“I’m not going to let my team walk all over me.” “I can’t be seen as soft.” “I’ll lose respect and be seen as weak.”
I’ve heard all these statements from well-intentioned leaders when discussing compassionate leadership.
There is a big misconception that having compassion as a leader is like giving a limp handshake– which most leaders would understandably cringe at.
But the truth is, compassionate leaders are as firm with their teams as they are with their handshakes. They deal with people issues, set clear expectations, hold their teams and themselves accountable and, most importantly, drive business results.
Over the past couple of years, compassionate leaders who had already established deep trust with their teams had a much easier time connecting with and engaging them. Why? Because people knew their leaders would have their backs through a time of heartache, uncertainty, frustration, and fear.
When leaders have a foundation of compassion, employees read and watch internal communications without skepticism. They believe the company cares and that what they tell them is true. They trust their leaders are doing everything they can to help them personally and help the company survive. Once times are good and opportunities open up elsewhere, employees are even more loyal to the company and choose to stay.
Take a moment to think about a leader who positively impacted your career. What did they do to help you? Odds are, they showed they cared. They took time to develop you, gave you honest feedback, and were clear and firm on expectations. That’s compassionate leadership.
Based on the book “Awakening Compassion at Work,” I define a compassionate leader as someone who notices when something is off within a team, then takes action to help. That could mean a number of things, from simply asking someone, “How are you doing?” to having a challenging performance conversation. Leaders need to take the time to make a connection with their teams, so they’re able to see, hear or feel if something needs their attention.
COMPASSION IN ACTION
Once I’m able to show leaders what compassion looks like in the workplace, many leaders are surprised to learn they’ve been compassionate leaders all along. If they haven’t, they realize it’s a beneficial skill that drives results and can be learned. Subtle changes in approach, tone, and mindset help leaders bring more compassion to their leadership.
So, what does a compassionate leader look like?
If you’ve spent any time in the corporate world, you’ve likely seen or experienced one of the following scenarios:
A meeting occurs with the objective of making a decision. The leader gives his/her perspective, a couple of people agree, then the meeting ends. The chatter after the meeting centers around it being the wrong decision, and how no one is clear on the next steps. They aren’t invested in the outcome. Compassionate leaders understand their role in many meetings is to listen more than they speak. Allow employees the freedom and safety to debate and speak up. I agree with author Patrick Lencioni, who stresses that if people are able to “weigh in” on a topic, they’re much more willing to “buy in” when a decision is made. If a leader starts the meeting with an opinion, what are the chances there will be a meaty discussion about the pros and cons? The team misses out on a huge learning opportunity, and the leader loses the chance to hear feedback that may save costs, reduce risks or prevent a poor decision. If everyone feels comfortable voicing their opinions, you’ve cultivated a safe space for innovation to flourish. Compassionate leaders encourage and empower people to respectfully disagree in meetings. They create teams rich with diverse views, experiences, cultures, and genders, so they can come at challenges from all angles to create the best solutions and action plans. They cultivate an environment where people feel safe to hold leaders, colleagues, and themselves accountable.
“When leaders have a foundation of compassion, employees read and watch internal communications without scepticism.”
One person on a team has toxic behaviors that impact the entire team negatively. It causes tension, anger, frustration, and disengagement in the team. However, the team member has good numbers, so the behavior is allowed to continue.
Compassionate leaders consider how decisions impact the whole team. In this case, the compassionate leader would have a discussion with the employee causing issues. The leader would ask questions to help employees realize how the behavior impacts others. Part of being a compassionate leader is helping your team become self-aware and to grow as a human and a professional. Expectations would be set, and if the behavior continued, the leader would have a decision to make. In my experience, when toxic and disruptive behaviors are removed, the performance of the rest of the team improves. So, if a leader holds on to an employee who has great numbers, but negatively impacts the rest of the team (and likely those outside the direct team as well), how much revenue are you leaving on the table? And how much of the leader’s time and energy is that challenging employee sucking up?
A team member is constantly making mistakes, missing deadlines, and has overall poor performance. Everyone on the team knows and picks up the slack, but it continues without the leader addressing it.
