07:47 Monique: Karla, I’m going to start our conversations with an excerpt from your introduction in your wonderful book, The Power of Emotions at Work: Accessing the Vital Intelligence in Your Workplace, because this really resonated with me in terms of what I’ve been seeing in as an executive coach. Now, that passage is, “Emotions are everywhere in the workplace because emotions are a central feature of human nature. They aren’t removable. And in fact, trying to remove them is a huge part of what created the failed workplace model that we have today.” With that, I say welcome, and what is your source of inspiration for doing the work that you have been doing for so long?
08:35 Karla: Unimaginable pain.
08:40 Monique: That’ll do it.
08:42 Karla: I always thought that there was something weird about me that I would go into workplaces and just go, “What is even happening here?” Why is this person doing all the work, but nobody will say that they are? Why is this person in charge when they don’t actually know what they’re doing?” It’s like, what am I seeing here? And I could never sort of settle in in the way that you’re supposed to if you’re going to have a corporate career. I couldn’t settle around it. I was like, “What is happening and why this person is really angry?” And you’re blaming her for being angry when she’s actually the only one speaking the truth. So, what is going on?
09:22 Monique: So, this is actually not your first book. What is your published journey and writing in this area of expertise?
09:30 Karla: Well, I did-- I mean, my focus is on emotions and empathy. And so, I focused first on that and the language of emotions and then empathy in the Art of Empathy. And I created a process called Dynamic Emotional Integration or DEI, and just looking at how emotions and empathy work. And the reason I went into that is because I noticed that most people put emotions on the bottom of all possible. What is important? It’s not emotions. What is smart? It’s not emotions. What is valuable? It’s not emotions. And I thought, there was a lot of shadow there. And if we’ve done shadow work, we know that all the power lives in the shadow so that I’m going there where nobody wants me to go. And so, that’s where that came from. But also, in looking at the work, I’ve done a lot of-- I studied The Sociology of Work and Occupations and I studied-- I became a Human Resource Administrator and I became a Career Guidance Counselor because I wanted to know what’s wrong with the workplace. I wanted to see the world of it and understand the totality of it. And I thought if I got an HR certification, then I would be one of the people creating emotional wellness in the workplace. That was wrong.
10:51 Monique: That was a really good belief.
10:55 Karla: It wasn’t it though. It was like, “I’m going to fix it.” But what I learned in my certification process was to do primarily paralegal work, right? HR does primarily paralegal, hiring, firing, benefits.
11:10 Monique: Knowing the law.
11:11 Karla: Stay within the laws. Their job is not to create a healthy, emotional environment. If they can do that, great. But that is not what the training involves. And so, I thought, wow. So, the only people that we are told are a part of creating a healthy emotional environment, which is HR. That’s not what they do. And what I’ve heard from many people, and they’ll be telling me when I’m doing consultations there’s just this awful stuff going on. I said, “Is there an HR Department? Can you talk to HR?” And almost to a person, they say, “Lord, no, I’m not talking to HR. No.”
11:49 Monique: That’s like the last people to talk to.
11:52 Karla:Yeah, which is so sad. But HR does work for the corporation. They don’t work for the workers. So, workers are basically alone, dealing with difficult social situations that are very complex and require a lot of emotional awareness and a lot of empathy that nobody understands, right?
12:19 Monique: Yeah. Well, I think I just saw a statistic that indicated that 75% of executives are type A personalities, driven, get the results. It’s all about the work. I said, 75%. And the tone for organizations gets set where? At the top.
12:34 Karla: Yeah.
12:35 Monique: And so, therein lies a question I have for you is, from a quantitative standpoint, what is the cost to organizations of low empathy?
12:43 Karla: Well, one of the most interesting things about empathy is that in hierarchies, empathy is damaged throughout the hierarchy. The higher you are in the hierarchy, the lower your empathy becomes because the hierarchy itself creates an artificial separation between people. So, the higher-- if you’re at the top of a pyramid hierarchy, that pyramid person is in tremendous danger of losing their empathy for anybody below. Another thing about hierarchies, and we see this in animals, is your job in a hierarchical system is to look up, right? You want to look at the people who have power over you, and maybe you tend and befriend at this level, but you do not look down because you don’t have the psychic energy or the time to be able to do that, unless you’re a naturally very empathic person, right? But even if you’re naturally very empathic, the higher you go in the hierarchy, the more in danger you are of losing your empathy for anyone below you.
