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January 15, 2020
Kate Marshall

Podcast: Finding the balance between direct communication and empathy at work with Emma Brudner

Let’s talk empathy at work.

Imagine a world in which we shine a spotlight on empathy at work. If your initial thoughts turn to a warm, fuzzy, share your innermost feelings type of vibe—you're not totally wrong—but you're not right, either.

We're talking the professional, direct kind. The kind of empathy that gets stuff done.

Building trust at work

In this episode of Crafting Culture, I check in with Emma Brudner, Director of People Operations at Lola.com. She shares her experience with shifting your perspective (aka perspective-taking) in professional settings.

As soon as you do that perspective-taking, you can solve a problem from the same side of the table versus on opposite sides.

Emma Brudner

Plus, we talk about:

  • Finding the balance between directness and empathy at work
  • How to use empathy to create a more efficient work culture
  • How leaders can use authenticity and vulnerability to get more done

Listen now:

And be sure to read the article that started it all—Emma's piece on Inc.com: Why You Need to Make an Effort to Be Empathetic at Work if You Want to Be More Efficient.

Listen to this and all of the other Crafting Culture episodes on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or our blog.

Up next: Read our Perk Pro Q&A with Emma.


Emma Brudner: That authenticity of being yourself and having other people see that you are being yourself is huge for trust-building and for opening those lines of communication. 

Announcer: You're listening to crafting culture a podcast dedicated to helping CEOs, people Ops, and HR teams create an incredible company culture if you're looking for inspiration, practical advice, or tangible examples of what great culture looks like then you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. 

Emma: Hi Kate 

Kate Marshall: How's it going? 

Emma: It's going well. How about you? 

Kate: Good. Thanks so much for hopping on today. I'm super excited to talk about this. 

Emma: Yeah, likewise. Thank you for having me. 

Kate: Yeah, of course. So before we jump in why don't you take a second and introduce yourself and talk about Lola.com a bit 

Emma: Sure. So, my name is Emma Brudner. I am the director of people operations at Lola.com and Lola.com is a travel management software platforms. So for business travel our goal is to make this is travel buttery smooth. That's our tagline. So create an easy way for travelers to book travel and an easy way for admins to track travel and when your admin and your traveler’s happy everybody wins. 

Kate: Yes. Love it. Perfect. Okay. So you did a Q&A uh on the blog  a couple months ago. That was really fun. So ever since then I've been following your stuff I know that you write a lot of articles and you recently wrote one for inc.com about direct communication and empathy. And as soon as I read that article, I knew I wanted to have you on the podcast to talk about this exact topic. So tell me more about why you're passionate about this. What inspired you to write that article?

Emma: Yeah. Thank you. First all, thank you so much for being my article. So I think empathy gets a little bit of a bad rap sometimes. I think people think that empathy and being direct are mutually exclusive uh and uh I actually think it's the complete opposite. So people kind of can treat empathy. Sometimes as this this fluffy time sink where you know, I don't have time to have a full conversation and if I have to, you know get this person's perspective and you know think of the complete right way to phrase everything and have this long drawn-out conversation about emotions and feelings like I don't have time for that. And I actually think that's not really what empathy at work is about at all. When I think it is is more about perspective taking I mean you think about it from the from the vantage point of perspective taking all that is is a simple. Hey, can you help me understand where you're coming from, or are we aligned here? Right and it's funny because I think a lot of times that can actually be committing communication much more efficien. If two sides are coming to the table with completely different perspectives and neither one is taking the time to ask. Hey, where you coming from on this? I've definitely witnessed it where you don't really get very really get very far. Right? Like you can waste a lot of time say well, this is what I think the other but this what I think right and it actually is a lot more expedient if you just ask. Hey, can you help me get on the same level as you? I don't think I'm really understanding where you're coming from, and as soon as you kind of do that perspective taking you can solve a problem from the same side of the table versus on the opposite sides and that's faster.

Kate:  Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. If you're not on the same wave. I mean, I think that this crosses into so many different things other than just in the office, you know, like we when we have a conversation with someone we want to make sure that we're on the same wavelength before we take the time to talk to them about something. That doesn't just go away as soon as you enter the office. So absolutely very good points. So we know that honesty and transparency are really big buzz words and corporate culture nowadays. Although they both mean well, of course, in your opinion what types of communication styles like this, you know, like kind of vague honesty transparency are helpful in building an awesome company culture. Like, how does this empathetic approach translate to building a more open or more understanding culture at work?