Compassionate leaders understand it’s their responsibility to give consistent feedback, both positive and negative feedback. If someone’s performance is off, the leader needs to understand why. It’s important to go into these conversations with the intent to help, not to judge. The leader would talk through a plan to improve performance developed by the employee, then would follow up to ensure improvements were being made. If the employee doesn’t improve, the compassionate leader needs to make the right decision for the entire team, the employee, and the business. Refusing to make the time for positive or negative feedback is selfish, short-term thinking. Compassionate leaders use the power of compassion to have uncomfortable conversations with people, to make them better. Constructive feedback is one of the most compassionate gifts we can give. Although this example focuses on negative feedback, it’s important to mention the critical need for positive feedback as well. Many leaders underestimate how positive feedback can change the energy and motivation level of their teams. If a leader is silent on all the great things an employee does and only gives feedback on where they can improve, how does that employee know the leader values the work they do? Feedback needs to be specific and in the moment. Instead of “good job,” what specifically about a presentation was impressive? Employees won’t know what leaders think unless they say it out loud. They’ll look elsewhere to make their mark if they don’t feel valued. These don’t need to be big meetings. They can be hallway conversations or popping into an office for a couple of minutes. Either way, positive feedback assures your team they’re doing great things and reinforces the behaviors leaders want to see.
The leader makes a decision that ends up being a disaster. Although many feel the business should re-think the strategy, the leader doubles down and points fingers at others.
Compassionate leaders take accountability when they’ve made a mistake. Apologizing takes humility and the ability to put the ego aside. While some may see that as weak, those with experience and wisdom understand that those are the moments that define a person’s character. Employees will respect and admire a leader who will admit when they’re wrong. It creates deep trust and shows the leader is a relatable human. Who on earth doesn’t make mistakes? A compassionate leader will address the mistake, discuss learnings, and move forward quickly with the team to find a solution. They’ll use the same strategy if a team member makes a mistake. Talk about it, learn from it, and resolve the problem together.
Hopefully, you’re starting to make a connection. Compassionate leaders are far from weak or soft. They deal with challenging situations as they arise and focus on their people’s growth and development. Weak leaders, on the other hand, are scared to give negative feedback, discourage debate or healthy conflict, don’t hold people accountable, and aren’t clear about the objectives of the company.
All the examples above show how a compassionate leader notices when action is needed and puts the needs of the team before theirs. It’s just good business.
Weak leaders allow ego to interfere with what’s best for the company. They care about individual results, don’t take time to connect with or develop their people, turn a blind eye to toxic behavior and spend more time talking than listening. Are those leaders bad people? Probably not. They haven’t had the good fortune of receiving feedback that would have helped them grow and become more self-aware, or they weren’t in a place where they were open to listening.
Compassion is a character trait often associated with service industries that focus on helping people, including doctors, nurses, food banks, counselors, and so on. It’s certainly important for those professionals, but the last couple of years helped the world understand that compassion and kindness are something we need more of in every business. From politics to corporations, we’ve seen leaders who role model with compassion and give their people the strength and confidence to survive and even thrive in uncertain and turbulent times.
COMPASSION IS A COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE
It makes sense. When your employee experience is positive and based on compassionate leadership, that experience will be transferred to the customer.
Psychology Today reported that compassionate and kind bosses increase morale, decrease absenteeism and retain employees longer. At a time when companies are struggling to hold on to great talent, compassionate leadership will distinguish you from the competition. At the same time, only 45% of employees surveyed with Gallup feel their employer cares about their well-being. What about the other 55%? Imagine being in a job where you don’t feel your leader or the company cares about you. Why would you stay if you had other options?
In their book “Awakening Compassion at Work,” the authors use many studies to prove that compassionate companies have a competitive advantage:
When people feel safe brainstorming and sharing ideas, the business sees benefits through innovation.
Customers respond to compassionate workplaces that care about their people and the community.
When there is compassion, there is trust. Trust is the foundation of effective collaboration. Collaboration is essential to productivity.
Retention and attraction. When people feel cared for at work, they become your best ambassadors.
