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Compassion in the Workplace

July 27, 2012

Book coverThe Under 35 Project is a place for young meditators to share what it's like to try to live mindfully, every day. We really enjoyed this submission from Chelsea A. of Brooklyn, NY. She writes about contemplating how to "be grateful to everyone" in the midst of a high-stress work enviroment.

Visit to read more, and consider adding your voice to the dialogue!

I stared at the document on my screen. I'd just read it through twice, and was still trying to wrap my head around what I was seeing.

It was a disaster. Words were misspelled or missing altogether. Incomplete sentences and thoughts were scattered throughout. It was a strategic plan bereft of strategy. It was without a clear sense of direction or an understanding of our purpose.

It insulted our clients, our five-year track record and our funders – the ones who had requested the plan in the first place. The ones who, you know, paid our salaries.

Susan had asked for our feedback, and I didn't even know where to begin. So, naturally, I hyperventilated, threw back the last of my coffee, and fled down the hall to Megan's office. I stepped through the door and we made eye contact. She looked stricken. I noted her right hand clenched tightly around a Starbucks cup.

Clearly, we were on the same email. Caffeine was all we had left.

"Oh my God. Oh my God. It, like…it needs to be rewritten. Like, completely," I sputtered. Eloquence under pressure is not my strong suit.

"I know…it's…it's really bad…" she responded, her voice hitting the shrill notes of panic and disbelief.

"She's our boss. What are we supposed to do?" I asked. Megan released her coffee just long enough to throw her hands up in the air and shake her head.

It was a fair question. Up until now, we'd largely been cut out of the planning process. Susan had just started about six weeks prior, with no direct experience in our field. This was her first major project and, while we had offered our assistance, she hadn't seemed particularly interested in learning from our years with the program.

Now, after weeks of work and less than one week shy of the deadline, she was asking for feedback.

"Would it be too obvious to rewrite the whole thing from scratch?" asked Megan.

Over the next couple of days, Megan and I made some revisions, corrected the grammar, and offered Susan some verbal input. We also did our best to alert our CEO that he should review the plan before it was sent out. Beyond that, we felt our hands were tied – but our tongues certainly weren't.

We bitched our way through that week, fueled by a river of half-priced happy hour pinot grigio. We bitched about our CEO's disengagement in the process. We bitched about the absurdity of having to choose between doing our boss' job for her to save the program or letting her work stand at the risk of losing the funding for our jobs. But, most of all, we bitched about Susan herself. We spent hours, literally, complaining about her incompetence.

At the end of the week, Susan submitted the plan. The sky is blue, and our funders were not happy. They sent back a document so splattered with red comments it looked like Jackson Pollack does .docx. We had one week to redo the whole thing.

The CEO, now aware of the stakes, essentially shut Susan out of the rewrite, took on leadership of the process, and shifted the bulk of the responsibility for writing onto Megan and me.

"Susan's not a bad person," I kept saying to Megan, as though acknowledging her humanity would forgive the torrent of uncensored complaints flooding out of my mouth.

In the blink of an eye, it was February 21. The night before the 10am deadline. A night etched into Gmail history.

8pm: I chatted with a new crush.

"But are you actually busy?" he asked.

"I am at work and suspect I will be for another 3 or 4 hours," I answered.

Oh, the sweet naiveté of a crushing girl/young professional. It's cute in the right light.

2am: Our CEO – who was working from home at this point – called to apologize that we were bearing the brunt of a mismanaged situation. I emailed my dad shortly afterward.

"I'm not cranky," I wrote. "It's more like I'm marveling at the sheer absurdity of the situation."

4am: We finished the plan. Exhausted and drained, we were left with the raw fear that our program would be eliminated and the dawning realization that no cab company was going to take our calls.

Noon: I emailed my mom. "My coworker and I have been at the office since 8:30 yesterday morning. I slept in my desk chair for a couple of hours. I'm actually in a very good mood. I think things are mostly improving."

You can call me many things, but pessimistic isn't one of them.

