How it all started: a discussion of truth and compassion

balanceOn January 1 I shared my first post on this blog, inspired to finally capture some of the thoughts swirling in my brain regarding what I’ve been learning in yoga teacher training. Since then I’ve thought oh-so-frequently about writing again, and have even scribbled down multiple ideas for posts, but until now didn’t prioritize the time and space to write. Exploring the reasons why would be a great topic for a future post. As long as I’m finally here, however, I’m going to start with where it all began, with the interaction that inspired me to explore the connection between yoga philosophy and corporate leadership.

A little over a year ago, my husband Chris and I were walking through the Phoenix airport when he got a text from a friend and former colleague, John. John wanted to know if either Chris or I had ever worked with an individual I’ll call Glenn. Glenn, Chris and I all had previous stints at the same company, and in fact both of us had worked with Glenn. Actually, I’d worked with Glenn at a subsequent employer as well. Glenn was interviewing for a contract role with John’s team, and John wanted to know if we’d recommend him.

Both of us had a visceral reaction. Glenn was at best a challenging colleague to work with, and at worst seemed a bit unhinged. We’d both experienced this at employer #1, and I’d had the same experience at employer #2. My direction to Chris was to tell John to stay the hell away from Glenn lest he want a nightmare on his hands.

Ironically, it was Chris, who is usually the more direct and emphatic of the two of us, who paused. “What if Glenn really needs this job? What if we tell John not to hire him, but he really needs the job? Now we’ve hurt Glenn and maybe his family. I think we should tell John that he’s OK to work with.”

At that moment I recalled two concepts we’d recently learned in yoga study. We’d been learning about the yamas and niyamas, which are guidelines for how to live our lives. There are 5 yamas and 5 niyamas. The yamas are considered “restraints,” or as T.K.V. Desikachar(1) defines them, attitudes or behaviors towards others. The niyamas are “observances,” or attitudes we adopt towards ourselves. In light of the conversation we were having about Glenn, two yamas jumped out to me: ahimsa, which means non-violence, and satya, truthfulness.

Ahimsa refers quite literally to the idea that we do no harm, to others and to ourselves. (The concept of ahimsa is why many yogis are vegetarians.) The concept is the foundation of yoga philosophy and practice. There is a lot I could unpack here around non-violence to oneself, which I’ll certainly explore in a future post. For purposes of this post, I’ll focus on non-violence to others. Satya, or truthfulness, is pretty much what it sounds like: being honest … but we all know truthfulness is more complicated than that. The truth can be hurtful. The truth can be spoken out of spite or anger. The truth can cause great harm.

And that’s where  ahimsa and satya come together. You cannot have one without the other, and with non-violence at the fore. Truth without compassion can cause great harm. As Deborah Adele writes, “The compassion of non-violence keeps truthfulness from being a personal weapon. It asks us to think twice before we walk around mowing people down with our truth, and then wonder where everyone went … Thinking we know what is better for others becomes a subtle way we do violence.”(2) Satya requires ahimsa. Truthfulness requires non-harming. You must practice non-violence first when you practice truthfulness. You must consider the purpose for the truth, the circumstances, and the potential impact. And however you proceed, it must be with compassion as your guide.

It was with those thoughts running through my brain that I stopped from launching into a diatribe about Glenn. Instead, as Chris and I walked through the concourse and waited for our plane, I explained these yogic concepts and we engaged in a powerful discussion about how the concepts applied here. Chris was right in that spouting off about Glenn to John might have been a colorful version of the truth, but it wouldn’t have been done for pure reasons. In contrast, I questioned the potential harm that could be done if we said nothing, John’s team hired Glenn, and it ended up a disaster. If that happened, the company had been harmed, and we’d potentially prevented another (better?) candidate from getting the position, providing for their family, and helping the business succeed. With that thought in mind, we started to question how far our obligation for non-harming extended. Was our responsibility to Glenn? To John? To the company? To the other potential candidates? To all of the above?

It was a robust and thought-provoking discussion. In the end, we decided we had a responsibility to be truthful to ensure that John was aware of potential ramifications of selecting Glenn, but that we needed to do so in a compassionate way. Chris responded to John that we’d both worked with Glenn, he was strong in his field, but there were some behavioral challenges that manifested at work. Chris provided no details. Because Glenn had previously been employed by John’s employer (we’re assuming they didn’t check as he was coming in as a contractor), Chris encouraged John to connect with HR and ask for any reviews of Glenn. And we left it at that.

That experience and conversation got me thinking: these concepts I was learning in yoga study, these centuries-old principles to guide how we treat ourselves and each other: how could they be applied to the world of work? More specifically, how could they be applied to leadership? For example, the idea of non-violence balanced with truthfulness seems to have a direct connection to leadership. How often do we find ourselves in a position to share our opinion on an idea or an individual? For most leaders, it’s probably at least daily. And how often do we pause to think about what is driving that opinion, and what the outcome might be? Whether it’s expressing concern that a project is bad idea, or giving feedback to a colleague, or even venting about someone to another, do we stop and ask ourselves if we’re putting truth over compassion? In many situations we must be truthful even if it will hurt another: as leaders we have an obligation to speak truth, as we have a responsibility to prevent harm to the companies we represent. But no one likes to get constructive feedback, or to hear that their pet project is a non-starter. So we have to speak the truth, but are we speaking that truth with compassion? Are we letting ahimsa guide how we approach the truth, attempting to minimize, even if we can’t completely mitigate, the hurt?

The answer to the question “can these concepts be applied to work?” quickly came to me as a resounding yes. That’s why this blog is here–to explore how we can use yogic philosophy to guide how we lead and work. Let’s be clear: I by no means have it figured out. This is a journey for me. I’d love to say that since that conversation in the airport, I’ve always spoken truth led by compassion. That would be a bald-faced lie. I could identify multiple times in the past week where I made a truthful yet somewhat cruel remark about another, usually out of frustration. That’s my Achilles’s heel. I also have been told I’m pretty direct, which is a blind spot that I have, and I’m always working to get better at being honest and direct in a compassionate manner. So no, I don’t have it figured out, and I probably never will. And that’s OK. It’s about meeting yourself where you’re at, working with what you have, and doing your best to practice awareness and change your behavior in each moment. That’s practicing ahimsa and satya with yourself.

In this blog I’ll continue to explore how these yogic principles and others apply to leadership. There is a lot to explore. We’ll be here for a while. I hope you’ll stick with me and maybe have some moments of reflection along the way.

As for Glenn… I’d love to tell you what happened, but I don’t know. My guess is that he didn’t go to work with John’s team, but John didn’t tell us and we didn’t ask. But Chris and I feel we handled it the right way. We were truthful with compassion for all involved. We swallowed our reactions and tried to do the right thing. That’s the best we could do. That’s the best any of us can do.

(1)Desikachar, T. K. V. The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1995. Print.

(2) Adele, Deborah. The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice. Duluth, MN: On-Word Bound, 2009. Print.

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One thought on “How it all started: a discussion of truth and compassion

  1. Pingback: The work of self-study (a.k.a. How willing are you to own your sh*t?) – Working from Om

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