Episode 204 – Innovation through Compassion: Creating Happy, Productive Project Teams   

Original Air Date

Run Time

31 Minutes
Home Manage This Podcast Episode 204 – Innovation through Compassion: Creating Happy, Productive Project Teams   

About This Episode

Emma Seppala

In this episode we explore the connections between happiness, success, and compassion in project management. Our guest Emma Seppälä asserts that cultivating happiness is not just about feeling good but also serves as a strategic advantage in professional settings, especially in project management. Discover how team happiness influences project outcomes and how fostering a culture of compassion can reduce stress while enhancing productivity and team cohesion.

Chronic stress hampers our ability to focus, concentrate, remember, learn, and make sound decisions. We discuss the crucial role of project leaders in creating environments that promote well-being and how compassion fosters resilience. Join us as Emma reveals how leaders can boost their teams’ happiness, encourage innovation, and build a resilient, compassionate work environment. Tune in for insights and practical tips on leading with heart and achieving success through compassion.

As a best-selling author, Yale lecturer, and international keynote speaker, Emma Seppälä teaches executives at the Yale School of Management and is faculty director of the Yale School of Management’s Women’s Leadership Program. A psychologist and research scientist by training, her expertise is the science of happiness, emotional intelligence, and social connection. Her best-selling book The Happiness Track has been translated into dozens of languages. Her latest book is Sovereign. Emma is also the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

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Favorite Quotes from Episode

"And a compassionate leader makes room for the human moments, makes the workplace not just a place of transaction but interaction, and gives grace when grace is needed, when suffering is present. And what doesn’t make sense about that? It just makes sense. And when that happens, the employee’s loyalty gets really strong because their leader had their back at a time when they needed it."

Emma Seppala

"But learning how to handle our emotions with grace, that is a skill that can make a leader really strong. One of the ways is to understand that emotions are energy in motion. It’s energy moving through your system. And once you have self-awareness, you can choose to perhaps not lead your meeting at the time when you’re at the peak of anger; right? Take a pause, go do the things that you need to do to feel better."

Emma Seppala

The podcast by project managers for project managers. Happiness isn’t just about feeling good—it’s a strategic advantage in the professional world. In this episode we’re taking a look into the powerful connections between happiness, project success, and compassion. Emma Seppälä reveals how team happiness directly influences project outcomes and how a compassionate culture can reduce stress, boost productivity, and enhance team cohesion.

Table of Contents

03:10 … Happiness Fuels Success
05:07 … Impact of Stress on Creativity
06:36 … Culture, Values and Happiness
07:54 … Take Care of Yourself
09:35 … How to Guage your Internal Landscape
13:40 … Having the Right Attitude
16:11 … Self-Critical vs. Self-Aware
18:15 … Are You Being Too Nice?
20:48 … Kevin and Kyle
22:01 … Showing Compassion in the Workplace
24:12 … Physiological Impact of Compassion
26:55 … Compassion and Resilience
28:28 … Learn to be Compassionate
29:46 … Sovereign
31:10 … Closing

EMMA SEPPALA:  And a compassionate leader makes room for the human moments, makes the workplace not just a place of transaction but interaction, and gives grace when grace is needed, when suffering is present.  And what doesn’t make sense about that?  It just makes sense. And when that happens, the employee’s loyalty gets really strong because their leader had their back at a time when they needed it. 

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and in the studio with me is Bill Yates.

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Today we are looking at the intersection of happiness and compassion, and in this episode, we have the privilege of speaking with Emma Seppala.  She’s an expert in the science of happiness, emotional intelligence, and social connection.  Emma teaches executives at the Yale School of Management and is faculty director of the Yale School of Management’s Women’s Leadership Program.  She’s a psychologist and research scientist by training.  Her bestselling book “The Happiness Track” has been translated into dozens of languages, and she’s just published a new book, “Sovereign.”  Emma is also the science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.  And so, she definitely has a lot of really great information on happiness, on success, and on compassion, which are the things we’re talking about today.