So, hierarchies are terrible, but it’s the way that we’ve set up businesses, right? So, that’s another part of the reason that businesses in most organizations are so emotionally and empathically destabilized and damaged. One of the things that happens too is, if you’re at the height of the hierarchy and you’ve lost your empathy, the rest of the social structure is going to need to increase their empathy. So, you’re going to have over empathy at the bottom and under empathy at the top. Yeah. And I’ve talked to a number of people who’ve left their high-level careers because they said, “Karla, I lost my empathy.” And I’m a very empathic person. I said, “Well, the structure did that to you.” Yeah.
So then, the cost of-- if it’s a cost to everyone, we like to attack-- because we’re in a hierarchy, we attack the people above us, right? We like to attack those people. But I see them with a tremendous amount of compassion because I’m like, “You got-- you almost don’t have a choice, but to lose your empathy.” And this is going to affect every part of your life. It’s going to affect your personal relationships. It’s going to affect your own emotional functioning. It is a very-- I would say it’s a very abusive system for everyone in it.
14:58 Monique: And that at least prompts in me a question that, and we’ll get to this talking more specific about what individuals can do because what’s coming up for me is how does someone assess the empathy level of an organization if they’re taking their talent somewhere else or in the interview process? And this is what I’ve worked with senior leadership clients on is they’re being sought after for some big role. And it’s okay. Now that you know what you’ve known, you’ve been through the cycle of advancing in a corporation, what are the different questions to ask? I mean, it has got to move beyond compensation and the strategic goals, but how do you get your arms around the culture and the pulse of an organization’s empathy as an individual?
15:42 Karla: Yeah. It’s difficult, especially if you come in high. If you come in high, you’re not going to be able to get a feel for the culture. The culture will affect you very strongly, right? But the structure itself may impede your capacity to engage as a human being. And so, that is one of the things. There are some things that I look at. One, lots and lots of hierarchical layers and people saying we’re egalitarian. I’m like, “Okay, that’s not true.” Lots of in-language. If people have to make up language to talk about what they’re saying, they’re hiding something in the area of emotions and empathy, right? If people talk about-- now, this has become more normal, like what’s in your wheelhouse and your onboarding and this? All these really--
16:28 Monique: Transformative. Everything they have is transformative.
16:30 Karla: Yeah. Everything is transformative. And I’m like, “Really? Transforming what?” If people don’t know how to do straight talk and be people with you within the interview, you’ll see part of the culture, which is to use words to hide trouble. People talk about rightsizing, which means our business failed and we’re letting our people down and we’re firing them. That’s not rightsizing.
16:59 Monique: Right. We’re getting smaller because we didn’t do a good job of being bigger.
17:02 Karla: We failed and the little people are going to pay for it, is what that means. So, yeah. And one of the things about an empathic culture is it won’t look-- I don’t know if I want to say that it won’t look as professional as an unempathic culture.
17:15 Monique: So, for example--
17:16 Karla: People will be more relaxed. They’ll tell the truth. They might even be inappropriate, be truthful. They’ll say, “These are the problems that we’re having in our company and we’ve had them for 15 years. Is there anything you can think of because we’re at our wit’s end?” You would hear the truth from these people. And if you’re used to normal corporate talk, you would say, “You should never share that with me. You should have a lot of language about that,” rather than saying, “We’d failed.”
17:56 Monique: Now, emotional intelligence, empathy, we’re hearing those terms being coined and bantered around. Why is this fad of empathy in the workplace really creating more of a problem than a solution?
