Building Empathetic Workplaces with Katharine Manning

Katharine Manning spent 15 years advising the Justice Department on victim issues in its most challenging cases, from terrorism to child exploitation to large-scale financial fraud. She is now the President of Blackbird DC, an organization dedicated to helping institutions prepare for and respond to the challenges they face involving employees and members of the public working through trauma. She has recently written a book about her work, entitled The Empathetic Workplace, available in February 2021.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Katharine about how leaders today can increase their EQ and how business owners can more effectively navigate the trauma their customers and employees are facing as a result of Covid-19. Listen to the full interview here, or read the transcript below. 


Brandon Green: Hello, everyone! I am really excited today to have a conversation with Katharine Manning, and the reason that this, I believe, is a really powerful conversation is the work that she’s doing. The topic that she has chosen to own couldn’t be more relevant in the time that we’re in now. As a matter of fact, I had the privilege of having a conversation with Katharine just a few weeks ago. And subsequent to that conversation, we’ve had a couple of smaller conversations. And I thought, you know what? I want to bring to you the vibe that Katharine is offering, the content that she has. And she’s got a new book coming out in February, too, that we want to talk about! 

And so I’m just really happy to have you here today. Welcome, Katharine. Thank you for being here. 


Katharine Manning: Thank you! I’m so excited to get to talk with you. Thanks for having me. 


BG: Absolutely. All right. So let’s just let’s start a little bit with your story so that people can get to know you a little bit and understand your background, where you’re from, what you’ve been doing, and then we’ll get into it.


KM: Absolutely. So, my background is in victim work, so I have worked with victims of crime for more than 25 years. I started off as a volunteer on the domestic violence hotline in my town where I went to college and continued doing work as an advocate, as a counselor and as an attorney once I went to law school. And for 15 years, starting in 2004, I was at the U.S. Department of Justice, and I was the Senior Attorney Advisor on victim rights at DOJ, which meant that it was my job to advise the department on policies around how it works with victims, as well as guide it through victim issues in all different kinds of cases—so anything from a giant terrorism case, like the Boston Marathon bombing or the Pulse nightclub shooting, to a huge fraud case, like Bernie Madoff or Enron, to child exploitation case. You know, some of these very small cases that don’t make it in the news but have really, really grueling and devastating impacts on individuals. 

So, through this time of working through these different kinds of cases, it became clear to me that there are some certain things—sort of parameters for guideposts—for what people in trauma need. And they were consistent across the different types of victimization—things like, people need information that is true, whether you’re a victim of terrorism or fraud or child exploitation or whatever it is. But the thing that really dawned on me was, those things that those people needed, we all need all the time when we’re dealing with kind of much more mundane traumas.

So, I found myself, I would come out of a meeting, and one of my coworkers was furious about the way somebody spoke to him in the meeting, and he’s in my office and he’s pacing around, and he’s so angry. And I’m using those same skills that I had been honing for 25 years: “So, let me validate what you’re saying,” “Let me repeat back, give you some space,” “I’m just going to stay present with you”—all of those things. And I realize this is something that we’re all encountering all the time, but we’re often not very good at responding well. 

It was honestly after [the #MeToo movement] that I started thinking, Maybe this has broader application and maybe more people need this information. Because I saw one of the things that sort of frustrated me about #MeToo—I felt like #MeToo was phenomenal at teaching survivors that it’s okay to share their story, but not good at teaching society how to listen. And so, again and again, we would see people share these really intimate, hard, embarrassing, sometimes, stories. And then, instantly, it’s this, “Who do you believe? Is she credible? Is she sane?”—all this stuff without just taking a minute of saying, “Thank you for sharing that. It sounds awful.” And so I thought, Well, let’s think through, kind of on a deeper level, what it is I would say that people in trauma need. And that’s when I started writing the book. 