We’re going to explore the intricate relationship between happiness and success, and we will uncover how cultivating happiness isn’t just a feel-good endeavor, but a strategic advantage, particularly in the professional realms, and how we can apply this to our projects.  We’ll also examine how team happiness can directly influence project outcomes. Fostering a culture of compassion doesn’t only alleviate stress, but also enhances overall productivity and cohesion amongst team members.  So, let’s get ready to be inspired by Emma.

Hi, Emma.  Welcome to Manage This.  Thank you so much for being our guest today.

EMMA SEPPALA:  My pleasure, thanks for having me.

Happiness Fuels Success

WENDY GROUNDS:  We are looking forward to digging into this conversation, and I want to start with happiness.  How does happiness fuel our personal as well as professional success?  If you would just elaborate on some of the research that you’ve done on happiness.

EMMA SEPPALA:  There’s a sense out there that in order to be successful you have to be constantly in this high-adrenaline go-go-go mode.  I think that’s sort of an idea that’s out there.  And, you know, as a research scientist and psychologist I looked at this, and I just felt like this flies in the face of the science.  We know, sure, acute stress will get you mobilized to save your life.  You’re only supposed to feel stress when you’re in fight or flight, you know, you’re being chased by a predator or something.  But when it’s chronic, which is what we’re seeing in many people, it actually deteriorates your ability to focus, to concentrate, to remember things, to learn new things, to be emotionally intelligent, to make good decisions.  It really hampers our ability to be as successful as we could be.

And so, one thing I invite people to do is to question this idea that you need to be always in go-go-go mode.  I mean, there are enough stressors in our lives, whether it’s financial stressors, relationship stressors, health stressors, global challenges.  You know, there are so many things that are already causing stress that I always invite people to consider not adding more, not adding fuel to the fire because – by over-caffeinating, over-scheduling yourself, or being overly demanding on yourself.  Because, you know, we’re seeing 50% burnout across industries, and 75% of the U.S. workforce is disengaged at work. 

And I think a lot of it has to do with this theory of that you have to be in this sort of high-stress mode.  And what research shows is that, if you take care of your well-being, you actually are more productive; you’re more creative; you’re more emotionally intelligent; you’re better able to concentrate and focus and get things done.  So that’s the irony of it.  We buy into this theory that isn’t even helpful to us.


EMMA SEPPALA:  So that’s why I’m inviting us to question those things.

Impact of Stress on Creativity

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  Emma, it’s so funny to me, you mentioned creativity, and that’s one of the first things that jumps out to me when I think about project teams that are feeling stress.  And it’s just such a shame that that’s the way it naturally happens.  When something breaks, we have a major decision that we have to make suddenly, there’s stress.  And I know from the science that that’s when we’re the least creative.  It’s like…


BILL YATES:  It’s like we need to have somebody come in and, you know, bring us back at least to a stable status so that we can make better decisions and be more creative.  Because you’re right.  Stress impacts us, and it shuts down our creativity.  It impacts that.  And it’s a shame because many times it’s in those stressful moments where we need to come up with creative solutions.  We need to make sure that we’re listening and considering all the different angles.  So yeah, this is an important conversation to have.  We appreciate that, you know, somebody brings the research backing that you do, and we look forward to this conversation knowing that it’s going to help our project managers as they think through, okay, well, in my day-to-day life, what changes can I make, given this?

EMMA SEPPALA:  Absolutely.  And research shows we are most able to come up with innovative solutions and creative insights when our brain is in alpha wave mode, so when it’s relaxed.  Then I think about all those workplaces that have this high-stress environment, and they want people to be innovative.  It flies in the face of the research; right?  So when you’re able to be a leader, a manager who creates wellbeing in your team, you’re also creating innovative potential.

Culture, Values and Happiness

WENDY GROUNDS:  That leads us into basically the culture and the values of project teams.  So how can the culture and the values enhance your employee happiness?  How can it contribute to that?

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah.  I mean, we all know how it feels to be around someone who has values like integrity and honesty; right?  When you have a colleague or a leader who has those kind of values, you feel safe.  And after food and shelter, our greatest need is to feel safe.  And after that we want to feel seen, heard, valued, and appreciated.  So, what the research shows is that leaders who lead with those values – kindness, compassion, empathy, forgiveness, humility, integrity, honesty – they actually have higher performing teams because those are the teams where we don’t just feel safe, but we feel seen, we feel respected, we feel appreciated.  And that naturally brings out this super productivity, in fact.  You can call it that.

