Interviews with purpose-driven leaders who are making a meaningful impact in their communities, industries, and around the world.
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Liesel Mertes and I am the founder of Handle with Care Consulting. I’m a workplace empathy consultant; I help empower forward-thinking companies to come alongside their people with empathy and compassion as they go through disruptive life events. It’s been a busy time because 2020 has been full of so many disruptive life events.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
My work is profoundly influenced by my personal experience. When I was in the first year of my MBA program, I had just said yes to acceptance at Indiana University and I found out a week later that I was pregnant with our third child, a little girl named Mercy Joan. At her 20-week scan, we found that she had a pretty profound birth defect so when I gave birth to her, she actually only lived for eight days. I appreciate that she has impacted my work as much as she does and that there’s a part of her story that I get to carry with me in my day-to-day work.
In terms of workplace empathy, that experience gave me a chance to really live through the wide gap in people’s available skill sets. There are some people who do this very well and naturally, they know how to be supportive. And then there are a lot of people in influential positions who have no idea what to say or do. They have the best of intentions, but they dismiss their people. That is the foundation for the work that expanded into what I get to do now.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Empathy is a skill that can be taught and it really, really matters. And, as for anything else in business, when we believe that it affects our people and that it affects our bottom line, we train for it and we measure it. But we don’t do either of those things when it comes to giving care in times when it matters most. I want to reach out to people who think they are not naturally empathetic and don’t know what to do or say. If you care enough to learn, you can get better at this and it will make a material impact on how you’re able to help people thrive, stabilize, and essentially thrive in the aftermath of adversity.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
During COVID-19, especially, I’m doing a lot of training around compassion fatigue and resiliency which is huge especially for people who are in healthcare organizations or in sales positions where they absorb other people’s hard stories and still have their own complicated 2020 story to deal with. This is leaving people feeling unseen, exhausted, and burned out. I love the feedback that I get after my sessions where people say, “I realized that what I’m feeling is normal, that I’m not alone, and that there are actually steps that I can take to help care for myself so I can better care for others.” And I love the really actionable things that people get to put into practice right away that make a difference.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
I’m the beneficiary of having received some really good care in my own times of disruption. I’ve had a great community of people who supported me whether that was coming and spending the night at the hospital when my youngest, Moses, had to have open-heart surgery, or bringing meals, or helping me move. So I get to operate from a healthy foundation and I am thankful to all the people who have cared for me well.
I’m inspired by all the people who come up to me after I speak at an event and say, “I wish that my last company had had something like this.” and then they tell me the story of how mishandled they were by the jerk manager or the ways that they were pushed out in the midst of their daughter’s multiple suicide attempts. I do it for those people because I know the profound pain and the way people are still willing to torch their prior employer and still carry a pain 20 years later. I’m hoping to have those stories be fewer because of the work I’m doing.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I think workplace empathy training is one of the most important emerging fields of HR. I think 2020 has established the need for it in a way none of us could have imagined. There is a younger workforce that is demanding for workplaces that want and value the whole person. We need this, we need to grow in this.
Specifically for Handle with Care Consulting, I just launched a certificate program that I’m really excited about which is a deep dive into this material. I want to grow that into a “train the trainer” modality that equips people with workbooks and a skillset they can take back into their organizations. I’m also working on building out a library of microlearning modules, brief videos and reminders of really basic tips like when somebody comes back from a funeral, here are two stupid things you should not say and here are two good things to say. There are some good technological integrations because as much as I can teach this, what people really need are real-time reminders delivered to them right before they see that person in the break room who has just gone through a messy divorce. If we’re going to reprogram years of conditioning, we need some additional tools. These are all exciting things I see moving forward to help keep moving the needle on empathy in the workplace.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
The reality right now is that most businesses are being conservative with their expenditures. There are these two driving forces that are kind of at odds with each other. One, there is the need to invest in your people now more than ever, and two, there are the financial pressures and things like external training or investments are some of the first things to get cut. So specifically for my business, navigating that and really being able to encourage HR managers and executive leadership to understand that this sort of training is necessary right now, it’s not something to kick the can on to when things get more stable, because you actually need to be supporting your people when they’re most unstable. That’s where leadership from the executive level is so impactful, it takes leaders at the top of the organization to say, “Our people matter. We want to invest in them.” It’s so much harder for an HR manager to try to lead this charge, buy-in from leadership is critical.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
Your support for others matters more than ever. And, empathy is a skill that you can get better at if you take the time to learn, and if you do, it will make a huge impact on your work and in your personal life.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
I have many, so I’m going to share one that I’m really appreciating right now. It’s from Brene Brown: “I am not here to be right. I am here to get it right.” I think that’s really important right now in so many ways, whether that is in our political discourse or in learning how to be attuned to people we work and live with. Because even in the space of your own household, what affects one person one way, affects another person completely differently. You can’t have a one-size-fits-all model. It takes that commitment to say, “You know what? I’m not here to be right, I’m here to get it right.” It’s a radical attunement to a larger cause or to another person and takes attention and intention which is not our natural bent most of the time.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
They can visit my website which has some video resources, training opportunities, and information on the workplace certificate program. I also am the host of the “Handle with Care: Empathy at Work” podcast which is a great resource to check out and is absolutely free. Each episode is an interview with a guest who talks about living through a disruptive life event such as sibling suicide, or alcoholism and divorce, or the most recent one was on parenting a child with cerebral palsy. It’s great because my guests are very generous with their insights and give us a behind the scenes look at what it is like to live with what they’ve gone through which builds your empathy just in listening. Each episode ends with three actionable tips to help make you a better manager, coworker, and friend. That’s great exposure into what I’m doing and my rally cry around workplace empathy.
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