Compassion is more important than ever before

Culture  Leadership
11 May, 2020

Reasons why compassionate leadership is vital during periods of upheaval and change

If we can find compassion in our hearts, from the tragedy of the Covid-19 pandemic, we can act to help all of humanity and develop a more just and safe future for all. We humans are destined to live together. How we choose to live together, is up to us! – Kailash Satyarthi, Nobel Peace Laureate

Compassion is key to being a great leader. However, the real test comes during a crisis, such as the one we’re facing right now. So, this week, my message focuses on why compassionate leadership is vital during periods of upheaval and change. Right now, people around the world are dealing with multiple unprecedented problems: job-related uncertainty, the fear of COVID, working from home, multiple responsibilities like childcare and household chores and (at the other end of the spectrum) extreme isolation. According to a recent survey in the US, 45 percent of adults reported that the pandemic has had a negative effect on their mental health. No wonder then, that many people are battling anxiety and struggling to cope.

Under these conditions, the traditional style of tough-as-nails, authoritarian leadership is less suitable than ever. In an article published by McKinsey earlier this month, Tuning in, turning outward: Cultivating compassionate leadership in a crisis, the authors highlight the urgent need for leaders to practice compassion:

A “landscape-scale crisis” such as COVID-19 strips leadership back to its most fundamental element: making a positive difference in people’s lives. As our research has outlined, an imperative for leaders in such times is to demonstrate compassionate leadership and to make dealing with the unfolding human tragedy the first priority.

In this crisis, we must lead our teams compassionately and inspire trust, loyalty and engagement – all of which are essential to respond nimbly, develop creative solutions and deliver results in a rapidly-evolving landscape.

The failure to do so can have severe consequences, as outlined in the McKinsey piece:

The inability to deal with stress and trauma can exact a human toll on individuals and portend dire consequences for organisations. An organisation mired in collective fear and focused on control will not unleash the creativity and innovation necessary to navigate a crisis and emerge healthy on the other side.

Compassion 101

One of the best definitions of compassion comes from Thupten Jinpa, the English translator for the Dalai Lama, who breaks it down into three components:

  • Cognitive: “I understand you.”
  • Affective: “I feel for you.”
  • Motivational: “I want to help you.”

LinkedIn Chairman Jeff Weiner emphasises that empathy and compassion are not the same. Empathy means putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and feeling what they’re feeling. Compassion goes one step further and motivates you to actually help the person. Another aspect of caring leadership is the transition from “I” to “we”, from “me” to “us”. The idea is that we’re all in this together – no one has to fight their battles alone.

The leadership dilemma 

In the current crisis, caring leaders around the world are doing their best to protect their team members and their livelihoods. Unfortunately, their job also includes taking tough decisions around reduced salaries, cutbacks and – in the worst cases – letting people go. Even though you may do your best to help your team members, the undeniable truth is that, as a leader, you will also cause pain. As Peter Frost explains in his book, Toxic Emotions at Work:

All leaders create pain; it goes with the territory. In addition to sometimes providing inspiration and excitement, leadership is about pushing limits, setting new directions, and taking decisions that are not necessarily popular with one’s followers….and they often feel angry, disillusioned, frustrated or afraid. Outstanding leaders understand these dynamics and take steps to mitigate, minimise or mop up the pain they create.

A good example is the recent downsizing-related message from Brian Chesky, CEO of Airbnb. While many companies go the ‘cold and clinical’ route during layoffs, Chesky took a different approach: he was forthright, empathetic and transparent. What’s more, he walked the talk by announcing several measures around severance, equity, healthcare and job support.

Here are six recommendations to help you lead with compassion during this challenging period:

1. Look inward

As leaders, we’re facing the same challenges as everyone else, which may leave us stressed and anxious. Paradoxically, this is also the time that we need to demonstrate utmost care towards our teams. This doesn’t mean we should bottle up our fears and march on. Rather, we need to tune in to our emotions. The McKinsey report mentioned above explains why: 

Unless we recognise our own natural human response to a crisis and process these strong emotions, we won’t have the capacity to grasp these reactions from others we seek to help. In other words, leaders must first relate to and help themselves before they can do the same for others.