There’s research now on positively energizing leadership that shows that those leaders who lead with values have a superior advantage with regards to the productivity of their team to everyone else. And so that’s why I think of it as the leadership of the future.  I mean, we all know what it’s like to be around someone who drains our energy.  Those kind of leaders do the opposite.  They’re life-giving, life-supportive.  It’s as if they charge the people around them with more energy.  That’s what it looks like when you look at the data.

Take Care of Yourself

BILL YATES:  We had a conversation recently with Cindi Filer on this idea of, okay, how do we build healthy teams and sustain them?  And the whole idea of engagement came up there.  And one of the statistics from a survey, I think it was a 2023 survey, said 70% of team engagement is attributed to the manager, which is amazing.  You know, the opportunity to managers, that’s phenomenal.  It also scares me to death.  It’s like, okay, 70% of engagement depends on how I lead my team, or how project managers lead their team.  So, there’s good and bad there.  You know, the good is obviously we can influence it in a big, big way.  But we have to be careful.  We have to take that part of our job very seriously and very thoughtfully and thinking through these things.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah, it comes down to both leading with values and authentically, because we can all see through people who are not being authentic, so don’t even try.  But the second part is how do you do that?  How do you lead authentically with values?  You have to fill your tank.  You have to take care of yourself because, when we don’t take care of ourselves, that’s when we don’t act like ourselves.  That’s when we’re more likely to fly off the handle, be less self-aware, act in a way that’s not emotionally intelligent.

But when we take care of the state of our mind with exercises like meditation, like time off of work, like exercise, proper diet, sleep, and time in nature, I mean, there are different practices we can do that ensure that we have a better state of mind, that we’re more emotionally intelligent, that we’re in a better state of well-being.  And as a result, we end up much more easily being able to lead from a place of values, from a place of a full tank.

How to Guage your Internal Landscape

BILL YATES:  Emma, that’s good, and it begs a question in my mind, which is, I’m just thinking of project managers and their day-to-day push; right?  You know, okay, I’m looking at my schedule.   I’m looking at what I have going on today and what I need to do with the team. 

And I could see them saying, “Emma, I don’t really have a clue– it’s not like I’ve got a gauge.  You know, like in my car I can tell that the battery’s about to go out, or the gas is about to go out.  I have an empty and a full.  For me, emotionally, I don’t really have that same gauge.  So, Emma, can you teach me how to gauge where I’m at emotionally so that I’m leading from a place of good health, and I know when I need to pull away from the team and recharge my battery?”

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah, let’s do a real short exercise; okay?  So, I’m going to invite just close your eyes for a moment and just take a stake of your internal landscape; right?  So first becoming aware of your body and just noticing on a scale of fatigue to high energy, where do you fall?  You might notice for yourself; do you feel high energy?  Do you feel tired or somewhere in between?  Just notice for yourself.  That’s the first thing, so noticing where your body’s at.  Maybe you’re hungry.  Maybe you’re tired.  Or maybe you’re thirsty.  Maybe you just haven’t stretched in a while.  So just noticing where your body’s at.  That’s the first step.

Second step is notice where your mind is at.  So, there are thoughts that are coming through our mind all the time.  And just imagine each thought were a car, then I want you to assess the level of traffic so you can see for yourself.  What’s my traffic today?  Is it a highway?  Is it a country road or somewhere in between?  So, noticing the level of traffic in your mind.

And then the third step is just to notice the feeling or emotional states that are there.  They can be again on a spectrum of pleasantness, from pleasant to unpleasant, or positive to negative.  You don’t have to exactly be able to pinpoint the name of the feeling.  Might be a neutral.  And then also notice the intensity of that, whatever it is.  Might be high intensity, low intensity, you know, somewhere in between.  And then open your eyes.  What was your level of traffic?