Emma: Yeah. I mean again, I think that if you I love to reframe empathy as perspective-taking at work and that's not that's not all of what empathy means but I think perspective-taking is a really helpful reframe for people to understand how to get on the same page as someone at work. How to use it at work. And I think that thinking about it from a perspective taking angle actually is a is a huge boon to creating an been an honest culture because if you make it a habit and everyone around you makes to habit to say help me understand. You know, what can I, how are you looking at this? What's your point of view? Right like over time that just creates a much more open and trusting relationship because people know that you're not just saying that to those aren't empty words like you really mean that you want to hear this other person's perspective so that you can have a productive conversation. One thing I will say is they think that it's important to remember that you can't just it's not a one-and-done thing. Right like it takes time for people to kind of trust and um get to know you. And so I think one thing I see is that you know, when people the first time they say hey what feedback do you have or what's your perspective on this? Right and the other person is sort of a little bit hesitant to give their answer. It can be really tempting to be like, well I checke that box. Right? Like now this person knows that I'm always open to their opinion and I don't think that's really I think it's a matter of repeating it over time. and that every time you repeat like hey, can get your perspective can get your perspective? Right that person begins to trust I they really want to hear what I have to say. And so and that that is opens the door to having a really open and honest culture. So think especially in leadership is really important to remember that this isn't just a one and done thing. It really has be repeated and intentional over time. 

Kate: Yeah, I love that and I love the the shift. From empathy which feels a lot more touchy-feely and warm and fuzzy like you said earlier to perspective-taking and I think that that directly relates to this other point that that I think is especially important to remember in smaller cultures where people are smaller companies with obviously smaller company cultures where you kind of feel like you need to be a certain way to build this company. You're like, I need to be this professional, you know person who gets a done and I have a lot of a lot on my plate and a lot to do especially for leadership, and I think something that comes from that is it might be a little scary for leadership to be empathetic or to be heart-centered because sometimes it can feel like oh when this happens professionalism kind of goes out the window. Where in this article you make really good points in you you actually argue that it  brings a little more professionalism, a little more directness into the conversation when you our leading with that that perspective taking yeah. Yeah, what are some ways that that leadership can be can find a nice balance between this the empathy or perspective taking and you know not being, you know being being afraid that professionalism is not going to be a thing anymore?

Emma: Yeah, you know, it's funny. It's oh so you had just said that sometimes people in leadership positions really feel like oh my God. I'm a leader right? I'm a leader now. That's I have to be a leader with a capital L. Yeah. That really is it's a totally understandable reaction. It's a very human reaction. You  know, I'm an authority figure and I have to act like an authority figure and the thing is when you come in at like that, you're just going to do one of our managers. I was just having this conversation with one of our newer managers the other I need such a good point. He was like when you come at it like that, you're just going to do an impression of the other leaders that you see and that you admire. And the thing is if you're doing an impression of someone else you're not yourself, right? And that is that authenticity of being yourself and having other people see that you are being yourself is huge for trust-building and for opening those lines of communication. So I think it's almost like kind of reframing that even as a positive sometimes right and authenticity and vulnerability are huge and I think we can get so wrapped up in this my God we have to do these, you know authority figures. It actually kind of like gets it gets the way of creating real trusted relationships and had not just build trusting relationships like trust is a is going to make everything more efficient, you know, like some shock you they're going to be forthright with you about okay this way I think is working this way I think this is not  instead of if someone doesn't trust you or there's no there's there's not that open line of communication there. It's going to take it's just going to be much more inefficient because you're not going to get this person's real answer and again the faster you can get to any conversation with the two people that are aligned and are solving the putting the issue  ahead of them versus between them. That is always going to be more efficient. So I think about everything and I think about all this stuff in terms of efficiency and saving time. 

Kate: Yeah for sure and I love that point that you just said you're putting the issue ahead of you instead of between you. That creates such a nice visual especially like, you know, I think about sitting down to have a conversation with someone and envisioning that, that thing that you need to solve the thing that you need to find solution for as something that is ahead both of you sort of like a little roadblock or something that you just need to get over rather than a wedge between the two of you. I think that helps trickle it down into so many different areas at work too where you know, you're if you're not being open and trusting and trying, you know.

Emma: I think authenticity and Leadership also is you have to keep in mind that as a leader you you model the behavior that You expect others to to demonstrate and if you are being authentic, it might seem scary like it is their ability. Yeah, but you're modeling that like I want you to be authentic to and again coming back to like perspective taking and efficiency, getting to the root of  any problem faster. If you're if you're modeling to other people and you're saying through your own behavior, it's okay to be your authentic self. It's okay to be honest in this room because I’m being honest even when it's scary your direct reports are going to take that cue from you, and how much faster is that going to be to solve any problem when they're being authentic and forthright and honest but it's important to remember that your behavior sets the tone for how you want them to show up. 

Kate: Yeah, exactly. Love it. Okay. So on these episodes I like to do sort of a rapid fire about perks because you know perks is the name of the series. It's kind of what we own. It's what I do at my company. So to start what types of perks do you have at Lola.com? 

Emma: We have all the typical period seed bank right former um tech company. We got the snacks. We have a beer. We have M&M's, you know, we have all we have a game room. We have actually one of one of the more interesting ones as we have a stage here. Yeah stage with a witch with a full band instruments. 

Kate: Wow. 

