Martha Bird: “Training leaders to be more empathetic”

Training leaders to be more empathetic. Over the course of the pandemic the best team leaders were those who made a conscious decision to ask team members: “how are you doing?” “How can I help?” Not everyone is comfortable expressing empathy or care but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of the capacity to do […]

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Training leaders to be more empathetic. Over the course of the pandemic the best team leaders were those who made a conscious decision to ask team members: “how are you doing?” “How can I help?” Not everyone is comfortable expressing empathy or care but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of the capacity to do so either. It takes practice. EXAMPLE: Setting up regular 1:1 check ins to better understand if team members are floundering or flourishing or someplace in between.


As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote the Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Martha Bird, Chief Business Anthropologist, ADP.

Martha Bird is a Business Anthropologist at the ADP Innovation Lab. She supports innovation in global product development to ensure ADP human capital management solutions are informed by the wisdom of human cultures and the everyday encounters which shape, evolve and transform the way we work.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Like many people, my career path is more twisted than straight. In hindsight the meanderings make a lot of sense to me even if, at the time, they seemed more like obstacles than opportunities. I started my working life on a family farm plowing fields, tinkering with equipment, and repairing outbuildings. I loved it. During the winter months when the physical labor halted, I found myself in need of some mental exercise. A graduate fellowship brought me to Cultural Anthropology. As a lifelong celebrant of diverse people and practices, I felt right at home.

After receiving my Ph.D. and with no intention to pursue a career in the Academy, I figured I would happily remain like many before me a well-educated farmer. But love interceded and my path led me to San Francisco where I began to apply what I had learned about “culture” and “field research” and “tinkering” to helping inform technologies that people found meaningful. I’ve worked in technology ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

That’s a tough one as there are so many. One story which I find especially poignant involved an agency I was collaborating with in Moscow. The founders of the company took me out to a “traditional Muscovite” restaurant. I was surprised by the invitation as compared to Americans, my Russian colleagues had seemed a bit hesitant to engage at first. Once seated around the table, each in turn delivered an eloquent toast, reflecting on the fact that as children growing up in Soviet Russia, they would never have imagined working with an American-based global tech company or, for that matter, an American Cultural Anthropologist. I felt similarly as I couldn’t have imagined working in Moscow with Russian technologists and designers. It was an evening filled with great connection and many unforgettable stories.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

My advice is industry agnostic and time-tested (by me for me). I’ve found that fear tends to create a set of conditions conducive to burnout. Many of us worry about how we are perceived by others. Do they think I’m working hard enough? Are they questioning my competence? Am I considered successful? Could I work harder? All these little voices speak to a self-perception of not measuring up — -of being “less than.” So, we tend to work harder and longer; though in the absence of self-regard, we also tend to lose inspiration and enthusiasm for our work. These factors can build into a state of feeling “burned out.”

It’s OK to be “good enough” and it’s OK to acknowledge our fears and embrace our own humanity. People are messy, life is complicated, and as individuals we are all part of that mix. Instead of letting fear drive you to setting unhealthy expectations, take a stand and say, “I can only do the best that I can do here and now and that’s the true measure of my success.”

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

First and foremost, be kind. There’s nothing worse than a bully. And, as many of us have learned, bullies are generally working from a place of fear (see advice above). I’d also propose that the days of command-and-control leadership — -a hold-over from the Industrial Revolution and a widget counting mindset — -are no longer sufficient (if they ever really were) to building highly engaged teams. Instead, leaders need to empower and inspire and lead by example. And it comes down to trust. Leaders need to trust that the individuals on their teams can by and large drive their own productivity and when this doesn’t seem to be the case than they need to ask and actively listen to the circumstances that might be hindering an individual’s success and then help to find ways to smooth out the bumps together. If you don’t trust an employee than you probably should be asking yourself why they are on your team.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“Remember to walk a mile in his moccasins
 And remember the lessons of humanity taught to you by your elders.
 We will be known forever by the tracks we leave
 In other people’s lives, our kindnesses and generosity.

Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.”

~ by Mary T. Lathrap, 1895

I have many “Life Lesson Quotes” that have given me pause for thought but this one by Mary Lathrap has served me very well over the years.

As a Cultural Anthropologist conducting research in many parts of the world, I have shared time with people whose lives and experiences are very different from my own. The opportunity to learn directly from “the locals” is precisely what I love about my vocation, and I feel deeply grateful for the opportunity to apply it. In the process, my intention is always to provide a lens for others to appreciate the importance of context more deeply on our own lived experiences.

