Katia Verresen on mindfulness at work

This interview with executive coach Katia Verresen does a beautiful, cussing-riddled job of linking up how self-care, self-compassion, gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness are critical for business.

Verresen’s approach is at the intersection of basic mindfulness skills and Brene Brown’s work on vulnerability.  For a little background, here’s a Q&A with Brene Brown on the TED blog, in which she discusses the concept of scarcity thinking, and the idea of not being enough:

Well, the idea of “I’m never enough” — beautiful enough, successful enough, thin enough, popular enough, loved enough, worthy enough — that’s shame and scarcity, and I’ve seen people overcome that every single day. I’ve gone through the process myself. I’ve interviewed people over the course of four years who’ve done a lot of this work. You have to understand shame. You have to understand where the message comes from, what drove it, how has it protected you in the past, and are you willing to look it in the eye and say, “Thanks, I appreciate it, but I’m not subscribing anymore. I’ve got a new way of doing things, and maybe you kept me safe and small in the past, but I’m not doing that.” The answer is absolutely that I’m not enough. You can overcome that, but you can’t overcome it without an understanding of shame. If you are not willing to have that conversation, there’s no way to the other side of it. You have to know what shame is.

Verresen approaches this from another angle, with what she calls abundance thinking: the idea that you have to take care of yourself, see what’s around you, see the resources and choices you have ahead of you, so that you can actively chart your course:

“You’re not going to build a billion dollar business on a string of bad days. It has to be a sequence of your very best days. Your performance is tied 100% to your attitude.”

The goal is to be in a non-reactive position (see also mindfulness teacher Tara Brach: Learning to Respond Not React). The example Verresen gives is about the moments when you need everybody to drop what they’re working on and jam out a huge and focused project:

When you’re building something new, you’ll inevitably run into 11th hour, all-hands-on-deck, crunch-mode situations — all the time. When you lead teams, you’re never out of the woods. In these cases, it’s so easy to tell your team, “Keep cranking, we’ll breathe when we’re done!” It’s easy to let all the habits enumerated above fall by the wayside because you believe you have no time or room.

But this is exactly when they’re needed the most. Every tool mentioned here takes less than 5 minutes to perform, enabling you to be at your best — which is also the way to ensure your team is at its best. At the times that matter most, you can’t accept less. That’s not going to happen if you’re pushing through exhaustion.

Cue up the classic Zen adage:


She goes on to discuss how essential feedback is for healthy teams (I wrote a bit about feedback here and here), and focuses primarily on appreciation-based feedback:

“When you look at healthy teams, unbridled, uninhibited appreciation is always a key ingredient. It’s the No. 1 retention tool in the world.”

Verresen offers a handful of tools for getting unstuck, for finding support, for busting yourself out of a rut, for approaching projects with neutrality. One I really love is the idea of forming a “giving circle” — a group of friends or colleagues where everybody is working on something unrelated (see Heidi Grant Halvorson’s work about competition as it relates to communication for more on the importance of projects not overlapping in this context) — to offer support, guidance, brainstorming, and resource-finding help to each other.

It seems so obvious to suggest putting together a network of people you trust, for ongoing collaboration, but how rarely do we offer up our struggles for others to look at? Our default answer is “I’m fine” when in truth we need some help. If we can be vulnerable and open, we can accomplish so much more with so much less suffering.


Bridge-building case study (“Factory Fridays”)

In early 2013, I was working as a technical writer and a facilitator for a startup company on the precipice of its commercial launch. The company had found a site for its factory and had begun to build it out, and the manufacturing team was gunning to spec, buy, and install equipment in time to hit the production launch date. Trouble was, the product was still very early in its development stage and thus not fully defined. This of course led to big frustrations between the teams:

“Can’t you just tell me what material you need this equipment to be able to make?”


“I cannot believe you’re considering buying that piece of equipment. It’s not what we need at all!”

I was in a really interesting position to tackle this communication gap, because I worked directly with almost every single person in the company at that time, and thus had a very high level of influence, even though I had no direct authority or power by title.

This case study steps through the scenario, my assessment of the problems, the planning work I did to bridge the gap, and how I evaluated the success of the project. It’s an interesting case, because there’s truly only one major deliverable: transferring enough knowledge to build out and standup a manufacturing plant (I’ll spoil it for you: the company did open a factory). But there were lots of interim projects, successes, and realignments, and I step through those as well.