Emma: Yeah, so so we have beer Friday's here. And sometimes we have an actual in-house band. They're called Purple Haze, which is very on-brand for Lola purple is our color. So that's that's fun too. Yeah. It's time to go take a look. We also do karaoke here sometimes like the the stage has all sorts of  all sorts of fun benefits that said though. I always say that we have so many fun perks, but I don't want anyone to work here for the perks. I don’t  want anyone to choose to work here for the purse. um want anyone stay here for the want people to stay here because or choose here because of the mission because of the people, because of those things are that are a little bit more meaningful right to people. I mean if you love you know, M&M's right? Like I love M&M's too, uh there are so many companies out there that you can get out. Right? Like I always think the icing on the cake. Yeah exactly icing on the cake. It's yeah, I we want people to come here. Because of the culture and that's a little bit more that's uh little deeper to me that you know, all the all the perks. Yeah off my soapbox. 

Kate: No girl totally know that's yeah, that's absolutely our mission. And I know that probably everyone that's listening to this episode is on the same page about that for sure. So taking that into account, if you can correlate that mission with one of the perks that you have at your company if you could choose that to have forever. Which one would it be and why?

Emma: Oh, that's a good one. I'll answer this in terms of um our benefits. So I think perks and benefits are a little bit different. And one thing I'm really proud of is the fact that we have very competitive health insurance benefits, one of our core tenants of our culture. One of our big values is called wicked loving, and that means that we care about people here. We’re culture people who care about each other who support each other empower each other give each other difficulty back if that's standing in way of our growth, right? Like we really are invested in each other here and that comes out that's reflected in our healthcare. We have well it uh pays for a hundred percent of a premium in terms of any health care plan not just for the subscriber, but for any anyone else plan as well as your first 50 percent of the deductible. So we really want to communicate with that that even though you know we It's a fairly competitive for the size that we are but when we say that we're Wicked loving we don't want to talk out of both sides of our mouths. Like when we say we care about people we want to show that in terms of uh you know, we want you to be well liked uh please go to the doctor, right? Let's see. Well like mind body and soul. So I think that's something I'm super proud of here. 

Kate: Yeah. I love that and just for reference. How big is is Lola 

Emma: Right in about a hundred twenty employees, roughly. 

Kate: Cice. Lastly last but not least. What is your ultimate dream perk? So taking out all of the cost all of the you know, bigger Mission. What is one thing you could have if you could have you would whether it's like puppies in the office nap pods a sous chef. What would you a bartender a fulltime bartender there? What would you what would you choose? 

Emma: I think my dream perk would be to I love Of being able to cater parks to individuals. This is kind of cheating. But like I would love it if we could just like wave a magic wand and uh someone says like oh man, this would make my life like 10% better or something like that and make that perk uh reality for them whether that's like student loan repayment, whether that's a certain number, you know donation to a charity that you're interested in, whether that's I know setting up a college fund for your kids like whatever that is. I think that I would love to be able to cater it to the individual that's kind of cheating, but that's just not something. 

Kate: So wholesome and Earnest and goes back to your our first conversation where you said that your Midwest unintentionally comes out sometimes. Your hospitality side. 

Emma: Yeah. It's Yeah. I mean, I always think about parks in terms of like it's just what's meaningful to individuals, right? It's kind of the it's a double-edged sword in terms of when you're people ops you have to make decisions for the majority. Easy, but what's going to be meaningful to you? And your life is so personal and yeah, I would love to just be able to do to make a meaningful impact on every single person and an individual level. 

Kate: Yeah, I love that and that's I mean Zestful, you're like setting me up for the perfect pitch. That's that I totally we’re on the same page about that. I totally get that and that's why my company exists because you know, we want we want people to we want them to feel personal. We want perks to feel persona.l If you're not to someone. We want it to feel like, you know, it's catered to you. So that's so sweet. Emma. Thank you so much again for having this chat. I'm going to go into every meeting now thinking, how can I how can I be better at taking perspective? And I think that that probably is how our listeners feel as well. So thank you. 

Emma: Thank you so much Kate and your I know you're already great at taking perspective, but I'm just I'm I just just glad That you found it valuable and thank you so much. This is really a pleasure talking to you. 

Kate: Yeah, you too. And if our listeners want to stay connected to you, how can they do that? 

Emma: Yeah. um I am on Twitter at Emma J. Oz 24 find me on LinkedIn send me a message. I literally respond to every single LinkedIn message I get so so I love your holidays. I love to hear from people on LinkedIn and my email address is Emma at Lola.com. So anywhere you can find me is wonderful and I would love to start up conversation. 

Kate: Love it. Alright, thanks so much, Emma, and we will talk soon.

Emma: All right, uh thank you, Kate 

Announcer: 53% of employees today say having fringe benefits at work increases in our quality of life. And when you get to say goodbye to the reimbursement process your quality of life increases too. Zestful consolidates employee perks, rewards, and recognition all into one easy to use platform. See a special sneak peek of what your company can gain from. Festivals employee perk software by visiting zestful dot com slash crafting culture. That's Z E S T F U L dot com slash crafting culture. Thanks for listening to crafting culture from Sweetfish Media. Whether it's at the office or at home, here's to getting better every single day. Let's never stop learning.

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