Lathrap’s poem, Judge Softly, is a great reminder to take pause before jumping to conclusions about a person. First impressions are only lasting when you haven’t taken the time to get to know a person more fully. So yes, I try to be mindful to “judge softly.”

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about three steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

A growing awareness on the part of team leaders that a one-size fits all approach to returning to the workplace is untenable, as individual team members have unique pulls and pressures. EXAMPLE: For women largely tasked with childcare responsibilities, the best leaders are embracing a higher degree of flexibility. In some cases, it is this mind shift on the part of leadership that will help stem the flood of women forced to leave the workforce to keep domestic life on track.

Training leaders to be more empathetic. Over the course of the pandemic the best team leaders were those who made a conscious decision to ask team members: “how are you doing?” “How can I help?” Not everyone is comfortable expressing empathy or care but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of the capacity to do so either. It takes practice. EXAMPLE: Setting up regular 1:1 check ins to better understand if team members are floundering or flourishing or someplace in between.

Set boundaries around working and non-working time and make it an official company policy. EXAMPLE: Executive leadership explicitly stating that no one should be sending or needs to respond to emails after a certain time, for example. Employees who feel you respect their time are much more likely to bring their better selves to work.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest raising awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

Like so many things, it starts from the top. Executive leadership needs to lead the way when it comes to raising awareness of this and many other critical workplace initiatives. The ability to share personal experiences not only humanizes leaders, but it also introduces the possibility of reciprocal vulnerability for employees. At ADP, the hashtag “ADPitsOK” is meant to acknowledge and reinforce the message that each of us has times of struggle and that’s “OK;” you’re not alone.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

In my experience, listening with attention and being listened to with attention are key to caring for others and for yourself. Listening in this intentional way signals you are being heard and, by extension, you are important, your thoughts are given consideration and you are respected as an individual. When people are feeling “less than,” the last thing they need is someone talking at them. Active listening allows for more meaningful sharing and is one important way to build more trusting, more healthy relationships.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

I’ve alluded to this already, but I believe it’s a thought worth reiterating and that’s about letting go of aspirations of perfection. First, perfection is an illusion based on the idea that somewhere, someone or something has achieved a universal standard of “the best.” Like so many things, “the best” is context dependent and, consequently, relative, and prone to change. My version of the best is likely not your version of the best. I prefer to think more in terms of “doing the best I can” and that my best is good enough and leave it at that. It comes down to self-acceptance. I accept I’m not perfect and that is a very freeing realization. My mother once said: “oh, how horrible to be perfect. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” I couldn’t agree more. So, getting in the habit of acknowledging that you’re not perfect and that life is messy, and people are messy too opens a clearing for a higher degree of self-acceptance and hopefully greater self-love. It’s amazing how much more joyful life can be when you free yourself from the untenable pursuit of perfection. Even better when you feel confident enough to celebrate a lack of perfection.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

I’m a big fan of the indoor spin bike. I try to do an hour or so 4 to 5 days a week. I have always found that physical exercise both frees and focuses my mind. I also find growing vegetables in my tiny urban “home farm” joyful. Watching a seed grow into a plant that then becomes a tasty meal is cool. It restores my connection with all the living things around me — -including the aphids that are currently munching on my pepper plants. It reminds me of my sense of place. It grounds me. I find that comforting.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

I’ve enjoyed different books at different times of my life, so I’d say it’s a “circumstantial” matter. I adored E.B. White’s Stuart Little as a child and, in fact, I still do. Following the well-dressed, ingenious, and kind-hearted tiny mouse Stuart as he set upon adventure after adventure while sleeping in a matchbox and traveling by souvenir canoe was great food for the imagination.

His way of doing things appealed to both my sense of practicality — -making do with what you have — and my love of everyday stuff that under certain conditions can become extraordinary, i.e., the matchbox for a bed. As a mouse who is a son in a human family in NYC, Stuart also impressed on my young mind that difference takes creativity and courage.

I’d like to think I’ve learned a bit from his grit and sense of kind-hearted mischief.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I’d say that a worldwide person-to-person “listening” movement would be something I’d personally get behind. I can imagine individual conversations taking place across the world (with consecutive translation, of course) on a series of themes. For instance, “family,” or “love,” or “work,” where each interlocutor shares and listens (listening is its own form of sharing) to the perspectives of the other. My hope would be that active listening at scale would help to build greater awareness of the differences — -some to celebrate, some to consider more critically — — that contribute to our shared humanity.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/martha-bird-a78b261/

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