18:05 Karla: I think because our understanding of empathy is so poor and our understanding of emotions is part of it, because empathy is, first and foremost, an emotional skill. So, if people don’t understand emotions, and most people don’t because we’ve been trained very assiduously not to understand emotions. Our empathy will only be as strong as the least understood emotion we have, right? So, our empathy will be fine, and then someone will be angry in a way that knocks us out of our own place, and we will immediately go to empathy zero for that person because they’re displaying an emotion that we do not accept in ourselves or others. So, empathy is boom. It’s done. And a lot of what people think of as empathy is simply similarity. It’s you and I agree about politics. You agree about food. We like the same colors. You and I are empathic. And I’m like, no, you’re the same. There’s no empathy required there. You’re not doing any work. You’re just being similar to each other. So, I think there’s so little understanding of what empathy is, which is our capacity to interact. Yeah.
19:12 Monique: So, there’s something that you’ve coined, which I really want to hear you talk us through this. And why do you call the open-plan office the “devil’s floor plan”? Which it is.
19:28 Karla: The open-plan office, it is such-- I did my graduate degree in Education, and I was looking at autism and empathy. And autistic people are in fact hyper empaths, not hypo empaths. But I looked at the situation in which learning disabled and autistic kids are taught. And it’s usually in large open classrooms where there’s a bunch of different people at tables doing different things. And so, that’s an open office space. And what they found is that children’s language scores plummet because they are listening to what’s called “irrelevant, meaningful noise,” which is human speech. When people go from a normal office to an open-plan office, engagement and communication between people reduces immediately by 70% because people are overwhelmed auditorily. And visually, now they’re trying to work on their computer, right? And there’s people everywhere and sounds. And so, you’ll see people suddenly need three monitors. They’re making a cubicle. You’ll see them with headphones, you’ll see them putting on their purses and their clothing. They’re trying to make it so that their minds and their brains and their language skills will still function. So, these things create stress immediately. And I think the only reason for them is it saves money. There’s no other reason for it.
21:01 Monique: And I recall in a corporate environment where the argument was, it increased engagement amongst team members because you in a more rapid fashion could connect with that other person. Roll your chair over, across the floor, talk to the marketing person and the packaging person. That was the case that was being--
21:25 Karla: But the pre-existing-- I noticed that nobody creates a system for people to disturb a busy person. So now, you’re working on your stuff and then someone’s right next to you, and they feel like, “I’m going to engage with you.” And you’re like, “What?” And so now, you’ve got to get back into what you were doing. The loss of productivity, the loss of communication, the loss of connectivity is so extensive in open-plan offices, and people are still building them.
23:09 Monique: What is an effective, let’s say technique or approach that managers can use on a regular basis with their teams to strengthen empathy?
23:18 Karla: I would say to reduce-- to the extent that anyone can reduce the hierarchy. We are over-managed and under-empathized in most American corporations. It’s too many managers. They could get rid of maybe half, maybe three-quarters of the managers and be fine. And that people should not be managing-- they should not be managing people’s work output. This is hard. I mean, it goes into a further thing of really egalitarian spaces, where I give you the competence, autonomy, and relatedness that you require to do your work. And if you’re not doing your work, instead of coming at you and saying, I own you. I’m a schoolmarm or something, is to say, what are the conditions that are required for your motivation that are not being offered to you at this time? Then if I make sure all the conditions of motivation are there, you’re still screwing up, then you and I can talk. But if the structure demotivates you, then there’s nothing I can do with-- I can give you a gluten-free snack wagon. I can make you a climbing wall. We can put ping pong tables everywhere, and you will still not have the conditions under which you do your best work.
So, generally, I look at the structure first. If a lot of people are having trouble getting their work done, then I’m like, something’s wrong with the structure then. If it’s one person screwing around, then I might take that one person off and go, “What’s going on in your home life? What’s happening?” To do that kind of work is incredibly interactional. It’s incredibly relationship-based and empathic. And people think, well, I don’t have time for that. And I’m like--
25:00 Monique: I was just thingking that.
25:01 Karla: Yeah. I don’t have time for that. But look at how much time is wasted chasing after people who are not motivated. It’s the same amount of time, but at least this works. You can go home at the end of the day and thinking, I’ve been more human today, and I’ve created a more humane environment. Even though things aren’t going beautifully, I have been a person and not a personality.