BILL YATES:  I’ll bet mine’s less than yours, Wendy.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I’m going the wrong way on a highway right now, to be…

EMMA SEPPALA:  On a highway?

WENDY GROUNDS:  There’s so much traffic, yeah, going on in my life right now that – and it just made me reflect on it.  It’s all good stuff, but there’s so much.

BILL YATES:  But there’s still a ton of traffic, yeah, yeah. 

WENDY GROUNDS: There’s still, yeah, I have one child getting married.  I have another one graduating. And I have an overseas trip.  I mean, I have all of these things, and then I have work, which has like a thousand and one things going on.  And I’m just kind of thinking through that while you were saying that.  That exercise was so good; you know?  It’s like, where is my traffic?

EMMA SEPPALA:  Well, it just helps; right?  Imagine you’re going to go in and lead your team, and you’ve got a highway going on.  Chances are you’re not going to be able to be as present with them as you’d like to be, and chances are they will be able to tell.  And that has negative repercussions.  So, what can I do in the moment to calm myself down, bring myself back into the present moment so I can show up as my best?  So, I can allow them to feel like they’re led, like their leader is a rock for them.

And exercises for that, you know, the fastest thing we have found in terms of emotion regulation to bring yourself back into the present moment is breathing exercises.  That’s what our research has shown.  And if you were to do an exercise where you exhale for longer than you inhale for a few minutes, you’re tapping into the opposite of the stress response, the parasympathetic, and that’s how you can get yourself back to – your traffic to slow down.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Are there some resources, like if somebody’s listening to this and says, “Okay, I’ve never done breathing exercises,” what resources do you have?

EMMA SEPPALA:  I think the description that I shared, just breathe in for a count of four and breathe out for a count of eight and do that with your eyes closed…

BILL YATES:  Got it.

EMMA SEPPALA:  …for about five minutes.  And that will put you in parasympathetic and slow down your traffic, guaranteed.


WENDY GROUNDS:  We just don’t take the time to really reflect on ourselves.  You know, we’re just in go-go-mode all the time.

EMMA SEPPALA:  I know, but that’s how we end up not showing up the way we want to show up.



EMMA SEPPALA:  And people can tell.  I mean, can you tell when someone’s not listening to you, when their mind is wandering?  Yeah.  How does that make you feel?  You know, and if it’s your leader whose mind is wandering, then you could see the repercussions it can have on the people around you.  So, I think one of the most important things a leader can do is take care of their own state of mind because that’s how they’re going to be the most powerful leader.

Having the Right Attitude

WENDY GROUNDS:  An important state of mind also is attitude.  Can you talk to coming in with the right attitude?

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah, there’s research on positive leadership here again that really is showing just how powerful that is.  And what I mean by that is, if research on positive leadership shows that leaders who lead in this way actually have far higher results than others.  And the way that they do it is of course they lead with values.  But they also don’t just focus on the negative, they focus on the successes.  They focus on a sense of “we” rather than “you and me.”

So, let’s say there’s someone who’s failing or who needs feedback.  The idea is not, hey, you’ve done this.  It’s like, how can we do this better?  Like making it more about us.  And then, finally, the last thing is that they really elevate others around them and especially for the strengths that they have.  So often in performance reviews and otherwise we focus on the areas of opportunity, right, the negative aspects that need to be corrected.  And yet what research shows is that that destroys the motivation of our employees, and many of them are not motivated to improve, and many of them feel dejected after regular, you know, reviews.

So, what you want to do is build a relationship with the people that you’re leading so that they know that you see their best self; that you are aware of their talents, their gifts, their strengths that they bring to the table.  When you have that relationship where they know that you see, hear, value, and appreciate them, then if you do have critical feedback to share, they’ll take it from a much better place.  And they’ll also know that you’re sharing it with them because you have their back and you want to help them.  And you make it about “us,” not “you and me.”  So those are some really powerful things.

And, you know, one example I often give is I ask people to think back on a mentor who was there for them at some point in their life, maybe childhood, maybe adulthood, someone who was there and saw them for who they were, encouraged them at no benefit to themselves.  And most people can think of at least one person who was like that.  Now, and then I ask, “Okay, so how do you – how do organizations usually command loyalty?”  Well, they usually command loyalty through money and perks.  But is that loyalty?  Because the company next door could just buy your loyalty, right, with a little more.

