Frontline Feedback: The Story of Compassion So Counterfeit

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Have you ever been asked how you’re doing at work? The question is proposed without really caring about the response.
It’s a formality. A throwaway.

Now imagine for a moment, it WAS taken seriously. It was taken to heart. It was responded to honestly. But it didn’t go the way it should.

Stay tuned for a tale of good intentions, missteps, and broken trust.

This is the Frontline Feedback story of … Compassion So Counterfeit

Relationships at Work presents… Frontline Feedback –Stories from the Employee Journey

I’m your host and storyteller Russel Lolacher. What you are about to hear, is a real story. Though the names have been changed, these are real people having a real employee experience. It’s a story of employees on their journey as they build or break relationships with the organizations they work for. Just like yours.

Today, we’ll hear the story of Sally. One in which she shares a moment of an outreached hand and a safe space for vulnerability leading to shattered confidence and inept leadership.

We’ll wrap it up by digging into the emotional impacts that may not be obvious and then the lessons we can take away from this story that can help us build a better culture.

The employee journey is an emotional one.

And so it begins…

The Story

Act One

It was a rough week for Sally. She had had some squabbles with her partner that weren’t monumental but seemed to be non-stop these days and never resolved. She’d gotten a call from her son’s school about needing to talk to her but they provided no further details as to why.
A lot of the projects she was hoping to have some time this week to tackle just weren’t getting done AND there hadn’t been a single day in the last 5 where she could honestly say she had had a good night sleep.

At work, she was doing her best under the circumstances, trying to push that home-life anxiety further down in her mind while layering it with the usual workplace anxiety that came with the job.

It was a lot, but she was managing. She thought so anyway.

Every week, her boss Emma did a quick check in with her direct reports. Just a quote-unquote “quick chat” she called it, to connect with her staff so they could run her through what they were working on and ask for any help they might need.

Sally never found these chats particularly useful but she did need that facetime with Emma so she could keep her in the loop.

The day and time of the weekly meeting arrived so Sally went through her weekly routine – jotted down a few summary bullets, got up from her cubicle, grabbed her notebook and made her way down the grey carpet runway to her boss’s office.

Poking her head in the door, she could see Emma was responding to an email but then motioned for Sally to sit down in the chair on the other side of the desk. Which Sally did.

Emma took another moment to finish her last typed sentence and then shifted her attention to her staff member in preparation for their regular time together.

Act Two

Emma starts them off with a… “So, what’s going on?”

Sally immediately went into her usual run-through – leading with the projects she’s working on that she knows her boss cares most about, shifts to some of the more impactful work she’s involved in and then the possible projects on the horizon based on recent conversations across her network. Along the way, she highlights the challenges and opportunities of everything and the great work her staff is doing to make it all happen.

With the mention of those employees, Emma follows up with, “So, how is your team doing?”

Sally quickly takes this moment to spotlight each member’s activities, whether it’s the ideas they have, the stakeholders they’ve pleased or the vacation they have coming up for them. Nothing substantial but enough to answer the question.

Emma nods as she listens along. Then, as per usual, she ends their time with the question, “And how are you doing?”

Sally knows this is coming and she also knows the corporate culture pleasantries to respond with.  So… Sally shares a succinct, “I’m good.”

But on this day, for some reason, her one word and a contraction answer lands a little differently with her boss. Emma senses something below the surface and decides to do something she’s never done before.
She asks the question again, but with emphasis and intention.

“No, but how are you REALLY doing?”

There’s a pause as the question hangs in the air.

Sally takes this in, there’s a flash of context in her mind – she doesn’t really have the relationship with her boss where she can be that honest. She has never felt the safety of sharing her anxiety and stress that permeates most of her life, here and at home. Her boss is someone she works with and for but it has always been at the acquaintance level as Emma nor her have ever really made an effort to move the relationship beyond that. Maybe at the beginning, but it never really caught on. And it’s been years since.

This question of care felt really out of the blue. Sally thought maybe this was where they turned the corner in their relationship. Emma seemed to genuinely want to know. So, Sally decided to be vulnerable and share.

She shared her frustrations with her husband, the anxiety of not knowing what her child had done at school and the bad communication of her child’s teachers, the work that keeps piling up at home that’s burdening her and impacting the household and the lack of sleep she’s been able to get due to all the stress she’s barely managing. It’s a lot. And though she’s getting through, she is struggling and not sure when it’ll calm down.

She shared it all. It just came out. All there for Emma to hear. And when she was done, Emma sat there looking at her, with her mouth slightly agape.

There’s a pause as the answer hangs in the air.

Emma looked uncomfortable. She pulled away her eye contact with Sally and shifted in her chair. After a few more moments, Emma responds with, “Oh. Well, I’m not too sure how I can help with that.”

Act Three

There was an immediate awkwardness in the room, both from Sally’s vulnerability and Emma’s fake compassion.

In that moment, Sally felt the need to come to the rescue of Emma and fix the situation. She quickly pivots to make her boss feel better, and more comfortable.

“So, I’m reading some books and taking some courses to help manage my stress,” Sally said. None of which was actually true but sounded good. And it demonstrated it wasn’t something Emma had to actually do anything about, support or further the conversation.

This further addition seemed to relax and satisfy Emma, as if this was the logical conclusion to her question. And it brings the weekly check-in to a close. “Great. Happy things are working out. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Sally nodded and took this opportunity to leave the meeting, her chair, and Emma’s office and return to her cubicle of safety.

She took a moment, sitting alone, to take in her boss’s false empathy and realize she’d never have leader as a boss or a relationship that was beyond operational. This slowly sank in as she sat with her stress, anxiety and now, a little bit of sadness.

And that ends the story of… Compassion So Counterfeit

How is this Perceived by the Employee?

Through the eyes of this employee, let’s look at the emotional impact of this employee experience:

  • Impact ONE – Sally will never trust her boss when it comes to building a deeper connection and personalization. Emma has shown she doesn’t have the tools of empathy, compassion and leadership to create a safe space for psychological safety, even if she’ll go through the façade of it.
  • Impact TWO – Sally now knows she has to care-give up, placate and reassure her boss due to Emma’s awkward leadership and inability to have a difficult conversation. She can’t get the support she needs but she has to support her boss’s failure with reassurance, adding an additional amount of stress on Sally.

What Worked or Could Have Been Done Better

From this tale, what’s the one thing an organization can take away to better serve its employees?

You can’t fake compassion and please don’t try.

  • Train your Supervisors/Leaders –An organization has failed its supervisory and leadership staff if they don’t know what comes next after “how are you?” when they get an honest answer. It makes that supervisor look incompetent and greatly damages the work relationship. They need to know how to really care, not just work through the “questions you need to ask” checklist. That or shouldn’t be put in those positions of authority to begin with.
  • Conduct Skip-Level Meetings – To understand how your managers are connecting (or not connecting) with their staff, have one-on-one time with the direct reports of those you oversee. It will provide a better perspective on strengths and weakness that you aren’t seeing.

And that brings to the end this episode. Thanks for listening to this special episode of Relationships at Work: Frontline Feedback – Stories from the Employee Journey

If you have any stories you think others should hear, drop me an email at Love to hear from you. Until next time.



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