25:26 Monique: So, a notion of treating people like humans, and something you said in your response there, Karla, was about, if you’re pulling somebody aside and you’re like, “Hey, what else going on?” and zooming out in terms of maybe family or health or finances or something else. Yeah. And I think humans are also being impacted by what’s going on on the global stage. It doesn’t even have to be in our neighborhood, but it’s the, what are we as humans taking as impact on the toll of what we know now to be happening around the world? And someone will say like, “I don’t have time for that.” And just like you said, “Okay, so you have time somehow for all that’s what’s not happening.”
26:10 Karla: Yeah. You have time for endless meetings where nobody gets anything done. Hello? Yeah. So much time wasted. So much waste of the capacity to engage as a human being, as an empathic, emotionally awake person, with all these people in your social environment. The workplace has become our main social environment if we work. And if it is not emotionally well-regulated, if it is not appropriately empathic, then that is going to affect our health and well-being, and it does. It does affect our health and wellbeing in a very negative way. So, what is it called? The great resignation that’s happening now, where people have been home and they realize, “Wow, work is terrible. I don’t ever want to go back.”
26:58 Monique: Right. And it’s like, “Ooh.”
26:59 Karla: Yeah. And then a bunch of people are saying, “If I have to go back to the office, I’m resigning.” There’s people who just resigned, and then there’s another group of people saying, “No, I refuse to go back to that situation.” And businesses are like, “What happened?”
27:15 Monique: And so, I think there is some reckoning that is evolving in terms of our values that are evolving because people will say, “Well, you know what, if I-- instead of taking on that impact of going into that workplace of having that, what I thought was a dream job, I’m just going to adjust my lifestyle and be happy with what I have. And I don’t need so much, therefore I don’t need the income to prop me up and appear a certain way because of the choices I can make in my life today to be happy and fulfilled.”
27:45 Karla: Yes. And people have really gotten used to being at home, being comfortable, physically comfortable. And especially if they’re in an open office environment, this is awesome. If I can meet you on Zoom and then mute you, oh my gosh, I can mute you.
28:05 Karla: I can control my auditory environment. But just this, I have the freedom of my body being comfortable. And most workplaces are not physically comfortable. They’re not emotionally comfortable and they’re not empathically aligned with how humans need to be. And so, a lot of the trouble that we’ve accepted as normal in the workplace can be changed. It can be changed. It’s going to be difficult, right? All change is. But at the end, what you will have is a human and humane environment where people can do their best work and care for each other in this extremely complex social environment we’ve created. Many people do well in the workplace. They find ways to organize themselves so that they’re not damaged. But so many people are damaged physically and mentally, and emotionally by the workplace. Yeah.
29:03 Monique: Yes. And they leave one job, thinking that they’re moving. They’re going away from something to someplace that will be less toxic. However, they find it’s a different type of toxicity. And then they--
29:17 Karla: Yeah. Here’s a new family without skills.
29:19 Monique: And you introduced the four families in your work in this new book. And so, let’s talk a little bit about the resources that you provide. And I’d really like to hear a story of a client or someone who you’ve worked with that really brought you a source of pride that my work is having the impact.
29:38 Karla: My work is done. I do tell the story-- yeah. When people call me up, it’s like it’s gone so far past where it should be, that I get all of my IQ points going at the same time. But someone-- I read about this person in the book wrote to me because they’re very high-end spa employees, were spoiled brats, and I went, “Ah, spoiled brats. Let’s just see.” So, we’ve got anger, jealousy, and envy. Those three emotions tell me a tremendous amount about what’s going on in that social structure. And so, I immediately ask, what’s their turnaround time? That’s a turnaround between when you do your first massage and when you do your next one, and it was 10 or 15 minutes. And I went, “There’s a problem right there. They cannot rest between--”
In a high-end spa environment or any high-end place, the neediness of the client is never challenged, right? So, you’ve got a lot of pampered, wealthy, I’m sorry, self-absorbed people who need a lot and maybe using the spa staff as free therapists, right? So, they’re pouring a lot of stuff off when they’re on the table. And the spa staff is a part of the high-end environment. They’re embodying and creating it in their own bodies. And I was like, “They need more than 10 minutes to download that stuff.” This anger you’re seeing is them trying to set boundaries. The jealousy and envy, there is some kind of inequality here. There’s a lot of inequality and there’s some favoritism happening. I mean, I knew that right away because of what the emotions were doing. And I think another person might come in and say, “They need anger management. They need to get their crap together because they’re acting like children.” Do you know what I mean?
