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A 5-Minute Primer on Compassion in Leadership

Compassion in leadership is an emerging concept in corporate management, brought to the forefront by LinkedIn in CEO, Jeff Weiner.  But for most of us, the concept may be a bit fuzzy and theoretical. I was interested in learning more because I teach Leadership Communication at San Francisco State University.  At the recent Compassion in Leadership Summit at the Computer History Museum, I gained a much clearer understanding, so here I have captured 10 hours of content for you to read in the next 5 minutes.  The key takeaway is that leaders need to develop three core compassion skills and organizations need to develop systems that foster compassion.

Compassion = Empathy + Action

Put simply, compassion is where empathy meets action.  Empathy is feeling what another person is feeling, while compassion is putting yourself in the shoes of another for the purpose of alleviating suffering.  As Jeff Weiner explains, if you see somebody being crushed by a boulder, empathy is feeling the crushing feeling in your chest as they suffer. Compassion is understanding their suffering based on a past painful experience you had and then finding a way to get the boulder off them. 

The 3 Skills of a Compassionate Leader: Awareness, Mindset, Action

Scott Shute, Head of Mindfulness and Compassion, LinkedIn defines compassionate leaders as having the capacity for awareness of others, a mindset of wishing the best for others, and the courage to take action.  Lori Schwanbeck, Co-founder of Mindfulness Therapy Associates, reminds us that humans are wired for compassion, but the environment in which we are raised activates different levels of capacity. The good news is that we can all expand our capacity for compassion. In each of the three leadership skill areas, there are items that limit or expand our capacity for compassion.

3 Skills of the Compassionate Leader

Awareness of others means being present to what is happening for the other people in our environment. Capacity for awareness can be limited by our propensity as humans to orient to ourselves as a matter of survival and by the overactivity of our sympathetic nervous system.  We may incorrectly perceive what is happening around us as a ‘flight or fight’ situation, activating the sympathetic nervous system and limiting our brain’s executive functioning.  Capacity for awareness can be expanded by self-regulation of emotions, a sense of curiosity, and through the practice of noticing others. 

Our mindset affects how we act and how we treat other people.  Because as humans we are always pattern matching and connecting new information to what is already in our brains, we tend to relate to people as if they are actually the story that we’ve created about them in our head.  If they are wearing a business suit our story may be that they are ambitious. If they are in tattered clothes, our story may be that they are disadvantaged.  Depending our story, we will treat that person more or less compassionately. Therefore, a mindset of wishing well for others is an important skill for compassion in leadership.  The mindset of wishing well for others can be limited by fear, competition, lack of trust, and differencing through ‘not-like-me’ thoughts. Our capacity for wishing well for others can be expanded by seeing others as ‘like-me’ with common humanity, through gratitude, and by celebrating other’s success and happiness. 

The courage to take action means being willing to be uncomfortable, to step into another’s shoes, see things from a different perspective, and possibly acknowledge our own weaknesses.  This courage can be limited by overwhelm, apathy, self-promotion, and time pressures. We’ve all been in situations where we see a coworker who might need help but are in too much of a hurry to meet our own project deadline to stop and help. That is time pressure limiting the courage to take compassionate action.  The courage to take action can be expanded by setting intentions, taking small steps, and connecting with an accountability buddy.  An example is setting the intention to ask a coworker how they are doing and then deeply listen to their answer.  With that intention we will gain the courage to take that action, even when we are rushed. 

During the conference we practiced exercises in noticing, connecting, and thinking of actions to take as a means of building up our Compassion Quotient (CQ).  As Scott Shute said, “A few breaths put us in the performance zone and opens our aperture to other people.”

Organizational Systems can Foster Compassion

“Smart companies know that doing well and doing good go hand and hand, and as our CEO says, ‘the business of business is to improve the state of the world’,” Ebony Beckwith, EVP & Chief Philanthropy Officer, Salesforce

“Investing in others’ success is investing in your success and the organization’s success,” Jeff Weiner, CEO, LinkedIn.

A business that is both doing well and doing good, and also highlighting the importance of individual success for overall organizational success, is likely to have systems in place that foster compassion. Christina Hall, SVP and Chief People Officer at LinkedIn commented that it is not just the typical Silicon Valley perks that are part of the company’s effort to treat employees compassionately.  It also includes things like long leave times with counseling and building inter-work relationships. LinkedIn uses Glint to survey employees and hear directly what they want and don’t want. The answer to a question about what people wanted to see in the manager one-on-one meetings was phones off and laptops closed. That led to a new system for meetings, a system that increased compassion and employee engagement and supported one of LinkedIn’s codified values: Relationships Matter. 

Ebony Beckwith of Salesforce also mentioned the significance of relationships, particularly the importance of leaders being clear with people – clear about goals, expectation, what is working and what is not.  “Clear is kind, unclear is unkind.  Being a compassionate leader is having the courage to be clear with people,” she commented.  Open communication is a common theme of many systems that foster compassion in organizations.  “When you share, it opens up others to share,” Ebony added.

Another interesting organizational system, that we might not associate with building compassion, is business success measurement.  Mohak Shroff, SVP of Engineering at LinkedIn told a story about a change in the system of success measurement.  The original measurement system tracked and maximized productivity. Productivity went up, but people complained.  The new system of measurement maximized for happiness.  Happiness, productivity, retention, and recruiting all went up and complaining went down.