But then I ask, you know, “What about that person who was there for you unconditionally?  If they were to text you right now in the middle of what you’re doing and say, ‘Please can you call me?  I have an emergency,’ would you drop everything for them?”  And the answer is inevitably yes.  Why?  Because loyalty is what is born out of this deep human connection with another person who had your back, who celebrated you for who you were.  And those are the bonds that we never forget.  And that is the opportunity that every leader has to create with the people that they lead.

Self-Critical vs. Self-Aware

BILL YATES:  That’s so good.  I think of a flipside of that is disrespect.  Times when you’re a part of a team or you have a manager that you feel is disrespectful towards you or towards another team member, and the negative impact that wrinkles through the entire team as a result of that.  And just thinking back to that survey on why people are quitting.  And that was the number three reason was, you know, people were quitting because their direct manager was disrespectful.  You know?  It’s as simple as that. 

So, it goes back to those relationships and building that safety, building that trust, knowing that this person has my back.  They treat me with respect.  They appreciate me; you know?  And they listen and are engaged with me in not just work things; but, you know, my life.  So that has such a, you know, it sets up a healthier team so much better that way.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah.  And that’s one of the reasons I wrote my new book “Sovereign” was that I saw so many leaders who, when I asked them, “How many of you are self-critical,” 95% of the people in the room raised their hand.  And if you look at self-criticism from a psychological perspective, it’s a form of self-loathing.  You know, it’s different from self-awareness; right?  Self-awareness is, oh, I’m not that great with statistics.  Okay.  That’s self-awareness.  I can do something about it.  You know, but self-criticism is beating yourself up for your failures, which is what a lot of high performers do.  What the research shows is that it leads to anxiety and depression, fear of failure, less likelihood to try again, which is the opposite of resilience, basically.

But one of the tragic forms of this is that, when you’re highly self-critical, and when you’re hard on yourself, you’re also going to probably be hardest on the people that you love the most and want to hurt the least, or the people that are most important to you and that you work most closely with.  And then you lose your people, the people most important to you.

And so, I think that oftentimes people who are disrespectful to others, they have a very disrespectful relationship with their own selves, and it’s just being projected outward.  That’s where, again, a leader needs to learn self-awareness, needs to learn self-care, needs to understand the state of their mind, and needs to develop a respectful relationship with themselves.  It’s fundamental for any leader.

Are You Being Too Nice?

WENDY GROUNDS:  Can leaders be too nice?  If they’re leading with compassion and being a sensitive leader, can they be too nice almost, and kind of lose that edge on authority?

EMMA SEPPALA:  So, a positive leader still has expectations, still has goals, still has ambitions, and still can push people to do their best.  But they also are there for them with compassion when things are difficult.  We all go through difficult periods.  They are there with kindness as they see people grow and stumble and make mistakes.  But it doesn’t mean they don’t have goals and ambitions and that they don’t encourage the development of their team.  Absolutely.  And they’re not doormats because those kind of leaders have proper boundaries because they have a good relation with themselves; right?  So, they’re not going to let other people step all over them, but they are going to act with kindness.

Just yesterday I was teaching a leader who was like, “Well, don’t I have to yell sometimes and get angry when they make a mistake?”  I’m like, “No.”  If you get angry and yell, you’re just going to set people’s stress response off, and they’re going to feel less connected from you, and they’re going to be in a stress response rather than listening to what you have to say.


EMMA SEPPALA:  You have to handle your own self.  You have to handle your own emotions.

BILL YATES:  Mm-hmm.  And I hear, you know, some people say, “Well, I think a leader should lose it every now and then in front of the team just so they keep their edge.”  I’m like, “That’s crazy.”  You know, I lose confidence in people that are leading me if they have those kind of moments; you know?  Sure, we’re all going to have bad moments.  But if I see that that’s something that’s almost calculated in them, they think there’s value in that, then man, their stock goes way down in my head, yeah.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Well, they seem like children.


EMMA SEPPALA:  Not like a rock.


EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah.  Not that they should suppress.  You know, when people suppress anger, you can tell, and your heart rate’s up.  And so that’s not the idea, but learning how to regulate emotions with skill.  Because, you know, it doesn’t matter how many PhDs or MDs or whatever you have, most people have as much formal training about how to handle their negative emotions as a five-year-old.  None.  No formal training.  The same with leaders. 

And suppression is what everybody does, and it has the worst outcomes in terms of physical health, psychological health, well-being, relationships.  It’s kind of tragic given how good we’ve gotten at it.  But learning how to handle our emotions with grace, that is a skill that can make a leader really strong.  One of the ways is to understand that emotions are energy in motion.  It’s energy moving through your system.  And once you have self-awareness, you can choose to perhaps not lead your meeting at the time when you’re at the peak of anger; right?  Take a pause, go do the things that you need to do to feel better.


BILL YATES:  Emotion is energy in motion.

WENDY GROUNDS:  I had never heard that before, but…

BILL YATES:  That’s good.  That’s true.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, really good way of looking at it. 

Kevin and Kyle

KEVIN RONEY: I’ve been thinking about how challenging it is for project managers to implement Agile principles remotely. It’s tricky maintaining efficiency and collaboration with everyone working from different locations, yet it’s important that we are continually improve our delivery, efficiency, and effectiveness.

KYLE CROWE: It is, and the flexibility that Agile offers is key in helping to navigate remote work challenges. For example, Agile’s emphasis on iterative development and continuous improvement is invaluable when we can’t afford to wait for things to fall into place perfectly. It is about consistently refining our approach.

KEVING RONEY: It’s not just about managing a big team. Even with a smaller remote team, Agile principles can make a huge difference. The key is to promote transparency, communication, and accountability despite the distance.

KYLE CROWE: Right, it’s not about the size of the team but the mindset. If you’re interested in finding out more, Velociteach contributor Kupe Kupersmith has a course titled “Remote Agile Delivery.” Kupe discusses the role of a Delivery Leader and demonstrates methods for collaborating with teams of any size to apply Agile principles. In this course Kupe offers insights and strategies for enhancing your team’s delivery, efficiency, and effectiveness. Go to Velociteach.com to check it out!

Showing Compassion in the Workplace

WENDY GROUNDS:  To move on to another emotion, talking about compassion.  Within the workplace, what are some of the characteristics of showing compassion in the workplace and why it is so important?

EMMA SEPPALA:  Compassion is an emotion that we experience and share in the face of suffering.  You know, and at any given time, people are fighting different battles.  You know, maybe they have a health battle.  Maybe they have a dear one that’s passing.  Maybe they have a child that’s sick.  I mean, we’ve all faced battles, you know, at regular intervals.  And a compassionate leader makes room for the human moments, makes the workplace not just a place of transaction but interaction, and gives grace when grace is needed, when suffering is present.  And what doesn’t make sense about that?  It just makes sense.

And when that happens, the employee’s loyalty gets really strong because their leader had their back at a time when they needed it.  Is it for all the time?  No, it’s not.  But it’s for those moments when it’s really needed to really show up as a human being, as a kind person, as someone who cares.  That makes all the difference.  You think back on whoever’s shown up like that for you.  You have loyalty to them.


EMMA SEPPALA:  Respect for them, appreciation.  Yeah.

BILL YATES:  Mm-hmm, yeah, just having a leader recognize what’s going on with the team dynamic and not brushing aside and moving back to business, you know, let’s get back on the agenda here, but making the appropriate response. 

EMMA SEPPALA:  It’s, you know, being able to be authentic and vulnerable.  Sometimes leaders will think, oh, well, will that make me look weak?  No, it won’t.  But it’ll make everybody relax because everyone will realize, okay, we’re allowed to be human here.  We don’t have to be superhumans because none of us are superhumans.  And, you know, sometimes workplaces make you feel like you have to pretend to be that all the time.  That’s just not real.  But when people can be themselves, and they know that each other has their back, makes all the difference.