So, we ended up creating an environment that was supportive to what they were actually doing, which is incredible emotional labor, incredible empathic labor, that no one was managing for them in any way, shape, or form. They had no break room. They had no time to themselves. And so, just changing the physical parameters of what was happening, because I understand what it is to do high-end work in a spa. I’ve worked in spas. It is terrible work. You get a lot of money, but you’re like, I would rather have respect.
32:06 Monique: Well, for the spa workers, in the example that you’ve shared, thank goodness for whoever it was that brought you in to say that there’s an opportunity for change here to create a different experience for the staff.
32:20 Karla: Luckily, she trusted me because I think what she wanted to say is, “Yeah, they are brats.”
32:26 Monique: Oh, they didn't do that.
32:27 Karla: Yeah. Sorry, those emotions have really important things to say. If a lot of your people are anxious, anxiety is the emotion that helps you prepare for the future, there’s something wrong with the workflow. Right? It’s not wrong with the person. If it’s just one person who’s super anxious, maybe they’re holding that for the entire group, or maybe that’s something they bring from home. But if you’ve got a whole bunch of anxious workers or a whole bunch of angry workers, I’m like, “Ah, that’s structural. Let’s look and see what we can do to reduce what their emotions are responding to so that their emotional systems can settle and they can focus on something that is more work-oriented instead of structure-oriented.”
33:07 Monique: And so, along those lines, as we’re drawing to a close for our time today, what do you say for the young professional who does have that desire to climb in the organization? And yes, the organization may be flawed. What can they do? Because I do believe it begins with self. If you are doing certain things for yourself, how can you bring that to a team or anyone else?
33:27 Karla: Yeah. I have-- in the book, I talk about the emotions of four families of emotions to understand how the emotions work will help anybody, but it will also help for them to understand what’s going on around them, and if they have any kind of capacity to-- if they have any kind of authority to maybe start making changes within the emotional realm of the social structure they see. Another thing is to look at how much emotion work they do and begin to understand the difference between emotional labor and emotion work and empathy work, and understanding all three are forms of work that should be supported, they should be noticed, they should be identified, they should be paid for. And right now, all three forms of work are-- they’re unpaid.
So, a lot of times people will go home, not realizing why they are so wrung out and tired because nobody identifies the ways that they talk to the person in marketing, who’s whining about the person in production, and the production person won’t talk to them. And so, I’m going back and forth between these two people to get the work done. Nobody says, “Karla, you are doing a massive amount of connecting and empathic work between these two non-speaking entities.” They won’t speak to each other, but to get something then I’ve got to. When I go home and my partner wants to have an important emotional talk, I’m like, “Dude, I got nothing for you. I’m done.” To be able to say, “I did a lot of empathy work today, and I did a lot of emotional labor, and so let me down-regulate from that or whatever, and then let’s talk.” But with no language for it, we just become a victim to it rather than an agentic person doing this work intentionally. So, just knowing what you’re doing is a huge thing.
35:31 Monique: I love that, and there is a cost to that and that people are-- you’re paying a price. Whether you’re getting paid for it or not, it is a cost to you. And just for our audience, those four basic families, as you described, and The Power of Emotions at Work: Accessing the Vital Intelligence in Your Workplace, love it. Those four basic families: the anger family, the fear family, the sadness family, and the happiness family. So, understanding those families is a great place to start because recognizing it, finding the words, and knowing what all of this means for you, I believe, will help in your journey for moving it forward and climbing that ladder.
So, Karla McLaren, thank you so much for your time today and for sharing your awesome expertise, The Power of Emotions at Work. And we will absolutely be providing in the show notes a way for listeners to connect, follow, or engage with the resources that you provide. Thank you.
36:35 Karla: Thank you so much. It was great to talk.