One of the biggest realignments, which I reference in the case study, is that initially the two teams were operating in different working structures and methods. The development team had been using Scrum to great effect and was feeling really good about it (I was that team’s Scrum Master), and part-way through the knowledge transfer project, the manufacturing team switched to using Scrum as well. Here’s a short Scrum 101 post, which includes the presentation I made for the manufacturing team, to explain to them how the development team was using Scrum. It’s an interesting way to manage work in that context — it’s a framework designed for software development, which has no lead times, but product and equipment design can involve very long lead times — and requires a bit of adjustment.

This case study also looks a bit at why the approach was successful, which was matching the method to the situation. I talk a lot more about knowing which are tools and skills are necessary for which project, product, and company stage in this post about transitions.

Multi-tasking and empathy

It’s not a new concept that multi-tasking is really just task-switching, and that it’s incredibly inefficient (we lose time switching between tasks as our brains catch up to the task at hand …every single time we switch back and forth.). There is no such thing as “being a good multi-tasker.”

Scrum trainer Roger Brown illustrates the inefficiencies of task switching in this 2010 piece, in the context of explaining how using the scrum framework can save organizations time and money.

If everyone on the team is working on three projects concurrently, all three projects will finish at the same time:

But if everyone on the team focuses on one project at a time, the first project finishes at week 7 instead of week 20 in this example, where we haven’t begun to account for “team synergies” as Brown puts it:

And it’s not news, either, that working closely with a team comprised of individuals from across multiple disciplines can increase ability to problem-solve and offer multiple perspectives.

Here’s the pretty remarkable new information: there’s a study linking multitasking with a decrease in empathy. This FastCompany piece — a larger discussion of the costs of multi-tasking — references a study that links multi-tasking with a decrease in density in the areas of the brain controlling emotions and empathy. Correlation is not causation, but it still gives me pause, and at the same time, seems really obvious: when we’re multi-tasking, we’re not fully present. We haven’t committed to the task at hand, whether it’s a solo task or a conversation with a human. We aren’t getting any better at empathy if we’re not practicing it, and we’re not practicing it if we’re not really here.


I love talking and reading about work — my own work, and what other people do for work. I took a copy of Working by Studs Terkel with me on a backpacking trip once. There are infinite paths through life, and that’s true for the working world as well. There’s a fabulous series called What Do You Do that illustrates anonymous interviews with people working all kinds of jobs (art handler! bouncer! best-selling author! negotiation coach!) that I read with glee every time there’s a new post.  One of the reasons I love learning about other peoples’ work is that it’s about finding other perspectives, other voices, other approaches. It reveals that what we are all doing is pretty darn similar, just using different words and different frameworks. The delight of a generalist: it’s all related, you just have to find the common thread.

And one of the things that is so neat about finding the common thread is that it removes the need to think about the work at hand as a problem, a fire to put out, and instead lets us think about it more openly, with more curiosity, and see it as a project to be investigated and explored. The cost of thinking about work as a problem is that it changes how you approach the work — it strips away inquiry and replaces it with urgency. Worse, it creates a barrier to finding the root of the issue.

Say I’m approached by someone at work saying “we need to change ______” (fill in the blank document, process, specification, really anything). If I were approaching it as a problem, I would just do what they ask, and just fix their problem. But if I approach it as something worthy of investigation, I dig deeper into why they think they need this fix. What’s this symptomatic of? What is the underlying frustration? Who is impacted? This is the way medical professionals are trained to interview their patients — to assess first, and act second. That’s not the training in most fields, but it’s valuable everywhere.

There’s a sweet aside in Michael Moore’s autobiography, in which Kurt Vonnegut tells him the meaning of life:

“We’re here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

It’s beautiful because it’s totally open for interpretation. It might mean putting compassion and kindness and empathy above all else. It might mean that we do work because it’s hard or because it makes us happy. It might mean doing work for future generations. Or it might mean just surviving.

As Robert Frost famously said, “the best way out is through.” Do the work. Get through this thing.pat-fennessy-aiga-design-quote-frost(This gorgeous print is by Patrick Fennessy.)

Shawn Achor’s 2012 Ted talk (The Happy Secret to Better Work) makes a very clear link between work and happiness. The premise is that your brain is more open to learning, more motivated, and more able to do good work when you’re happy. And conversely, the usual “I’ll work hard and my success will make me happy” script does not work.

And this Harvard Business Review article about positive work cultures being more productive than negative ones takes that same idea one more step to clarify that it’s engagement that keeps people happy. It points to disengagement as a very costly cause of organizational and individual stress, and goes on to note that you just don’t find engaged, happy workers in negative work environments:

“Engagement in work — which is associated with feeling valued, secure, supported, and respected — is generally negatively associated with a high-stress, cut-throat culture.”