And I’ve been sort of amazed to see how much our world today is struggling with these same issues, because, you know, it’s not just #MeToo where this stuff comes up. It comes up when we talk about racial justice. It comes up when we’re talking about joblessness, when we’re talking about people’s fears around coronavirus. I mean, that the rates of anxiety in this country have quadrupled in the past year. 


BG: Yeah, we can all feel that without even looking at the statistics. 


KM: Absolutely.


BG: Let me ask you a question, and back up a little bit, that the work that you have found yourself in can sometimes be a bit heavy and really quite serious. I’m curious, what has brought you to this work overall? What has been the calling card that set you off in this direction?


KM: Yeah. So, most of the people who end up in the victim field are people who have had some sort of personal experience. My own background is that I came from a family history with domestic violence. And I was very, very lucky—my mother had the family support and the wherewithal to leave an abusive relationship. And I didn’t grow up in an abusive household, but it was something that was very formative to me early on. And then, literally as soon as I walked on campus [at college], I started volunteering at the domestic violence shelter, and hearing some of the stories there is what propelled me to law school, because I saw how difficult it was for those who have been victimized in domestic violence cases to get a fair shake in in the legal system. So that’s what sent me to law school.


BG: And that, fast forward many years, it seems, finally set you on the course to bring your work more broadly to the public and write a book. And the book, for your information, everybody who’s listening, is called The Empathetic Workplace. And so, what has been the leap for you to go from that work to saying, let’s talk about the workplace in particular and how to, sort of, take this idea of—when I think of trauma, I think of “capital T” trauma, like big, huge things, where you’re starting to say, hey, on an everyday basis in your organization, in your family and in your life, you might have more like “small t” trauma. And we’re all experiencing it to a degree. What brought you to that type of focus?


KM: Yeah, yeah. Thanks for the question. So, absolutely, I think of trauma—you know, often, people think it’s either veterans or sexual assault survivors. That’s who experiences trauma, right? [But] I think of trauma more as any kind of emotional injury that’s affecting your performance.


BG: Oh, I love that definition. So, any kind of emotional injury that is affecting your performance—and that really could run the spectrum?


KM: Yeah, absolutely. So, if you are caring for a sick spouse, that is something that is weighing on you and that may be affecting your ability to do your job, right? So, then the question of why bring it into the corporate space or how to bring it into the corporate space—so I thought for a little while about just writing the book more generally of how to support people in trauma. But I decided that it made more sense to bring it into an organizational structure for a couple of reasons: One is my own background with advising [the] DOJ for many years. I had a unique perspective on the challenges that an organization faces when you want to be supportive, but you have competing interests. You know, there are always going to be budgetary constraints, right? You can’t do everything. You’re always going to have competing interests with other employees or members of the public, your clients, your customers. And you’re always going to have your mission. At DOJ, our mission was to make sure that crime is being investigated and prosecuted. Victims were an important part of that, but they weren’t the only consideration, and so it was important that you balance these factors. Every organization is going to have that issue. You are concerned and you want to be supporting your workers, but you still have to get your product out the door. So, let’s figure out how to do that.


BG: That’s interesting. So what I’m hearing you say, it’s not “either/or.” It’s really “and.” Actually, that’s one of my questions—because I’ve certainly struggled with that myself in my businesses—when something happens in someone’s life, generally speaking, I’d like to know about it because it’s very likely to affect their performance. Though, what do I do with it? Right? I mean, there certainly have been instances where I have felt under-equipped to sort of deal with some of that stuff that is coming up. And yet, as the owner of the business responsible for delivering a result, I’m like, “Well, I need to figure out how to deal with it.” So, what are you seeing out there in terms of what’s happening in the workplace, given the amount of trauma in the air right now, both directly and indirectly? And how are people handling that? What do you recommend?


