By Anne Muhlethaler @annvi
Emotional discomfort, when accepted, rises, crests and falls in a series of waves. Each wave washes a part of us away and deposits treasures we never imagined. Out goes naivete, in comes wisdom; out goes anger, in comes discernment; out goes despair, in comes kindness. No one would call it easy, but the rhythm of emotional pain that we learn to tolerate is natural, constructive and expansive... The pain leaves you healthier than it found you. - Martha Beck
I had the most refreshing conversation this afternoon. It was also most unexpected. I've just booked myself a trip. Yeay - and Yikes! My first holiday since December 2019. Overdue to say the least. In booking it, I hit a snag with Easyjet after having renewed my Easyjet Plus membership. If you wonder, that was me being very optimistic about doing more regular European travel for the coming 12 months. Whether that’s going to happen, nothing’s more unsure.
In any case, I spent a good deal of time yesterday trying to find someone to, first, pick up the phone, let alone help me. Of course, I figured that the airline must be a very different company than when I last flew it in February 2020. So I didn't stress out. In COVID times, I can try my best and also remember to lower my expectations overall, especially around this particular topic, travel. Essentially, I decided to operate under the assumption that they, Easyjet, are doing their very best and that things would eventually work out.
Things were sorted but there was still a glitch around my booking. So I rang back, as I'd been advised to do. Percy, a very nice guy with a South African lilt, offered to try and find a solution for me. However, midway through our exchange, the conversation switched, so much so that I felt a little disoriented. Who was I on the phone to again?
Percy had started to tell me about the content of a video he’d watched on Youtube the night before about emotional intelligence. Huh. I listened to him, staring at my screen, thinking: can he sense over the phone that I am a mindfulness teacher? What are the odds, LOL? I listened to him tell me his story of men and women, the reptilian brain, resilience and emotional intelligence.
He stopped and offered that he never talks about one client to another, but the reason why this subject was on his mind is that he'd just had a very upset gentleman whose flight had been cancelled. The old man couldn't (or wouldn’t) accept not to be given a reason for the cancellation by the airline, then couldn't accept the replacement early morning flight. It was too early for him and his wife, maybe no one to help them get to the airport? The flights had been booked a year in advance; it was all so unfair, etc. It sounded very intense.
Poor Percy thought: what can I do? Clearly, this man won’t listen to me, he is not letting go of this story of unfairness and disappointed expectations, he is not accepting the reality of the times that we’re in. In real-time, Percy was linking what he’d understood of the teaching he’d recently come across: mindfulness of emotions and the fact this particular client had no room to connect, or no emotional intelligence because - indeed - his lizard brain was in full fight mode. As in, you know, fight/flight/freeze.
I felt relief for this kind and self-aware customer service associate. How nice to know how much empathy he was having for his upset client and knowing he was able to take a step back, sufficiently distance himself from the exchange, not overburden himself either, trying to get to an unlikely, if not simply impossible, positive result. And not to take it personally.
Of course, this conversation feels like an excellent follow up to my interview with Helen Baynes, a recent guest on my podcast.
Having set up the standard for customer care for online luxury retailer Net-a-porter, then Cult Beauty, and now working with other consulting clients, Baynes is more aware than most that customer care teams are the ones picking up the mistakes for the business. And looking after these teams is crucial in delivering quality service over time and creating a loyal, returning customer base.
This short conversation with Percy, the empathetic customer service associate, gave me a glimpse of what the future could be. Can you imagine a world where customer care teams get taught mindfulness and compassion practices?
This notion brings me back to an article that disturbed me quite a bit when I first read it a few weeks ago. Titled ‘Where Mindfulness falls short’, the piece from the online edition of the Harvard Business Review was written by five professors across behavioral science and management fields from various American universities. They argue that mindfulness programs offered within companies fall short, especially for those in roles where a customer service employee or salesperson is required to act inauthentically.
Here’s where I think they are coming from: having to bear demanding clients through gritted teeth may feel more challenging to do if you become more aware of your values, desires and emotions. The expectation here is that practising mindfulness, looking inward, will bring the above into your conscious mind. Having to act out of integrity becomes a point of deep discomfort and unhappiness.