You know, research shows that your leader has a direct impact on your heart health, and you as a leader have a direct impact on the heart health of people you lead, risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and heart disease.  And just because we enter a workplace doesn’t mean our relationships aren’t just as important to us as our personal relationships.  They are.  Which is another reason to really think about how we’re leading, how we’re connecting, how we’re taking care of people.  And that’s actually how you’re going to be the most successful because the people are going to show up for you.  You show up for them, they’re going to show up for you.

Physiological Impact of Compassion

WENDY GROUNDS:  That was interesting.  That was my next question was the physiological impacts that you have observed that has come out in research on individuals who are practicing compassion and kindness.  I mean, are there any other benefits that you’ve seen?

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah, I mean, I’ve been studying the science of happiness for 20 years, and I could summarize in one sentence that the people who are the happiest and live the longest and healthiest lives are the ones who live lives characterized by compassion, balanced with self-compassion.  One of my favorite studies showed that when you look at people who’ve been through really stressful life experiences like war, sometimes their lives can be shorter because that’s what stress does to your system.

But they found that there was a subgroup of people who just kept living and living and living and what was going on with these people.  And it turns out that those people all engaged in some kind of community service or compassionate activity in their lives.  And it was as if it erased the impact of the stressful experience.  It’s as if it caused resilience, and it helped them live just as long as other people might.

BILL YATES:  Hmm.  Self-compassion.  That’s a good one.  It speaks to the self-critic that’s in us, too.

EMMA SEPPALA:  That’s right.

BILL YATES:  You know, one thing – I wanted to go back to that, Emma, because I think that’s so pervasive in our industry.  We’ll have leaders who will say, “I hold the team to one standard, but I hold myself to a higher standard.”  And there’s something, I don’t know, there’s something idealistic with that.  It’s said almost as a statement of, “I want to let the team off the hook.  I want them to know how committed I am, and how I’m 100% in on this.”  And it just comes across as disingenuous.  Without meaning to, I think, sometimes, you know, it comes across as a bit arrogant or a bit shortsighted.  Which is, you know, again, I need to be my true self with my team.

So, if I’m constantly second-guessing myself, but I don’t want them to see that, they’re going to figure it out.  They’re going to see it.  They’ll see it in the tone of voice I use.  They’ll see it in the emails that I send. And I just think there’s a bit of a disconnect with some leaders thinking, “Okay, I need to hold myself to a higher standard than I hold my team.”  No, we all need to be at the same level of performance here.  You know, we need to be self-aware and talk it through as a team as to what our expectations are.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah, as soon as you separate yourself, you’re creating that distance; right?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, exactly.  Right.

EMMA SEPPALA:  And if you’re hard on yourself, that’s what you’re modeling for others.

BILL YATES:  Bingo.  Yup.

EMMA SEPPALA:  If you’re developing future leaders, what are you doing?  You’ve got to show them how it’s really done.

BILL YATES:  Exactly.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Take care of yourself.

BILL YATES:  Right.  I’m so glad you said that.  That’s the piece that, to me, is that disconnect.  It’s like, okay, I’m trying to set that example as a leader, yet there’s a piece here that I’m saying I’m holding myself to a different standard.  Okay, wait a minute.  You’re supposed to be modeling behavior for me, and you’ve got, you know, basically two personalities that you’re presenting.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah, and then there’s the inauthenticity.  And we don’t do well with inauthenticity.  We don’t connect with that.

Compassion and Resilience

WENDY GROUNDS:  For an individual as well as for an organization, how does compassion contribute to resilience?

EMMA SEPPALA:  So, let’s take the example of, you know, in the healthcare system, research scientists have found that physicians tend to burn out.  Their burnout rate is really high.  But when they’re given the opportunity to show compassion in their work, it prevents their burnout.  So being more compassionate in our interactions with others, because it benefits your physical and psychological wellbeing, it actually can prevent burnout.


EMMA SEPPALA:  You know, sometimes people think, I should have time for all these human moments.


EMMA SEPPALA:  But actually, it’s life-giving.

WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s so interesting you say that because, I mean, I worked in a hospital, in a children’s hospital for 12 years, and did a lot of ER work.  And I think a lot of the attitude, there was definitely compassion for the children, but I think some of the physicians maybe had the attitude of we can’t go there.  We can’t get too emotionally involved.  I’ve just got to see this as a job.  But you’re saying the opposite.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Mm-hmm, yeah, and they do.  They do disconnect, and that actually harms them and leads to greater burnout.  So, compassion’s very protective, actually.  It’s our natural state, and what research shows is that it helps us be happier.  It’s kind of a win-win, you know, as long as you’re doing the self-compassion.  Because if you’re just doing compassion, you can burn yourself out, too.  And that’s where things I was talking about earlier, like meditation, you know, breathing, going out in nature, exercising, eating properly, sleeping, all those things.  If you’re not doing those, yeah, you might burn out no matter what you do.  But if you are doing those plus – you’re having the self-compassion plus the compassion, that’s the secret to resilience.

BILL YATES:  That’s good.

Learn to be Compassionate

WENDY GROUNDS:  Now, looking back at our project managers, if they want to get better at this, how can they learn compassion skills if they’re like, I’m just not compassionate, self-compassionate, or towards others?  Is this something that can be learned that they can get better at?

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yes, I think it’s actually very much our natural state.  That’s what the research shows, if you’ve taken care of yourself.  If you’re burned out, and you’re, you know, not taking care of yourself, you’re going to show up with not a lot of energy to spend on anyone; you know?  So, taking care of yourself, that’s when we’re happiest.  That’s when we tend to be more likely to hold the door open for a few extra seconds or help someone who’s dropped their groceries in the parking lot.  That’s just natural when we’re feeling good.  It’s very natural to want to help others when your tank is full.  But when it’s empty, we don’t really have time for anybody.


EMMA SEPPALA:  And, you know, and you might think, oh, I don’t have time.  I always think, okay, well, how much time do you spend wasting every day scrolling online on social media, on other things?  Is that really nourishing you?  And what can you do to nourish yourself instead?


EMMA SEPPALA:  With things that really do fill your tank?

BILL YATES:  You know, one of the articles that you wrote, we’re going to put the links to this in the transcript because it’s great.


BILL YATES:  It’s steps you can take, practical steps you can take to improve your compassion skill.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Yeah; right.

BILL YATES:  Those are things that project managers can latch onto and say, okay, I can do this.  This is a part of my workout now.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Wonderful.


WENDY GROUNDS:  Emma, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your book?  You’ve mentioned it, but we’d just like to let our audience know a bit about your motivation for writing the book.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Well, I wrote this book because I saw so many leaders burning out and not being able to show up the way that they want to show up with their highest potential.  And that’s why I wrote the book “Sovereign,” you know, “Reclaim Your Freedom, Energy, and Power in a Time of Distraction, Uncertainty, and Chaos.”  And I dismantle the beliefs and the behaviors that we engage in, unknowingly oftentimes, that stand in the way of our greatest potential and success, what we can do about that instead, some of the things we talked about earlier.  I talk in greater length about those and other things to help free people from those beliefs and habits so they can show up as their best selves.

WENDY GROUNDS:  If our audience wants to find out more, where can they go?

EMMA SEPPALA:  I’m on Instagram @thehappinesstrack and also LinkedIn and X and all those places.  And my website is EmmaSeppala.com.

BILL YATES:  Well, Emma, thank you so much for your contribution in this area.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Of course.

BILL YATES:  And for project managers, this is great stuff, you know, speaking from my own experience and the many, many people I’ve met while working with Velociteach, our students.  Many times, we’re pretty heavy on technical skills.  We’ve got those down pretty darn good.  But then when it comes to soft skills and things like emotional intelligence, we’re a bit in the dark.  We’re learning.  We have a lot of room for growth.  So having this conversation with you is very helpful.  We appreciate it.

EMMA SEPPALA:  Oh, wonderful.  I’m happy to do it.  Thank you for having me.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us at Manage This.  You can visit us at Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to this podcast and see a complete transcript of the show.  You’ve also earned your free PDUs by listening to this podcast.  To claim them, go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page, click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.

And until next time, remember to stay curious, stay inspired, and keep tuning in to Manage This.


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