KM: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. It’s very difficult to know what to—and so much harder now because we aren’t in person most of the time. You know, we have these challenges of trying to connect with people through a screen, like we’re doing right now, and a lot of how we connect is through our interactions face to face. It’s even harder right now at this time when we need it even more. So, it is really challenging, and I’m definitely hearing a lot from leaders that they are struggling with—you know, I talked with a guy recently who is the head of a pharmaceutical company, and he said, “Our drugs are being shipped to 85 countries around the world, and people need these medications. I have to have people come to work, and they’re scared. And so I have to figure out a way to be supportive, understand what the fears are, do what we can to make a safe environment, and communicate really, really well.” 

And that’s the thing that I think is so essential for leaders right now is just communicate, communicate, communicate. I believe that when we are in times of crisis, we look to our leaders to support us, to protect us. And when we feel like our leaders are kind of checked out, and we don’t know what they’re doing—or even worse, we feel like they’re putting us in danger—that can that can really be detrimental, both in the individuals, you know, that instant moment, but also for years to come. It’s sort of a breach of trust. 

The flipside of this, though, is this is a phenomenal opportunity for leaders because people need help. And this is your chance to show them, “I am going to lead well through this, you can trust me.” And boy, can you build trust in that moment when people are feeling that fear and you can show up and be strong and supportive and show them that you care about them—that is going to build these iron-tight bonds between you and your organization and that individual employee or client. So the things that you do today are going to reverberate for decades to come.


BG: Give us a couple of examples of things you’re observing leaders doing that are what you’re talking about, in terms of “communicate, communicate, communicate” and building that empathetic workforce or workplace. What have you seen, some examples?


KM: Yeah, I mean, right now, I think the kind of textbook example of a good empathetic leader through a crisis is Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand. She has been just incredible in terms of the way that she has led her country through this coronavirus. And there are a few things she did. Before they locked down the country, they spent a few days just on an education campaign. So, there were a lot of news conferences, a lot of different ways of getting information out. And then the night before they locked everything down—I mean, I think New Zealand is a pretty spread out the country, so a lot of rural areas there—they did this really loud siren that went across the whole country to let people know, Something is happening. You need to pay attention right now. It was like an alert system. And then she went on that night, just on Facebook Live, and she spoke directly to the citizens, and she started—I love this because it was such an empathetic acknowledgment—she started by saying, “So, I know you heard the siren, and that may have been pretty disturbing. And probably some of your kids were scared to hear that. Here’s why we did that: It’s really important that everybody be aware of what’s happening.” So, she started with just an acknowledgment that this is hard and scary, and I’m going to be asking something of you. And then very clear communication. 

So, all the way through, her slogan was, “Stay home to save lives.” And she said it again and again and again. And they had it all over the place, you know, and all of the communication, “Stay home to save lives.” Everybody knows this is what we are doing and why. What I love about that is both the clarity of it—one of the things that happen when we’re in trauma is our brains get less good at processing information, so very short, clear statements and repeating is very helpful—and I love that she is asking things of people. One of the things that it can be really challenging is when you don’t feel useful; you’re being acted upon. “This horrible thing has happened, and now I can’t do the things that I’m used to doing.” Having a leader say, “We do need you. We need you to step up and do this,” it gives you a sense of autonomy and kind of a chance to bring back some power.


BG: That’s interesting. It’s almost a bit counterintuitive, because there have been times when I’ve led people in trauma and, whatever has happened in their life, there’s a tendency to almost take them out of the game and say, “Well, you need to go. Why don’t you go home for a couple of weeks?” But maybe not—maybe that’s actually not the right approach.


KM: Yeah. And I would definitely talk to them and see what they want. For some people, maybe that’s exactly what they need. But for others, a chance to have the distraction. And this I know you know, when you think about like, “Gosh, everything at home is on fire, but I have this workplace where I feel good and supportive and productive. That might be exactly what they need.”


BG: You know, we recently had somebody in our organization whose spouse passed away unexpectedly, and she was back in the office maybe two days later, three days later. And at first it seemed a bit jarring for everybody else, right? You know, “What are you doing here right now?” Her comment, though, was, “I need to be here to be distracted from my pain and sorrow, which I will deal with in the evening. But I can’t be, you know, crying all day, every day.” And I was like, well, sure. And of course, that was how she was dealing with it. 