Compassionate companies are obsessive about accountability. They are trained to look inward and ask how they contributed to a challenging situation instead of jumping to judgment. Every hard conversation starts with questions to understand perspectives.
Compassionate companies understand the need for clear and consistent communication. People want to know company objectives and strategy, their purpose, what’s expected of them, how they add value, and how they’re doing. Compassionate leaders tick all those boxes.
Innovative, customer-focused, collaborative, great employee retention, accountable and clear on strategy. That sounds like a recipe for a successful business!
BECOMING A COMPASSIONATE LEADER
Compassion is a skill that can be learned. It takes some work and starts with becoming self-aware.
Ask yourself these questions:
What are my personal values?
What kind of leader am I?
How would my team describe me?
How often do I ask for specific feedback about my leadership?
How often do I give positive and negative feedback (I often suggest leaders keep a feedback journal. Positives should outweigh negatives by at least 8:1)?
Do I know how all my team members add value?
Do I know what growth and development goals my team has?
Does my team know how our department and its specific roles fit into the overall purpose and objectives of the company?
How effective are our team meetings?
How often do I listen more than I speak in meetings?
How do I hold myself and the team accountable for “what” we do and “how” we do it (job expectations and how the team works together)?
Once you’ve answered all these questions (hopefully, you’ll get your team and colleagues involved), what is your plan for improvement?
I suggest meeting with your team to help them understand your goals as a leader and how you want to improve. Ask them to hold you accountable.
If you’re a new leader starting with an existing team, get started the right way by having 1-on-1 conversations with each team member to ask the following:
What do you do in your role (sounds basic, you wouldn’t believe how many leaders do not know this)?
What do you expect from me as a leader?
What roadblocks can I remove for you to help you be successful?
How do you like to receive feedback (this sets an expectation that you’ll be giving feedback)?
What do you need from me that you weren’t getting before?
How do you like to communicate?
What are you hoping to learn from this role/experience?
What are your career goals?
This is a great start on the path to self-reflection. In a progressive, high-functioning culture, leaders know the answers to these questions and have identified where their strengths and weaknesses are. Compassionate leaders understand that their teams and colleagues usually identify their weaknesses before they do, which is why soliciting honest feedback is so important. We all have blind spots that we need to work on and normalize to help the team and the business.
When a leader asks for feedback, thanks the person for giving it, then works to improve on the weaknesses, it’s a sign of strength. That display of humility role models a growth mindset and helps the team understand how to receive and act on valuable feedback. Some leaders think they’re being compassionate by NOT delivering hard feedback to their teams for fear of hurting their feelings. In fact, the opposite is true. If that’s your perspective, then you’re making it about you, not them. YOU feel bad. Your teams deserve to know if their behaviors impact others or if their work isn’t up to expectations. How will they know if you don’t tell them? That’s your responsibility as a leader; otherwise, how do they improve, and how does their poor performance help your business? Be the person who changes their lives for the better.
COMPASSION IS A GAME-CHANGER
My work with leaders who invest in becoming more compassionate has been fascinating. I’ve partnered with a wide range of personalities and provided the leader was open to self-awareness and improvement, the results have been transformative. Interestingly, introducing a compassionate lens to situations helped them better connect with their work teams and improved personal relationships with friends and family.
The world is in a precarious place. The division is palpable, and it seems to be in a place where all sides are yelling, but no one is listening. It will be very difficult to move forward unless we collectively reject the political narratives that stoke division and prevent deep conversation and understanding of perspectives other than our own.
We must elevate the workplace above petty and unnecessary anger and judgment toward one another. Compassion forces us to ask questions. It forces us to get curious about other perspectives, to understand where others are coming from and why they feel or act the way they do. That doesn’t mean we need to agree but learning to respect and work with others who may have different views is mature and what professional adults do.
Compassion is a game-changer for leaders and your business. The great thing is it’s contagious. Small or large acts of compassion change the energy and culture of a work environment. It makes people feel happy and valued at work. When people feel great, it’s passed on to others in the company and to customers. It’s a win-win.
Compassion. It’s the superpower every leader needs to take their teams and their business to the next level.