Lead with compassion

Culture  Leadership
10 December, 2018

Compassion is a “power” skill that drives performance and innovation

When you think of successful leadership, what qualities come to mind? Decisive, ambitious, passionate, objective? 

It’s not surprising if “compassionate” didn’t occur to you. Compassion is usually classified as a “soft” skill, which makes people think it’s optional. Yet, as growing research shows, compassion is a key requirement for leaders today. 

So, this week, my message focuses on the business value of compassion, and how you can become a more compassionate leader. 

At senior management levels, compassion tends to take more of a backseat. As people climb the corporate ladder, they become increasingly busy, distracted and disconnected. In their preoccupation with targets and the bottom-line, they overlook their team members’ concerns and struggles. Ironically, this lack of empathy actually prevents leaders from achieving their full potential. 

Practicing compassion offers a significant competitive edge – to a leader, as well as to their organisation. Research shows that compassionate leaders are perceived to be stronger and better. They also inspire greater engagement and win more followers.

Another study found that companies with high levels of compassion (along with positive behaviours like forgiveness) boast better performance, innovation, customer retention, and profits. Not to mention lower turnover. 

Working for a compassionate leader gives teams the drive and psychological safety to take risks and innovate. Think about it: if your manager treated you like a cog in the machine, would you be motivated to share your best ideas and stick your neck out? No – you’d put in the minimum effort required and play it safe. On the other hand, leaders who genuinely care about their team members and have their backs, inspire them to go the extra mile. 

Lionel Valdellon, in his article Compassion Isn’t a Soft Leadership Skill. It’s a Crucial Power Skill, cautions that the language is an important indicator of how you approach your team: 

If you call people management skills “soft” skills, or if colleagues are “assets,” “resources,” or “headcounts,” then you may be losing empathy for your team. Especially if you start using the word “performance” more than “people.” 

In his 2018 address to the graduating class at Wharton, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner mentions another underrated benefit of a compassionate culture: 

The long-term value of a company is based on the speed and quality of its decision-making. It’s hard to make better decisions faster when people on the team lack trust in one another and are constantly questioning each other’s motivations. In an environment like that, you’ll spend most of your time navigating corporate politics, rather than focusing on the task at hand. I’ve been there, and it’s no fun. 

The flip side is developing a culture with a compassionate ethos…. create a culture where people take the time to understand the other person’s perspective, and not assume nefarious intention; build trust; and align around a shared mission…. Create the right culture, and you create a competitive advantage. 

In fact, Weiner’s speech focuses largely on compassion, a skill he advocates for very strongly. As he explains, he wasn’t always compassionate at work – this was a learning process. During his previous stint at Yahoo, Weiner was aggressive, dictatorial, and a poor listener. His management style was described as “wielding his fierce intelligence as a blunt instrument”. Eventually, he realised this was an ineffective approach, one that made everyone (including himself) unhappy and unproductive. 

For Weiner, inspiration came in the form of a book on the Dalai Lama’s teachings, The Art of Happiness, which clarifies the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is feeling what another person feels. Compassion goes further: along with putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, you are also motivated to help them.You become proactive, instead of remaining passive. To put in another way, compassion = empathy + action. 

So, how can you become a more compassionate leader? Here are some suggestions that I found very helpful: 

1. Be mindful 

Compassion springs from mindfulness. Being fully present and open (rather than distracted and shut down) allows you to be aware of underlying emotions – your own, as well as other people’s. Only when you are mindful can you hit pause and put yourself in someone else’s shoes, instead of “mindlessly” ignoring or unleashing your frustration on them. 

For example, if a team member, who was previously a star performer, has missed yet another deadline, your first response could be a furious tirade. With a mindful approach, however, you’re able to recognise your own emotional reaction, take a deep breath, and let the anger go. Then, you can get down to the crucial business of asking: Why? What’s happened that is making this once-excellent employee underperform? And how can I help them get back on track? 

2. Alleviate suffering 

This might sound a bit intense. But remember, one of your key responsibilities as a leader is to ensure the success and wellbeing of your team members. When a person is suffering, it’s impossible for him to be productive and happy. So, it’s up to you to lessen their pain in whatever ways you can. This could be as simple as approving leave, tweaking schedules, or enabling work from home. Or, it could mean providing support in a more complex, long-term situation – such as dealing with the illness of a family member. 

3. Make tough calls 

As a leader, practicing compassion involves making hard decisions that no one else can (or wants to). For instance, if you see a team member struggling in their new role, despite having enough support and time to learn the ropes, then you need to address it. This could mean finding them a more suitable position or facilitating their return to the previous role. 

Yes, it may be uncomfortable and temporarily upsetting – but don’t turn a blind eye out of a misguided sense of kindness. In an interview with CNBC, Weiner explains that when someone is in the wrong job, it isn’t just bad for their team – it’s also extremely damaging to the individual: 

A lot of people have been in situations where you work with a colleague who is not able to get the job done. That person may have previously been self-confident and assertive and had a lot to contribute at meetings and to the team. Over time, they just become a shadow of their former selves. You can see it in their body language and the way they show up at a table. You don’t hear from them as often and they’re just not the same. 

4. Be a solver, not a “scolder” 

Do your team members feel comfortable enough to approach you when they’re struggling with a problem and are unable to solve it? Or do they hide their fears and pretend everything is fine – until it’s too late? A compassionate leader responds to their team’s challenges with curiosity and resourcefulness (“Okay, I’m glad you came to me. Let’s figure this out together.”), not with irritation and selfishness (“Why are you bothering me with this? I have enough to worry about!”). Remember, the person is probably already stressed when they come to you. Your response should motivate and help them, not send them into a downward spiral of negativity. 

5. Put people first 

In Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations, Monica Worline and Jane Dutton note the importance of putting people before business, especially during a crisis. They give the example of how Phil Lynch, then-president of Reuters America, responded to the events of September 11, 2001. The company lost track of several employees due to the attack, as well as losing data infrastructure housed in the World Trade Center. From the outset, Lynch’s directive was clear: “People first, then customers, then the business.” 

Senior managers worked round the clock in a hastily set-up command centre to locate the missing employees and find out the condition of long-time clients. Many didn’t leave the building for days. Lynch sent hourly updates to everyone, relaying the status of public transport in the city. The cafeteria opened its doors to all, serving free food. Families of missing employees were flown in, met personally by company leaders at the airport, shielded from reporters, and helped each step of the way. Through all these actions, Reuters demonstrated that the wellbeing of their people was their top concern – and not just on paper. 

6. Compassion training 

According to Dr. Richard Davidson, neuroscientist and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, compassion is a trainable skill that can be “exercised” like a muscle. One simple way is to practice putting yourself in other people’s shoes, especially the “difficult” people in your life. Meditation and mindfulness exercises can also help. A study conducted by Davidson’s team found that dedicating 30 minutes a day to a simple compassion meditation led to increased empathy and altruistic behaviour after merely two weeks. 

7. Just listen 

It may not always be possible for you to alleviate someone’s suffering in a practical way. After all, some things are out of our control. In such situations, the most compassionate thing you can do is give them your undivided attention when they share their struggle. Hear them out patiently: the simple act of listening can have a great comforting and healing effect. 

Compassion isn’t just good for your team and the organisation – its benefits also extend to you, personally. David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, highlights its close links with grit and perseverance: people who feel compassion (along with pride) will keep at a challenge 30 percent longer than those who don’t. Moreover, a compassionate attitude can strengthen interpersonal relationships and ease depression. 

So, why not start working on this “power” skill today?


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