The piece goes on to distill six characteristics of a positive workplace culture, and all rooted in empathy. All of them.

Engagement is tied very closely to accountability in group dynamics (really, what reason is there to be engaged if the team, or others on the team are not held accountable?). There’s a somewhat grim discussion of (lack of) accountability in another Harvard Business Review article. It centers around the study of cooperation and what happens to teams with cheaters or “free-riders.”

“Within a group, free-riders and cheaters often get ahead of hard working contributors: they enjoy the benefits of group membership without making the personal sacrifice. However, groups of cooperative contributors outperform groups of cheating free-riders. Thus, it is no surprise that groups in which free-riders are punished for their loafing outperform groups in which they are not. But the interesting finding in all of this is that the person who does the punishing actually pays a personal price in terms of lost social support. In a nutshell, group performance requires that someone plays the role of sheriff, but it is a thankless job. It is another one of those sticky cases where what is good for the group can be bad for the individual.”

Accountability and engagement bring us right back to the idea of learning to love the means, the process, the doing, the working, rather than the ends (the completed work). Maria Popova (brainpickings) wrote a lovely piece about Annie Dillard’s book the Writing Life, about habits, about routines, about the way we approach our work and our lives. Dillard said the single most representative sentiment, illustrating how I think about work and life, which can be applied to productivity, but also to relationships and intentions and work style and communication style and our whole selves, our priorities:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.” – Annie Dillard

Empathy is the center of everything

The idea that empathy is the hub holding everything else together is the root of my thinking about living, and about working at the intersection of technology and humanity. Empathy is what lets us find our common language, what gives us the power to collaborate and become stronger individuals and make stronger work. It allows us to realize that our struggles are the same, but using different words in different fields. I started to get at this in the happiness post, when I mentioned that the affective filter (an ESL teaching concept) applies to really any field or learning situation, and in the post about being a generalist, in the context of correlating empathy level to wider exposure to different kinds of people and processes.

Empathy 101
Let’s start with some Empathy 101, and then we’ll get down to its impact at work. This magnificent clip, illustrated by Katy Davis and narrated by Brene Brown, explains the difference between empathy and sympathy.

Here’s a useful look at differentiating sympathy, empathy, and compassion:

Sympathy – feeling sorry for another’s hurt
Empathy – walking in another’s shoes
Compassion – love in action

Empathy toward self
I am what I’d call a recovering perfectionist, which means that my own self-criticism, when I’ve really let it roar, has been brutal. Empathy toward others has never been a challenge for me, but learning to be gentle and kind toward myself has been a worthy struggle. (Present Perfect by Pavel Somov is an incredible resource for learning to break free of perfectionism.) Another really valuable resource is the lovely self-paced online Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course. It is the source of this lovely essay by Shauna Shapiro, about mindfulness, compassion, and self-compassion. In it, she describes being on a meditation retreat, and looking around at everyone else who seems to be “getting it” while her mind wanders and she struggles and berates herself for not being peaceful and focused and meditative. She eventually broaches this frustration with a monk:

He looked at me with compassion and a humorous twinkle in his eye. “Oh dear, you’re not practicing mindfulness,” he told me. “You are practicing impatience, judgment, frustration, and striving.” Then he said five words that profoundly affected my life: “What you practice becomes stronger.” This wisdom has now been well documented by the science of neuroplasticity, which shows that our repeated experiences shape our brains. 

Practicing kindness and understanding with ourselves (and our coworkers, and our bosses, and our families) makes us so much more capable of being kind and understanding. Practice makes practice.

Empathy toward the ones you love
There’s so much to say on this topic, but what I’m going to do instead is offer a few very sweet links:
1. Kind-Hearted Reality Shows I Would Like To See
2. Everything’s Awful and I’m Not OK. (This includes a downloadable self-care reference. Useful in times of personal struggle, incredibly useful when your loved ones are struggling.)

Empathy at work
It’s important to have empathy for our coworkers, and to build an empathetic work environment. This Forbes article is a quick introduction to the importance of empathy in workplace culture (decreased burnout and stress, increased employee retention and employee health). This article about a research study at Wharton University goes on to look at the net positive impact of a compassionate workplace on customer satisfaction as well as teamwork and morale. Researchers found that workplaces with higher levels of what they call “companionate love” had better teamwork, more engaged employees, and less burnout and absenteeism.

Empathy with customers
Empathy and compassion are also important in customer-facing work, beyond the obvious customer service role. Do you understand your product? Do you understand who it’s for? Are you making the right product for the right audience? The Asana blog post I linked to in the post about management  captures another level of this: “For companies making customer-facing products, it’s important to have a team that represents the people you serve.”

