Six Sigma and more: Seek first to understand

David SchwinnIn this column, David Schwinn makes connections, from a film he saw recently to Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits, to Eastern philosophies, to Six Sigma efforts. Stay tuned for the ride!

My wife, Carole, and I recently saw “And So It Goes,” a film with Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton. Michael Douglas’ behavior in the movie reminded me of one of Stephen Covey’s classic Seven Habits of Effective People (Simon & Schuster, NY: 1989). The habit that came to me was “Seek first to understand.” It is one of his habits that we can easily practice every day, but frequently don’t.

How often we seem to default to an assumption that someone in our workplace is lazy or irresponsible, has a bad attitude, or doesn’t care, when someone behaves in a way that seems counterproductive to our work together. It’s as if we assume that some people have some innate character flaws. We frequently make those assumptions without really exploring the reason behind the counterproductive behavior we observe.

I am reminded of employees and students who, unbeknownst to their peers and/or managers:

  • Have lost their homes
  • Have been robbed or assaulted outside of work
  • Have become overextended because of the need to work several jobs, care for parents and/or care for children
  • Are or have been ill
  • Have been bullied in the workplace
  • Have been part of massive layoffs
  • Have been given unreasonable workloads and/or working conditions

As I was discussing this month’s column with Carole, she reminded me that there is really more to it than just seeking first to understand. We would better serve our colleagues and our organizations in general if we embodied compassion, the theme of one of the chapters in our forthcoming book The Transformative Workplace. That theme also took me immediately to our good friend and mentor, Rita Cleary. Rita is an active participant in the Brahma Kumaris spiritual movement. When we visited her several years ago, I asked her what she was up to. She said she was learning to become compassionate. She said she had been working on it for several years and still had a ways to go. I asked her what compassion is. She said that compassion is walking in someone else’s shoes without having your heart break. That made sense to me.

Another perspective on compassion comes from Nomfundo Walaza, Chief Executive Officer of the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in Cape Town, South Africa. She shared with Carole and me how compassion was a major part of dealing with perpetrators during the Truth and Reconciliation process:

When we say in my language, ‘ubunto,’ we mean a person is a person through others. I am because you are, you are because I am. It is about that essence of humanity that asks us to find whatever shreds of humanity that are still left in the worst of perpetrators and say can we salvage that for the greater good of our society.

Nomfundo’s understanding of and experience with compassion in post-apartheid South Africa, of course, goes beyond what we need in the workplace, but it is an ideal we can strive for. Striving toward an ideal brings us to a workplace application of compassion.

Another individual who speaks to the process of engendering compassion is Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow. Yes, Jolly Good Fellow is Chade-Meng Tan’s office title at Google: his business card reads “Chade-Meng Tan, Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny).” Meng, as he is generally known, was one of Google’s earliest engineers, serving in that role for 8 years before moving to GoogleEDU (formerly Google University) as the Head of Personal Growth. In an April 2011 TED talk, Meng addressed issues relating to compassion by talking about how compassion works at Google.

Google is a company born of idealism. It’s a company that thrives on idealism. And maybe because of that, compassion is organic and widespread company-wide. In Google, expressions of corporate compassion almost always follow the same pattern. It’s sort of a funny pattern. It starts with a small group of Googlers taking the initiative to do something. And they don’t usually ask for permission; they just go ahead and do it, and other Googlers join in, and it just gets bigger and bigger. And sometimes it gets big enough to become official. So in other words, it almost always starts from the bottom up.

Meng goes on to point to numerous examples of “organic social action,” as instances of how compassion has actually become “fun” at Google. Then he goes on to point to what he believes to be the value of compassion for the profitability of the enterprise. First, citing author Jim Collins’ (Good to Great) concept of the Level 5 Leader, Meng believes that compassion is the way to grow leaders internally. These leaders, he continues, “in addition to being highly capable, possess two important qualities, and they are humility and ambition. These are leaders who are highly ambitious for the greater good. And because they’re ambitious for a greater good, they feel no need to inflate their own egos. And they, according to the research, make the best business leaders.”

Compassion also, says Meng, “creates an inspiring workforce. Employees mutually inspire each other towards greater good. It creates a vibrant, energetic community where people admire and respect each other…this mutual inspiration promotes collaboration, initiative, and creativity. It makes us a highly effective company.” Meng suggests that a company can “brew compassion” by creating a “culture of passionate concern for the greater good,” providing for a very high level of autonomy and focusing on inner development and personal growth.

Sarah J. Tracy, Associate Professor at Arizona State University, speaks to the role of compassion in addressing rising instances of workplace bullying, stress, burnout, and even suicide. In an article titled “Compassion: Cure an Ailing Workplace?” (, Laura Walter describes how Tracy addresses compassion at a more personal level with three components she describes as recognizing, relating and responding:

Recognizing refers to the process of noticing and understanding details about another person in order to act appropriately towards them. This includes observing nonverbal cues, listening to what the others have to say and opening oneself up to feedback. Managers need to ensure that employees regularly are interacting with each other and are aware of nonverbal clues about possible suffering

Relating occurs when people identify, feel for and connect with another person. Relating is fostered when employees are encouraged and rewarded to find connections with each other. This also can decrease the “us versus them” attitude they may have with peers and clients.

Responding is when employees engage in communication or behaviors that focus on another person’s suffering or distress. This can be as simple as acknowledging the presence of someone waiting in line or as direct as providing praise as a show of support. The act of responding has the potential to greatly improve unsavory workplace situations.

This column began with a description of the importance of seeking first to understand and ended with a few suggestions from Chade-Meng Tan and Sarah J. Tracy about how we can make our workplaces and ourselves more compassionate. Given the number of times we experience “counterproductive” behavior in our Six Sigma efforts, a little more compassion might be helpful.

As always, I treasure your thoughts and questions.

3 thoughts on “Six Sigma and more: Seek first to understand

  1. When we are fully present with people around us, we have no baggage of past bias or expectations of the future. It is in the present moment that we savour our divine connections, know our profound oneness and experience peace. Thanks David for the years of enlightened kindness you share. All the best!

  2. Delighted to see that you are both keeping well.
    I always associate you both with the Community Quality Council movement in the US 1980s/90s.
    Interesting article.

  3. The trouble I have with Chade-Meng Tan, Google’s Jolly Good Fellow is that he is attempting to utilize tools intended to serve others into a lucrative enterprise. “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other or you wll be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:24)

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