Maybe that’s the reason why the new study carried out by these academics has shown results of decreased job performance for a large number of participants who had used mindfulness techniques:
‘Whether you’re tasked with delivering the bad news that sales are down, recommending a painful medical procedure, or conducting layoffs, being more mindful is likely to make doing what must be done feel more unpleasant and difficult.’
In reading the words above, it became clear that the writers have never been trained in mindfulness, nor are they regular practitioners. Instead, they only directed studies around behaviour that touch on the practice of mindfulness in the workplace.
As it stands, research shows that mindfulness practices increase empathy and compassion, not necessarily emotion recognition abilities. If you wonder if this is me saying that these professors are wrong, indeed it is. And my chat with Percy at EasyJet was a proof point to that effect.
Here are some of the positives I can imagine coming out of a long-term investment in mindfulness at work:
Learning to become observers of our breath, body sensations, thoughts and feelings, we become more aware that difficult emotions are just passing states, which we don’t need to identify with.
Most importantly, we learn to take a mindful gap.
Whether simple techniques like S T O P or learning to diffuse internal tension by taking a break, a few deep breaths or a walk around the block, we learn this essential tool: to take distance from difficult emotions and situations. We learn to feel or identify our own particular cues: a steep pulse increase, shallow breath, sweating, discomfort and tension in shoulders, stomach, or thumping in the chest. It’s only when we pick up on these, when they exist in our field of awareness, that we get to do something about their triggers. We suddenly have a choice in our reactions.
Viktor Frankle said it best:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
Right. The ultimate benefit? We become responsive rather than reactive.
Nobody could argue responsiveness to be a negative trait in a customer service specialist.
Not knowing what sort of courses the employees in these studies are being introduced to, it’s hard for me to offer more in-depth feedback on the findings presented in the aforementioned article. But crucially, I can share from experience - as both a teacher and a practitioner - that the above results don't happen in four weeks, and certainly not in the middle of a global crisis. Practices need to be… practiced over time. You wouldn’t expect transformational results from a few 30 minute gym sessions over a few weeks. Why would that be different when you are training your mind and your awareness?
So what do I find to be the dissonant point in these findings? That would be the nature of the roles and the work environment of the participants. And probably, per the above, the length of time of the workshops/teachings as well.
The assumption started with what they referred to as ‘deep acting’ or surface acting being an essential component of these particular jobs:
‘Surface acting is critical for many customer-facing roles (and to a lesser extent, any role that requires interaction with internal or external stakeholders). In many situations, faking a smile is the right choice. But displaying inauthentic emotions takes work, and it often feels bad. Because of this, many people adopt a more mindless approach while completing these tasks as a natural coping mechanism.
If they become more mindful, the unpleasant feelings that they had been suppressing (perhaps subconsciously) come to the fore. This in turn reduces job satisfaction and performance, as the mental resources needed for work get sapped by a newfound awareness of their own inauthenticity and negative emotions.’
To sum it up, if you have to suck it up a lot at work, or you are stuck in a toxic workplace environment, or really difficult clients, steer clear of mindfulness, it may be too direct a look at how unfulfilling your job actually is. Can you tell I don’t agree??
When we think about the fact that customer service roles pick up the slack for the mistakes in the business, to say mindfulness may be the wrong tactic is perhaps not the best point to make. How we look after our clients is linked to how we look after our employees. These are essential areas of development for any business that wants to thrive. Happy employees = happy clients. That’s what Helen said to me and I trust her, she’s a specialist. Also, I trust Tony Hsieh, he said it too:
‘Customer service shouldn’t be a department, it should be the entire company.’
She knows what she’s talking about, when she discusses rebuilding trust; after all Frei spent 240 days wearing an Uber t-shirt, a gamble she made when she went into the giant tech company to try and rebuild trust in their dubiously trustworthy head offices.
I enjoy the fact that she used a chalkboard and drew several triangles to make her point. With the first one, below, she explains that the component parts are well understood, and they are: authenticity, logic and empathy.
As she shares in her exposé, when any of these three pillars wobble, trust becomes shaky.