The authors recommend making time for self-connection. This doesn’t need to be elaborate or long drawn out. Try meditating for 5-10 minutes in the morning, and practice deep breathing for a few moments before taking major decisions. Take a short break during the day to notice and articulate the strong emotions within yourself that the crisis may have triggered – simply naming a feeling can be therapeutic. Finally, lower your guard and be open to receiving support from those you trust: family, friends and close colleagues. By recognising your feelings, sharing them and receiving compassion, you lay the foundation for becoming a more caring leader.

2. Accept that everyone is not in the same boat

Your team members are probably working under vastly different conditions right now. Some have help at home, others don’t. Some need to care for large families, others don’t. Some have reliable internet connections, others don’t. And so on and so forth. In the Harvard Business Review article, What Your Co-workers Need Right Now Is Compassion, Amy Gallo notes that people also have different coping mechanisms: 

Some may be rigid about social distancing while someone else may take a more flexible approach. And some colleagues may throw themselves into work, finding comfort in being busy, while others struggle to keep up and stay focused.

Leaders must accept these variances and realise that they can’t deploy a “one size fits all” approach.

3. Assume best intentions

In the HBR article mentioned above, Gallo confesses that the pandemic has made her very judgmental towards colleagues. Psychologists say this is natural: under extreme external stress, our own problems take centre stage while other people’s problems seem exaggerated. Compassion goes out of the window and we start judging one another harshly. Ironically, it’s at times like these that we most need kindness and understanding.

So, make an effort to interpret other people’s actions generously. For example, if one of your team members has become less responsive than usual, don’t instantly assume the worst. Take a pause and remind yourself that till a few weeks ago, you considered this individual to be dedicated and hard-working. It’s highly unlikely that they’ve suddenly turned lazy and irresponsible, right? Are they dealing with new challenges, such as home-schooling their kids or caring for elderly parents? Or maybe they’re dealing with problems that aren’t immediately obvious, such as mental health issues.

4. Move beyond feelings to action

As you learn more about the problems faced by your team members, figure out how you can genuinely help them. If you’re naturally empathetic, you might feel overwhelmed and think “but there’s nothing I can do about that”. That’s why it’s crucial to make the transition from empathy to compassion. In the Forbes article, How To Be More Compassionate During Coronavirus Crisis, Benjamin Laker elaborates:

This crisis requires a capacity to withstand or retain unpleasant feelings. Hearing or being conscious of someone’s difficulties can overwhelm a caring person, but it should not intimidate the person to the degree that it prevents them from acting. Leaders who feel distressed by the suffering of another person may turn away and may not be able to support or make the right move.

Remember, you may not be able to change the person’s circumstances, but you can still be an ally and lend vital support. One way to do this is to be more flexible about work arrangements. For example, if two people in your team are struggling to attend early morning calls due to the increased burden of household chores/childcare, consider rescheduling daily meetings to later in the day.

5. Validate the struggle

Do you try to motivate your team members by saying things like “it’s not such a big deal”, “just snap out of it” or “other people have it much worse”? To dismiss suffering in this way is counterproductive – it adds a burden of guilt and embarrassment without solving the problem. Don’t minimise a person’s struggle just because there are “bigger” problems out there. In the McKinsey piece referred above, the authors highlight the importance of validation:

When people exhibit fear and a desire for protection and self-preservation, compassionate leaders validate those feelings as normal. Again, naming emotions reduces tension and opens the door to addressing them. Provide safe workplace forums for stakeholders to express emotions. It will help individuals move past pain, stress, and anxiety, and refocus on their work and the organisation’s mission.

6. Build connections

Take this opportunity to connect with and demonstrate care for your team members. Reach out to those who seem to be struggling and check in on how they’re doing. You could also express gratitude to those who are doing their best despite the less-than-ideal circumstances: send a thank-you email, or give them a shout-out during your next virtual team meeting. Besides helping the individual, such acts from leaders can cascade empathy and care throughout the organisation.

How are you practising more compassion – towards your team and yourself – right now?
I look forward to your thoughts and suggestions.


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