This Brene Brown quote, from The Power of Vulnerability, really solidifies for me that empathy is essential in all areas of life and work:

“One of the ways we let go of powerlessness is to have greater perspective.”

Management (oh, and conflict, diversity, transparency, and efficiency)

A frequently (but often only partially) quoted segment of the Tao te Ching  describes the idea of invisible leadership. Let’s take a moment here to recall that this text is estimated to have been written in the sixth century BC. Despite hundreds and hundreds of years passing since then, the best managers I have known are described here:

A leader is best when people barely know that he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worst when they despise him. Fail to honor people, They fail to honor you. But of a good leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aims fulfilled, they will all say, “We did this ourselves.”

There’s so much to consider in management (of both people and projects), but I think a fundamental is that good management takes time. It’s work that is often unaccounted for, but supports teams, builds healthy organizational dynamics, empowers people, and removes obstacles from the team’s way, like the sweeper in curling. But learning how to be a good manager takes time as well. Learning isn’t efficient. It takes time and practice.

While we’re on the topic of efficiency, this is a great article about organizational efficiency, and what it’s tied to. The notion is that we are all living and working in systems, and you can’t flip one switch and expect it to work (“look, we’re efficient now!”). You have to understand first what the switches are, and then how they relate to each other.  The article includes a visual to explain the idea that they’re sliders rather than switches:


“The three sliders aren’t sequential; they’re deeply interrelated,” he says. When companies try to move just one, it almost always fails. “Let’s say your company is all the way on the left, totally efficient, and one day you decide to make things totally transparent. You push that slider all the way to the right — but only that one. Well, now everyone in the company can see all the problems, but they have no power or resources to fix them,” Pisoni says.

Here’s another one Pisoni sees a lot: A company resolves to experiment more, but doesn’t touch the other sliders. Now you have a situation where team members are asked to innovate, but can’t really take risks — in fact, they’re punished when experiments fail. “And with secrecy all the way to the left, nobody knows what experiments are happening, and they’re not armed with best practices,” he says. “Everyone is going off in different directions, with no communication.”

Nothing happens in isolation — no one person will save (or tank) a company in just the same way that no amount of planning will make an organization more responsive. Everything happens in relation to something else.

This is true in team dynamics as well, of course. Most of the time, individuals aren’t working alone, beside each other but not interacting. We’re collaborating, which means we’re sometimes in conflict. But just like happiness being rooted in process and growth, creativity is rooted in conflict.

Here’s a terrific piece about how important it is to accept conflict as not a necessary evil but as something valuable and useful in organizations. My favorite part is this, about the role of the leadership and hiring in creative conflict:

“With teams, the leader’s role is to channel conflict to fuel the journey. Seek to resolve but do not restrain conflict. The tensions are the magic touch. They force us to question ourselves and explore the full terrain of possibility. The tensions keep us uncomfortable enough to keep trying. Hire people that are willing to fight, and fight apathy ruthlessly.”

Building diverse teams is crucial for building enough conflict and tension to be productive and creative. That includes diversity of work experience, and diversity of background. I am never going to stop linking this article about Location Labs’ hiring and retention approach — they aim to hire people with differing backgrounds, focus on creating a work environment where people are engaged and empowered and feel appreciated, and they recognize that innovation and conflict go hand-in-hand.  COO Joel Grossman is quoted: “A healthy environment has disagreements, but they’re vigorous and healthy. Communication is open and ideas are debated.” It’s crucial to build an environment where it is safe to disagree, and that is largely the responsibility of management.

This Asana blog post by Rachel Miller is a great look at why diversity in organizations and building inclusive work environments is good for business. “I’ve found that making business cases for diversity have let me become a vocal advocate. Without that shift, it’s unclear how diversity should be prioritized inside a company when other social justice issues aren’t. I went from thinking that diversity was something I wanted from the workplace, but couldn’t necessarily expect, to realizing that investing in diversity is part of investing in a company built to last.” Miller lists several clear business reasons to support a diverse organization, including one related to conflict and creativity: diverse teams are coming with different perspectives and  are “less likely to practice groupthink.”

This joyful, pop-culture-gif-littered piece from the iDoneThis blog addresses tension and anxiety in teams, and how uncomfortable it can be to manage. It offers some very solid, very practical, and very applicable guidance to new managers, starting with how to provide feedback that will empower your team and help build their confidence, leading them to be able to be more autonomous:

Both novices and experts respond well to feedback given on a job that they feel is “finished,” rather than having a manager hover over them and interrupt their process.

