Lead with compassion

Culture  Leadership
29 May, 2017

To win the war for talent, we must first win the battle for employees’ hearts

Recently, our team members were sharing stories about Godrej values and what we stand for. Many people talked about how caring the organisation is. Team members mentioned numerous examples of when someone in the organisation or their family members were very sick or had an accident and how the company took care of the costs of treatment, regardless of what the policy limits were.

Increasingly, such compassion is becoming a requisite not just at the organisational level but for individual leaders as well.

A few weeks back, I had written a post on being a head-heart-hands leader (https://monday8amlive.wpengine.com/be-a-head-heart-hands-whole-leader/). The challenge is that many leaders are conditioned to lead with their head and hands and not with their hearts. The notion of the traditional leader is one who is hard-nosed, coercive, abrasive, stoic and distant. Some can even go as far as being narcissistic, self-serving and authoritarian.

While this approach can be effective for short-term results, it does not build sustainable, vibrant and happy organisations. It erodes trust, leads to disengaged employees and creates a toxic environment. And the problem is that because of great short-term results these leaders can typically deliver, they are often treated as heroes.  These behaviours remain under the radar screen till they finally implode one day.

The organisations of today and tomorrow require leaders who can lead with feelings. Increasingly, it is becoming important to inspire team members with purpose, energy, positivity and hope. Leaders need to build emotionally healthy organisations.

Therefore my message today is about leading with compassion.

So, what exactly is compassion? Thupten Jinpa, the English translator for the Dalai Lama, describes it best. He says that compassion has three components:

  • A cognitive component: “I understand you”
  • An affective component: “I feel for you”
  • A motivational component: “I want to help you”

There are two important aspects that are implicit in this definition of compassion. One is that compassion goes a step further than sympathy (feeling sorry for someone) or empathy (putting yourself in their shoes). Along with understanding how the other person feels, you are motivated to actually help them. This aspect of action is what sets compassion apart. And the other is that being compassionate leads to a shift from “I” to “We” and from “self” to “others”.

The dilemma, as Bill Cropper, Director of the Change Forum, says is that while compassionate leaders work to relieve pain, an inevitable side effect of leading is that leaders also create pain. He references a quote from Peter Frost’s 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. Really good leaders understand these dynamics and take steps to mitigate, minimize or mop up the pain they create.’

Therefore, cultivating compassion requires courage and confidence. And leaders who are emotionally balanced and secure.

Here are some steps to get you started to become a more compassionate leader:

1. Look in the mirror

Before you can begin to understand what other people are going through, you need to be aware of your own emotions. Check in with yourself—how do you feel when you’re facing a huge obstacle, when you make an error, when you’re drowning in work, when someone interrupts you constantly? By increasing your own self-awareness, you also enhance your ability to help others.

Take this awareness one step further by learning to admit your errors. Applying the same benchmark for everyone, including yourself, demonstrates fairness. As leaders, it’s up to us to lead by example: if we have the courage to own up to our own failures (instead of hiding them or blaming someone else) and move into solution mode, then our teams will be far more open to taking and acting on the feedback we give them—rather than perceiving it as an injustice.

2. Hit pause

A moment of crisis offers you the chance to forge an unbreakable bond of loyalty. When someone makes a mistake, you can respond in two ways: you can give in to your frustration and lash out, or you can cool off, react calmly, and maybe even make it a teachable moment. The compassionate manager must strive for the latter, no matter how difficult it seems in that moment. There is absolutely no point in humiliating someone who is no doubt already ashamed and stressed. Moreover, an environment of fear kills creativity—people become too worried to take risks in the future.

On the other hand, showing compassion in such a scenario inspires immense trust and loyalty towards you. It also allows people to learn from their errors. As leaders, it’s up to us to find our Zen. So, the next time someone makes a mistake, take a deep breath, let your anger seep out, and formulate a constructive response.

3. Be an ally, not an enemy

Your team members probably come to you with all sorts of problems, from overloaded work schedules to family emergencies. In such a situation, when the other person is clearly anxious and suffering, it is crucial for you to be a resource—not an obstacle. Listen to the them, understand where they’re coming from, show kindness, and facilitate solutions. Don’t judge the person (“your priorities are all wrong”), make it about yourself (“this makes things much harder for me”), or disengage (“it’s up to you to handle it”). Even if you feel the problem is of their own making, now is not the time to focus on that; instead, help them see how they can navigate through the situation.

4. Don’t “un-see” the problem

Some managers have a “buck up” strategy. They try to make the other person’s hurdle appear smaller by saying something like, “Oh, I have been through much worse, this is nothing. Snap out of it, it’s not such a big deal.” Frankly, this is extremely unhelpful. It’s good to encourage solutions, but you have to begin by acknowledging the problem and the person’s fears—not by invalidating them. Boost their confidence, help them recognise their own ability to overcome the issue, and give them the necessary tools and support. By doing so, you create a safe space for guidance, conflict resolution, and collaboration. What better way to show that you really care?

5. Get to know your people—as people

You know who makes the best presentations, who is a whiz with statistics, and who always gets things done on time. But what about beyond that? Do you know who dreamed of being a professional singer one day? Do you know whose child recently left for college? Do you know who is struggling with being new to the city? If you do, you are ten steps ahead of most managers. And if you don’t, no time to start like the present. Don’t wait until a crisis to practice compassion—it’s an everyday skill. Set aside time each week for one-on-one chats with your team members. No agenda, no laptops, no brainstorming. Just a relaxed conversation where both of you can get to know each other at a more personal level. An ongoing investment of time and effort will help you forge an authentic connection and build trust like nothing else.

6. Stay on track

It’s important to combine compassion with positivity and resolve. People look to their leaders to set the right tone, so we don’t have the luxury of wallowing in despair. Practicing empathy doesn’t mean we can dilly-dally on decisions, turn pessimistic, or give in to fears. Rather, we must help people move forward. Moreover, compassion towards our own team shouldn’t come at the cost of blaming or vilifying other teams. In her Harvard Business Review article, Five Ways to Lead With More Compassion, Susan Cramm recommends assuming the best intentions in other people:

‘Assume the best in others. Everyone comes to work to do the very best job they can…. Reinforce this behavior (for yourself and your team) by describing the behavior and motives of others in the most positive way possible. For example, replace, “The IT folks are ignoring our needs!” with, “The IT folks are obviously busy, so we need to help them by making sure our initiative delivers value.” Positive framing focuses on what can be done rather than who is to blame.’

So think about how we can become more compassionate, more effective leaders. By regulating your emotions, dispensing with knee-jerk anger, and lending a helping hand, you can really build your team into a force to be reckoned with—motivated, committed, innovative, and productive. As a study by the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies summed it up: ‘As both the workforce and the workplace evolve, organizations may find that in order to win the “war for talent,” they must first win the battle for employees’ hearts.’

I look forward to your perspectives.


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