a team! Consider the following:

  • Is our team bounded (e.g. it’s clear who is on the team)?
  • Is our team stable (e.g. they stay together long enough to get some work accomplished)?
  • Is our team interdependent (e.g. they rely on one another to accomplish goals and objectives)?

If your answer is no on the above questions, you’ve probably got a great team of individual contributors or maybe a committee but not a team yet. Think about how they truly can work and achieve collectively.

Right People

This is a regular issue that we encounter in the world of work. We’ve got a real team with a real purpose but do we have the right people around the table? This final condition is critical and so often we encounter leaders who seem to work by the mantra “half a body is better than nobody.” But really, how long can you tolerate underperformance? Consider this: 

  • Are there the right mix of skills around the team to achieve our goals?
  • Do we have diversity that allows us to perform creatively and well?
  • Is everyone performing at the level and ability that is needed?

Again, any “no’s” in this area should give you a sense of what you might want to consider if building a high-performing team is part of your game plan.

If you came through this with a resounding “YES” on purpose, real team and right people, then congratulations, you’ve got the essential conditions of team firmly in place. Hooray! 

Curious to learn more and understand the enabling conditions of team? Join the Roundtable Academy webinar on December 17th where we’ll dive into the model further and give you some suggestions on building both essential and enabling conditions of team.


Building Resilience in Yourself and Your Teams

                                                       “Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  ― Nelson Mandela

Resilience. If we look at the dictionary definition, it’s the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. That’s all well and good but what about when things get really bad? When your confidence gets shaken and you’re taken down a few notches? What do you do when you’re thrown for a loop or sideswiped? When you’re knocked off your game? Say you get unexpected feedback and it’s not the “hey you’re doing an amazing job” type of feedback but more the “I’ve got some feedback that I’d like to share with you” and it ends with a pink slip. How do you gather the inner strength and resolve to be like one of those toys from the ‘80s? You wobble but you don’t fall down.

More importantly, how do you cultivate the resilient bounce-back factor in your teams? We know that mistakes will happen, that setbacks will occur but great leaders not only are resilient and bounce back from set-back but also are able to do so with their teams.

Martin Seligman, aka the father of positive psychology, has spent years studying the factors associated with resilience and understanding how we might immunize people against learned helplessness, against depression and anxiety, and against giving up after failure. His research identified a few key factors that are foundational for resilience; at the heart of is, he found that optimism is a critical factor in buffering one’s reaction to incredibly difficult times.

                                                                                  “My barn having burned down; I can now see the moon.”

                                                                                                                                                          ― Mizuta Masahide (17th-century Japanese poet and samurai)

Seligman’s model of resilience goes on to identify the common elements in highly resilient people (PERMA):

  • Positive Emotion: Resilient people often have a positive image of the future. They maintain a positive outlook and envision brighter days ahead.
  • Engagement: Resilient people often focus their time and energy on changing the things that they have control over.
  • Relationships: Resilient people often are empathetic and compassionate. They maintain healthy relationships, in all aspects of life.
  • Meaning: Resilient people often strive toward work that gives them a sense of purpose and is aligned to a greater good.
  • Accomplishment: Resilient people often have solid goals and a desire to achieve those goals.

Perhaps you’re a bit of an Eeyore or a glass half empty type. You might read the above and think “oh bother” and yes, that’s a full-on Winnie the Pooh reference for the fans out there. Have no fear, my fellow pessimists or take comfort in the fact that while, yes, your reaction to adversity may be conditioned over years of hardwiring, you can reframe and build new and more positive responses.

The beauty of building resilience is that it only takes one action to begin to make a difference. You’ll find that these practices begin to build up over a period of time and the one action begins the momentum. Read through the chart below to consider what factors you might need to work on to build resilience in yourself. You can also use this with team members in one-to-one situations to help them reframe and build their own approaches to becoming more resilient.

Curious to learn more? Connect with Shelby ( to review our coaching clinic on Resilience.