The most common wobble is empathy. When people just don’t believe we’re in it for them, or that we are too distracted, our busyness crowds out the space that empathy requires.
I paused. Big learning. Empathy requires spaciousness. Attention. What happens when we are stressed? Our focus narrows. Loss of empathy is one of the ensuing results.
Also in not sharing, not showing empathy, everything becomes harder. Without the assumption of trustworthiness, we lose the ease in our relationships and our communication. I guess that’s why Stephen Covey named his book The Speed of Trust?
Frei’s prescription: deep listening, immersion in the world of the others we are surrounded by. Putting away our phones, looking up, up at the people whose faces we haven’t paid attention to. Do you relate to this? I know I do.
She then gets into logic and how we communicate, but I’ll skip this step to circle back to the HBR article and my conversation with Percy.
Frei says, and I wholeheartedly agree, that we can quite literally sniff out when someone isn’t their true selves, when someone is inauthentic. Her suggestion:
Feasible when you are surrounded by people who are very much like you. Much harder when you or I feel very different, in any way, from those around us. And when we hold back from showing our true selves, when we mute ourselves to the world, we are less likely to be trusted.
So here’s my recap:
The HBR guys were very specific in saying that their findings really targeted those who need to do ‘deep acting’ at work.
Mindfulness at work is bad when people have to be inauthentic.
Because it may become a revealing factor via which conscious or subconscious negative feelings may emerge because these employees have to display inauthentic emotions throughout their workday.
But in being inauthentic, following on from Frei’s arguments, these employees are less likely to be trusted by their clients. Whether that applies also to these employees’ relationships with the internal organisation is something I can only wonder about.
One of my biggest learnings from the book Thanks for the Feedback, which has stayed with me since I first read it back in 2017, is the massive blind spots we all have about what others perceive of us. This graphic is illuminating to say the least.
‘My behavior is in your awareness and mostly not in my awareness.’
There is so much about our thoughts and feelings that we transmit to others with our physical expressions, beyond smile or frown. The authors were bold when they structured this topic:
Behavioral blind spots, Your leaky face, Your leaky tone, Your leaky patterns, Email body language. All of these hint at the ways in which we give away more than we think about thoughts and feelings that may not be matching our intentions. And closing the chapter with this:
‘They may see exactly what we are trying to hide. The fact that others are always reading our faces, tone and behavior doesn’t mean they are always reading us right. They can often tell when what we say doesn’t match the way we feel, but they can’t always tell quite how.’
So people can tell when something is off. Consciously or not, they will register this sense of inauthenticity. And that’s where the trust starts to wobble.
I’d imagine that these employees’ trust in themselves would start to wobble too. One of the significant factors in burnout is a crisis of integrity. How can you look at yourself in the mirror when you walk and talk in a way that is not in accordance with your own values? Why would someone want to continue working in that situation? How could it be positive or beneficial, and for whom?
The solution? ‘Be you’, bring your authentic self to work.
We all know that is one of the hardest things to do. Being oneself, using one’s voice in the wrong environment will often attract gossip, rejection, ridicule and, best of all, which I am sad to report I have witnessed, workplace bullying.
There is a solution for you leaders out there:
Create a safe space for people to be themselves.
Fix the reasons that are making your employees have to do ‘deep acting’ around your customers, rather than take away mindfulness.
My personal suggestions:
Put the executive board on a 12 months mindfulness program first.
Put the managers on the same path.
Teach them compassion and self-compassion practices.
And then have them redesign the mindfulness training for the sales and customer service teams, those who directly interact with your consumers. So that the resulting product is actually understood by all levels of the organisation.
Indeed, mindfulness is not a panacea: when you look inside yourself, you may come across things that make you deeply uncomfortable at first. And that’s okay. You may need to make some changes. That’s actually a good thing.
I love how Professor Frei has such a positive outlook for us to envision. Paraphrasing her words, "it’s much easier to coach people to fit in, to follow a script, but wouldn’t it be better to figure out how to bring out people’s best versions of themselves?"
If anything, my friend Percy encourages me to think that it’s indeed possible.