So, I think it’s really valuable insight, though, which it’s not one-size-fits-all here and we really need to—and it goes back to, I think, the point you were making earlier on, which is listening. Is it as easy as that? And I don’t want to make listening sound easy, because great listening is not easy at all. Though, is that what we really need to do as leaders is just listen better? And does that potentially solve a lot of these challenges?


KM: So it is the first and most important piece. The second piece, though, I think is equally important, and I think is where, when things go badly, it is often because of a failure of the second piece, which is acknowledge. So, you can sit and listen and do a great job. And then, if as soon as they finish talking, you pivot to some other topic—


BG: “Anyway—I’ve got a twelve o’ clock!” 


KM: Yeah, yeah. So, it’s really important that we just kind of give some sense of acknowledgment that this person, you know, “I’m so sorry about your spouse,” and “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do. It’s always okay to talk to me.” Those kinds of things are really good. That’s sort of the situation where it sounded like she wasn’t coming to you specifically for help. But if it is somebody instead coming to you for help, somebody saying, you know, “I need to do a leave of absence,” or “I need to come to you with a complaint because I’m being discriminated against,” or something like that, there are a few more steps involving sharing information and giving them resources and stuff like that. But honestly, the first two steps—listen and acknowledge—are far and away the most important.


BG: Wow. So a lot more to do, clearly. Though, if you start with listening and an incredibly important acknowledgement, then you’re well on your way, it sounds like, to creating that environment in your organization where you’ve got an empathetic workplace. 


KM: Absolutely. 


BG: Yeah, that can be really powerful. 

Now, let’s flip the switch just a little bit and talk about it from the perspective of someone who has experienced trauma and their responsibility in this. How do they become a positive facilitator of the very workplace that they want and the type of dialogue they want potentially with their boss or their owner? Sometimes that’s the harder conversation, right? If something very private or dramatic happens, people keep that inside and don’t talk to people in leadership. So, what’s that side look like?


KM: Yeah. I think for people who are experiencing trauma, they have, I think, a real opportunity. It can be very scary in some environments to bring that up. And I think it’s important that we not kind of put the onus on them, that they’re the ones who have to change the workplace. But if they have gotten to the point where they are feeling stronger and more able to do it, there has been a lot of research and discussion recently about the power of informal leaders and when people are able to share the hard things right. So, you know, I have this thing about leaders that it’s important that you both talk the talk and also walk the walk, that it’s important that you be willing to make yourself vulnerable and share the hard things, because that’s how you model it— you show people it’s okay. But you don’t have to be the CEO to do that, and if you are somebody who has experienced something that is challenging, you opening up about it. I mean, think about it like a domestic violence victim, right? So, somebody who is currently experiencing an abusive relationship, it could be really scary. But if they are able to go to their workplace and say, “Listen, I am going to need to telework for a little while because I’m going to need to move away. I have to move to a secret location for a little while to get to my abuser.” The workplace can’t help you if they don’t know that you need that. 

And it’s an opportunity for them to really think through, “Do we have the kind of protections in place that we need as a workplace to support you, to support everybody you work with?” And it’s a chance after that survivor is kind of safe and in a better location—maybe that is a good time for them to start thinking about going back to their employer and saying, “I would love it if we could have a workplace discussion about domestic violence and maybe take a look at the policies we have in place around that.”

One of the things that has been most incredible for me to see in my work with victims is the amazing things they can do. You know, it can be hard. I mean, you sort of acknowledged this earlier—sometimes you hear about just horrible, awful things, you know, and you think you get so low and beaten down and just think, “Gosh, this is just so awful, these things happening in the world.” But then, if you stick with them—it might not be in five months, it might be five years later—but you look at the amazing changes they’re able to make in the world. And some people do it through art. I mean, just incredible art that people are creating. Some people do it through creating their own support organizations to support others. Some people do it through legislation. So, I mean, really tremendous power that people in trauma have been able to use to make changes that help all of us.