Value their autonomy by giving feedback on finished projects, rather than interrupting employees at work.

The article goes on to talk about feedback loops ON feedback — doing retrospectives to see how your feedback is working, if it’s effective.

Practice makes practice.


Generalist, multi-disciplinarian, Renaissance lady

I am a generalist. A multi-disciplinarian. What maybe used to be called a jack-of-all-trades. I have a little bit of skill in a lot of areas, and I’m a quick study. I can pick up enough of what you know to have a meaningful working relationship. At one time, I thought I wanted to be a specialist, but I realized what that would involve — there is a significant life trade-off when you specialize.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers — the idea that you have to practice something for that much time to achieve mastery. And to work for 10,000 hours at something means you can’t spend those hours on any of the other interests in your life. You cannot indulge your curiosity in the same way a generalist can.

One of the trade-offs of being a multi-disciplinarian is that it’s easy (and dangerous) to see yourself as a failure for not staying in one track. There is of course no inherent failing in moving through multiple careers and projects — it’s what you’d very naturally do when you’re a person who is fascinated by the world and many aspects of it call to you.

But the working world at large really appreciates the idea of a specialist and doesn’t quite know what to make of a generalist. You see job postings for “mechanical engineer” or “nurse” and if you’ve specialized in those fields, then those are the terms you look for when you’re job hunting. But you don’t see job postings for “smart person who can do all kinds of things” so there is another layer of struggle in being a generalist, which is convincing yourself that you have value, and convincing potential employers that a generalist is what they’re looking for.

One thing I do want to note though, is that I don’t think this is black and white, that you’re either one or the other (specialist vs generalist). My suspicion is that it’s more like a spectrum, and we’ve all situated to a general position on the spectrum, when our personalities and interests are taken as a whole.

Emilie Wapnick gave a terrific Ted Talk called “Why Some of Us Don’t Have One True Calling,” in which she introduces the term “multipotentialite” — it’s a really worthy watch for anybody who identifies as a generalist.

“The notion of the narrowly focused life is highly romanticized in our culture. It’s this idea of destiny or the one true calling, the idea that we each have one great thing we are meant to do during our time on this earth, and you need to figure out what that thing is and devote your life to it. But what if you’re someone who isn’t wired this way? What if there are a lot of different subjects that you’re curious about, and many different things you want to do? Well, there is no room for someone like you in this framework. And so you might feel alone. You might feel like you don’t have a purpose. And you might feel like there’s something wrong with you. There’s nothing wrong with you. What you are is a multipotentialite.”

In her followup to the Ted Talk, Wapnick touches on the extra layer of struggle: “I see career, productivity, and confidence, as the three largest multipotentialite challenges. These are areas we each need to address and find workable solutions to.”

But I think generalists have a gift as well — we are massively empathetic. I can’t speak to causation but I do think there’s a very strong correlation between generalists and empathizers. Maybe it’s an empathetic natures that drives someone to want to experience new situations and work with people and materials and projects of all kinds. Or maybe knowing enough about a lot of subject matter, and having experienced lots of roles and worked with lots of people from lots of backgrounds, it’s easier for a generalist to see things from another person’s perspective.

But in either case, this combination of empathy and exposure to many fields and skills and backgrounds is what uniquely positions generalists to be great facilitators.   In this interview, MDavid Low discusses what it’s like to have switched roles, from being a specialist and technical contributor to being a generalist. Interestingly, what he notes as a special skill in the generalist role is facilitation. In response to the question “What are the biggest pros and cons of being a ‘utility man,’ as you are, as opposed to a specialist?” he says:

I think it’s led me to be somewhat decent at being the skipper on the team. Helping to guide and motivate the team towards the right outcome, but with enough of the right insights from each role in my past to be able to provide the right insights for the future.

I like to think that the landscape is changing a bit — I know that those of us with varied backgrounds are good for the organization we work in, and I think that some organizations are seeing this and starting to write about it. This article about Location Labs delves into the company’s hiring practices that result in their 95% employee retention rate. They focus on hiring “diamonds in the rough” – people whose potential for growth is massive – and one of the ways they do that is by looking for diversity of experience.

When screening resumes, they don’t look for specific technologies or skills. They look for results. What was this person’s legacy in past roles? Over 30% of their hires in 2015 started their careers in completely different role or field. “We’ve found that candidates with this type of background have the underdog grit that allows them to be successful here,” says Grossman. “We’re not overly impressed with pedigree. We let demonstrated growth be our primary filter.”

Demonstrated growth, eh? That’s one thing most generalists can claim.