Things did not improve. The funders were pleased with the new strategic plan, but every subsequent project became a repeat of the same dysfunctional process: read Susan's work, freak out, rewrite. Hear Susan's ideas, freak out, try to redirect. The rivers of pinot grigio kept flowing, my sense of desperation and helplessness kept growing, and Susan continued to be the unwitting target of all blame.

Two months later, I found myself on Amtrak heading to New York City for a job interview. While on the train, I sipped a cup of coffee and cracked open Pema Chodron's Start Where You Are. I'd begun treading the Shambhala Buddhist path some months prior and had at least enough self awareness to realize that my behavior throughout this ordeal had embodied, shall we say, something less than Great Eastern Sun vision.

And so, with far-too-grim resolve, I decided that I was going to scrape away four months of caked-on resentment, find my tender heart, and bare it to the world in the span of the next three hours or I was going to seriously over-caffeinate while trying. There would be no train naps on my watch! All dharma, all the time!

I'm not sure hurling oneself into compassion boot camp is exactly recommended, but somewhere around "Be Grateful to Everyone," I finally fell apart – in a good way.

The moment I asked myself, "Be grateful to Susan? How? Why?" I found myself looking at my bloated, arrogant self-righteousness head on. It was revolting. It had been a miserable few months, absolutely. The situation was not working. I was watching my dream job and a fantastic program fall apart. But I'd been so self absorbed that I'd failed to realize Susan was probably every bit as unhappy as me – and perhaps even more so. There were no winners in this situation, and I'd done nothing to lessen anyone's suffering. Sure, I'd insisted, "She's not a bad person," but that's such a far cry from gratefulness it would be laughable if it weren't so unkind.

As the arrogance fell away, I was left sitting with quiet, penetrating sadness. I sat on that train and stared out the window and let the tears fall. It was all falling apart.

I got the new job and moved to New York City about a month later. I wish I could say that in the last few weeks at my old position, I was a changed woman. That I apologized to Susan for anything I'd done to contribute to a difficult transition. That I stopped complaining. That I learned to feel grateful for such a trying situation.

I didn't.

But I can say my arrogance continued to be displaced by sadness, and that I grew less willing to engage in mean-spirited, wine-fueled bitch fests. It was a start. It was where I was.

On my last day, the CEO called me into his office for an exit interview.

"We are very sorry to see you go," he said. "You've been such an asset to the program… We're trying to fix things, but I'm really just sorry that we couldn't fix them quickly enough."

Sincerely, I thanked him. I told him I knew it had been a difficult few months for everyone, but expressed my gratefulness for the past few years. I spoke highly of Megan and called his attention to her innate, understated ability to steer the program in the right direction. And I said Nanako, an intern fresh out of college, had a one-in-a-million work ethic and could not be recommended highly enough for a full time position.

When the CEO asked about Susan, as I knew he would, I paused for a moment before speaking. In that pause, I created enough space for compassion to arise.

"She's well-intentioned and she really cares, but the job is just not a fit with her skill set," I finally said, quietly. "And, unfortunately, I don't think that can be overcome."

It was another way of saying, "She's not a bad person," except, this time, it was coming from the heart. I wasn't using this as a line to make myself feel better about a stream of insults flooding from my mouth. I was saying it because, as best I could tell, it was the truth. The situation wasn't working for anyone. Avoiding that reality would help no one, but it would create a lot more pain for everyone – including Susan.

It turns out the same words, spoken with a different intention, are really not the same words at all.

Then the CEO asked me if he could tell Susan that she was the reason I was leaving. He said it would be helpful. I realized he was trying to build the case for letting her go.

And I said, "Yes."

Why did I say yes? To this day, I don't really know. But I do know that the CEO had plenty of other reasons to justify terminating Susan's employment without mentioning that her presence compelled an employee to quit and move 400 miles away.

Saying, "Yes" was not a compassionate response. It was a cowardly response.

Shortly after I left the CEO's office, Susan gave me a membership card to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and wished me the best of luck in New York City. I felt sick to my stomach.

Five weeks after I left, Susan was fired.

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