BG: We’re stronger than we know. And it certainly can be an opportunity for everybody in the organization and the team and in that relationship to strengthen the bonds between everybody in that group and create a better environment as a result. 

So, let’s talk about your book specifically. It’s The Empathetic Workplace, and it’s by Katharine Manning. And that’s, by the way, K-A-T-H-A-R-I-N-E, KatharineManning.com. And it’s coming out in February of 2021. Tell us a little bit more about the book specifically.


KM: So, the book is—it kind of has, I guess, three main parts. So first, it talks about how trauma shows up at work because it’s not always obvious that we don’t always know how trauma is already affecting the workplace. So, it talks about how trauma shows up at work. Then it talks about how trauma affects us, the brain of both the person in trauma, and the listener. Then it goes through the five steps to an empathetic response to trauma. And throughout each section, I have a whole lot of stories from the news, from my own personal life and experience. I think that storytelling is really the best way to understand a concept, seeing it in action. So as much as possible, I tried to weave in stories, and I had such a great time writing it. I loved it.


BG: Actually—that’s one of my questions—what has been your experience writing a book?


KM: Well, you know, I have three kids at home, and I work full-time and, you know, it is a busy, busy life. So trying to find time to write is not always easy for me. I’m an early morning writer, so I get up very, very early, often wake up and I’m at the keyboard by five or six in the morning and write for a couple of hours before everybody else gets up. I was very fortunate in this writing process. I had this idea. But you have to write a book proposal, right? And that was the thing. I could not find time to, like, get all of the proposal together. And then the federal government went on furlough in January 2019. 


BG: Sounds like an opportunity! 


KM: Exactly! So, I used those three weeks, and I hammered out the proposal. And I was very lucky that I found a wonderful agent, and I found a great editor at HarperCollins who really understood the need for it. She got why this was so important and really got behind it. And I feel so, so lucky to have found them.


BG: It’s fantastic. They’re smart, because they’re right. This is an incredibly important work. And really for any of us to have successful companies, I believe we’ve got to have a workplace that has empathy in it. Otherwise, what are you doing? 

So now, for people who are interested in it, go to KatharineManning.com again. You can place your pre-orders now on the site. And I’m on there now, and it looks like you can even get a free chapter by signing up. So that’s a bit exciting. 

So, tell us, what’s the goal around the book as you’re thinking about that coming out in February? Are you going on a book tour? Like how’s this all coming together for you?


KM: Actually, you know, that’s right, we’re in this space—I have no idea what it’s going to look like in February. So, I’m doing what I can now to line up a lot of these virtual conversations. And I’m also launching soon an online training. So I’m going to have a one-hour, as well as a five-hour, training on the concepts of the book. And my plan is actually, along with the [book] launch, to launch a workbook that people can use as they’re kind of going through the book, to take some notes for themselves on the concepts and things like, “What happens to me when I’m feeling under stress?” You know, for me, I know what a stress reaction feels like. And so when I start to feel it, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I’m starting to get a little stressed.” So, if you can keep track of that and write it down, I think that’s going to be going to be really helpful.


BG: Well, congratulations on all of your success and on writing this book, and thank you for doing this work. Because this really heart-centered work is so critical for all of us, in business, outside of business, in official leadership roles or not. So, anything that we can do to infuse this into the world is good work, and I really appreciate your contribution to that.


KM: Oh, thank you. Thank you for being an empathetic leader and for helping get the message out! 


BG: You bet. 

Alright, everybody. So please go to her website, KatharineManning.com, and sign up for her work. Clearly very powerful. And then, pre-order that book as well. All right. Thanks, folks. We’ll see you later. Thanks, Katharine.


KM: Thank you.