On Suffering

On Suffering

January 6, 2023
An Overview:

Field notes on compassion for the awakening leader.

What we talk about when we talk about suffering.

Here’s the thing: I became a coach because I wanted to do something about all of the unacknowledged and unnamed suffering I’d experienced and witnessed in the workplace.

It’s an odd word, “suffering.” It can sound melodramatic, even indulgent. The word seems better reserved for describing any number of crises and catastrophes where “real” suffering occurs, but surely not our white-collar workplace? People leaders will readily tackle employee disengagement, burnout, and stress. But suffering feels like the sort of predicament to bring to our pastor or our meditation cushion, not our boss. Which CHRO would willingly add “the reduction of human suffering” to their already unmanageable list of priorities?

At the same time, it can also seem trivial to speak of “suffering” in the workplace. The idea that work simply is suffering has been with us since God cursed Adam’s descendants to a lifetime of toil, or since the Buddha taught that suffering is characteristic of all existence. Seen this way, the problem with talking about suffering at work is not that it’s melodramatic, but that it’s inevitable. One doesn’t even need to be religious to understand this. If work weren’t meant to be painful, so the saying goes, they wouldn’t have to pay us to do it.

"At the precise moment when we wonder if leadership would be easier with fewer qualms about our impact on others, we have a choice — to awaken to suffering or go to sleep."

Suffering hidden in plain sight.

And yet. Whether we feel it’s melodramatic or trivial to say so, suffering at work persists and continues to increase. Being subject to a fickle leader’s reign of terror, getting laid off right before the holidays with no severance, having to grin and bear a bullshit job because your healthcare and immigration status depend on it — what should we name these experiences if not “suffering”?

In survey after survey, employees name empathy the next “must have” leadership trait. 9 in 10 workers believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction, and over half have left a job because of a boss lacking in empathy. Employees are so desperate for leaders who’ll actually give a shit about them that even empathy has recently been declared insufficient. It’s now compassion that we most urgently need in our leaders.

In the context of these escalating demands for empathetic and compassionate leaders, our reluctance to use the language of suffering in the workplace is even more astonishing. If you love words as much as I do, you’ll notice that the wish for more empathy and compassion hides suffering in plain sight. Compassion comes to us from the Latin com- (“with, together”) pati (“to suffer”), while empathy comes to us from the Greek en- (“in”) pathos (“suffering”). It is literally impossible to talk about empathy and compassion without speaking of suffering.

Field notes for the awakening leader.

As a coach, it’s been hard to know what to do with these pleas for more empathy and compassion. Without rehashing what’s been written on the topic, the consensus is that we would be better off if leaders had a greater understanding of others’ experiences and a greater willingness to take action. On the one hand, this is welcome advice. We all stand to benefit if our leaders grew in their awareness and willingness to help. On the other hand, in my experience my coachees rarely need more awareness of suffering or a stronger wish to help.

Most of the well-intentioned treatises out there about growing empathy and compassion would be of no help to them. They are already acutely aware that as leaders they have the power to cause others pain with their every word, action, and mood. They’re highly cognizant that the success of their ventures depends on their ability to take actions that will cause others some variety of suffering: the pain of having to perform an unpleasant task, the anguish of not getting one’s way, the disappointment of not receiving what one wants, and so forth.

This may be due to self-selection bias, since leaders incurious about their impact on others aren’t lining up to get coached. It may also be generational, since my coachees skew younger and are able to reflect on their professional experiences with greater psychological fluency. Whatever the reason, they seek me out not because they wish to become more aware of others’ suffering, but because they don’t know how to bear it. They struggle not with a lack of desire to alleviate suffering but the realization that there are no easy fixes, especially not ones that don’t simply involve redistributing the pain elsewhere or kicking it down the line.

Uneasy is the head that wears the crown. My coachees wear their responsibility for the well-being of others with great unease. This unease is amplified when they see famous CEOs who delegate major business decisions to social media polls, issue ultimatums to employees, conduct mass layoffs of dubious legality, yet somehow still command cult-like adoration for their leadership. My coachees can be forgiven for wondering if they might be better off becoming less aware of others’ suffering and less preoccupied with alleviating it. So awake they are to their power to cause pain and their responsibility for reducing it that they wonder if it might be easier go to back to sleep.

I wish you a capacity for shattering.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my coachees’ struggles as the exhortations for more compassionate leadership grow louder. Specifically, I’ve been wrestling with the marketing of compassion as a leadership tool or solution, which holds out the hope that if we would only grow in awareness, grow in our willingness to help, practice the attendant qualities of mindfulness and so forth, we’ll become more effective and decisive leaders, feel more connected and energized at work, inspire flourishing and alleviate suffering for our teams. I trust it’s clear that I actually don’t disagree with any of this.

But what this marketing leaves out is a clear-eyed account of what the practice of compassion will actually ask of us. The fact that a growing awareness of others’ suffering may well feel like heartbreak, not greater effectiveness and ease. The fact that decisions may well feel less straightforward and heavier with responsibility for the well-being of countless others, not easier to make. The fact that taking compassionate action may not feel like conviction at all but rather require greater tolerance for doubt and not-knowing. The fact that compassion may mean holding in awareness the suffering of others and full knowledge of our inability to reframe it, explain it, solve it, or make it go away.

I get it, it’s a terrible marketing pitch. I would be a terrible salesperson for compassionate leadership. But as a coach I feel compelled to remind my coachees of all this, because their struggles, their doubts, their wondering and not-knowing if they’re doing the right thing are not indications that something is wrong, but the clearest signs that they are deep in the practice of compassionate leadership. At the precise moment when we wonder if leadership would be easier with fewer qualms about our impact on others, we have a choice — to awaken to suffering or go to sleep.

In some Tibetan Buddhist lineages, there is a beautiful origin story of the bodhisattva Chenrezig, who is often represented with eleven heads, a thousand arms, and a thousand eyes. As the story goes, Chenrezig was so moved by compassion for suffering sentient beings that he made a vow never to stop helping them until every single one had been liberated from suffering and brought to enlightenment. After eons of this work, Chenrezig realizes that despite his best efforts, the number of suffering sentient beings has not decreased. In that moment of discouragement and exhaustion, Chenrezig shatters into pieces in unbearable pain and agony. Seeing his plight, the Buddha Amitabha comes along and puts him back together — with eleven heads with which to hear the cries of the suffering, a thousand arms with which to aid them, and a thousand eyes with which to witness their torment.

I have loved this story from the moment I first heard it. Whether or not it was the intended teaching, I remember feeling encouraged to learn that even so great a bodhisattva as Chenrezig once experienced discouragement and exhaustion in the task of alleviating suffering. And that this moment of shattering in the face of others’ unbearable suffering, far from becoming a setback, opened him up instead to an even greater capacity for compassion and wisdom. I hope this story inspires you, as it does me, although I can understand as well if it makes you want to run for the hills.

For my coachees past, present, and future, I wish you great awakening in the year to come. May we all grow in our courage to name suffering where it shows up, and our capacity to be shattered and remade by it.

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