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  • Writer's picturePaul LaLonde

The Two Wolves: Compassionate HR

“There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

“I’m just doing my job,” I said.

“Well, no one in HR has ever helped me in this way,” the employee returned.

“I am sorry to hear that…”

This is a conversation I have had many times over my career. Recently, it seems I’ve been having it more and more. And yet, I continue to be astounded that I am having it. To me the natural reaction should be nothing! Nothing because “good HR” is something people should come to expect. It should be the rule, not an exception.

Apparently, however, good HR is hard to find, though it shouldn’t be. I hear story after story from my family, my colleagues, my coworkers about their annoying (at best) and disastrous (at worst) interactions with their People Departments. These stories come from all sectors and all organizational sizes, and they make me resolved – resolved to continue building up the reputation of HR towards positive ends. I want to leave a mark that helps transform HR from the stereotype of corporate stooge to the reality of people empowerer.

I want all HR and people professionals to believe in the good they can and should be doing for their fellow humanity. We don’t do it for accolades; we don’t need notoriety. Ultimately, I want our profession to do good because it’s the right thing to do!

Lead with humanity, lead with compassion!!! I used to have a personal motto where I’d tell myself: “lead with empathy.” However, over the last few years, COVID has challenged me on this front. I believe compassion is needed more.

According to a BetterUp article:

Compassion and empathy are fundamentally different but closely related. Consider these definitions:

  1. Empathy definition: empathy is our feeling of awareness toward other people’s emotions and an attempt to understand how they feel.

  2. Compassion definition: compassion is an emotional response to empathy or sympathy and creates a desire to help.

Empathy is an understanding of our shared humanity. It’s the ability to see yourself in another person’s shoes. Compassion adds another dimension of a desire to help.

I believe empathy is vital and important, yet, I now believe it’s not enough. That’s where compassion comes into play. Where empathy is “feeling and understanding,” compassion is “feeling and understanding leading to action.” Compassionate people don’t just feel the other person’s pain, desires, or needs; they take those feelings and try to put into place an action plan to provide relief, help, assistance, or a solution. Compassion is vital to HR if we are to grow and become the department that is needed to transform folks’ lives for the better.

And, compassion begins with oneself. If you don’t care about yourself and do the right things for yourself, you cannot care for others or help them. And I wonder if this is a root cause for much of the malaise that bogs down the profession.

Many HR professionals become cynical about the employee experience. They get beaten down by bad experience after bad experience, refusing to acknowledge their part in said experience. Sometimes, there is nothing that can be done. Many times, there is always something that can be done!

There is an ancient Native American parable, many times attributed to the Cherokee, known as the Two Wolves.

A grandfather is talking with his grandson trying to teach him about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight, and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”

The grandfather continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man simply replied, “The one you feed.”

The lesson of this story is about self-nurturing. No one communicates more with you than YOU! What are you telling yourself? Which wolf are you feeding? As Epictetus said, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.”

Your choice to feed the good wolf can reverberate well beyond your wolfpack, as can feeding your evil wolf. The choice should be easy, but it is often not acknowledged.

Wellbeing and happiness, which can help lead to compassion, aren’t conditional states. They are a state of being all by themselves.

True lasting compassion comes from making an active choice to feed the good wolf. It does not depend on external things. You already have everything you need to be happy because you are whole as you are, right now. So feed the good wolf, and as it becomes bigger and stronger, it will be better equipped to assist you in handling all the HR challenges thrown your way – as well as any personal life challenges!

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