Other system ideas shared included starting meetings with team members sharing one thing they appreciated about each other and having a section of all-hands meetings focused on recognizing compassionate actions of leaders and employees.

Hopefully this short summary of the Compassion in Leadership Summit made the concept clear and sparked ideas for implementation.  As the conference host Soren Gordhamer said, “Wisdom and compassion are two wings of one bird.”

 

The Art of Giving and Accepting Feedback: Correcting Mistakes Respectfully

“What were you thinking sending out that document without letting me review it first?”   Judgmental, emotional, imprecise, and not actionable, this type of feedback is ineffective.

“I see that the document was submitted without me seeing it.  I need to review all material prior to submission to ensure consistency and accuracy.  I understand you were working against a tight deadline and appreciate your effort to submit things on time. In the future, please send me documents first and indicate the exact deadline so I can be appropriately responsive. Moving forward, how do you plan to handle documents due in tight deadlines?”    Observant, objective, respectful, and actionable, this type of feedback is effective.

We know that feedback is an important part of work and learning from mistakes, but we tend to resist giving it and we mostly don’t like getting it either. As the Harvard Business Review article The Feedback Fallacy outlines, feedback often becomes a sort of punishment that people dread. The trends of ‘radical transparency’ and ‘real-time 360 reviews’ can create a culture of harsh criticism that is unhelpful. The article states that using feedback to tell people what we think of their performance hinders rather than promotes excellence. The purpose of feedback as described in this blog, though, is for changing a specific behavior, not for giving an evaluation of overall work performance. 

Some leaders with whom I’ve worked tell me that they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, even though they want a behavior to change.  On the flip side, I hear from professionals that they feel bad when getting feedback, as if that they have let somebody down or shouldn’t make mistakes.  When we fall into these traps, we miss out on an important opportunity to communicate clearly.  Delivered and received properly, feedback is a fantastic mechanism for mistake correction. It can also improve interpersonal work relationships by making it clear that it is okay to make mistakes and learn from them, and that people are important enough to spend the time to communicate openly and directly.

The art of feedback is in being objective and respectful, both when giving and receiving.  We need to keep impulsive emotional reactions out of the process, despite what we feel in the moment and what we presume may be the reason for the mistake.

Giving Feedback

When we give feedback, we need to focus on the problem and not the person.  Judgement, evaluation, and analysis are not helpful because they are subjective and open to multiple interpretations. What ishelpful is feedback that includes four key components:

  1. Address the specific behavior
  2. Describe objectively what was observed
  3. Make an explicit actionable request
  4. Confirm that the other person has heard what we said

It is also helpful to acknowledge something good about the person’s efforts, intentions, or something they did well in the situation.  We know we have provided feedback in a respectful and effective way if the person is able to hear our request without getting defensive; they hear that we want a change in action not a change in person.

Accepting Feedback

When we get feedback, our job is to accept it. Easier said than done, because we tend to feel attacked and defensive.  The benefit of accepting feedback is we learn from our mistakes and are less likely to repeat them. The art of accepting feedback is to listen carefully and not take things personally.  We can:

  1. Listen without interrupting
  2. Receive the information objectively
  3. Ask clarifying questions
  4. State our intentions to consider the request

Even if the message is delivered in a judgmental way, with practice we can hear just the request for change in behavior. We can filter an unskillful delivery of feedback with our listening and react gracefully and respectfully using the four steps outlined.

Mastering the art of feedback requires keeping our emotions in check—when giving and receiving—and that can be challenging. But integrating effective feedback into work relationships drives value by creating an environment where mistakes can be made and fixed, with people still feeling valued.

Where Attention Goes, Energy Flows: Be Attuned in Conversations

Where attention goes, energy flows.  That is the name of a meditation in my current rotation on Insight Timer.  This concept applies to most things in life, including communication.  When we are interacting with others, we have the choice of where we place our attention. In conversation we have the option of focusing on ourselves or on the other person.  Mostly we shift back and forth absent-mindedly.  We can focus on ourselves without even realizing it. Have you ever found yourself tuning out the person talking to craft your own point or response?  I know I have. But, when we make a conscious choice about where to place attention, we become better communicators.  By intentionally focusing attention, we direct where our energy flows. Those with whom we are interacting perceive this through our nonverbal communication.  Although it is hard to put into words, we all intuitively know when somebody else is really paying attention to us or not.  

We become better communicators when we are intentional about where we place our attention; when we are attuned we gather more information about our environment, which leads to greater understanding and more options of how we respond.  We notice what is going on internally for ourselves and what may be going on for others by reading their body language and listening carefully to what they are saying.  It makes it easier for us to craft thoughtful and inquisitive responses to what they say because, by deliberately maintaining our attention on the person talking, we pick up more than just their words.  This skill takes practice; it does not happen when we absent-mindedly shift. 

We can practice this shifting of attention on inanimate objects or sounds in order for us to improve at intentionally shifting while in conversation.  Airports are a great place to practice while waiting for a flight. We can listen to the activities around us, bringing one into focus and ignoring the rest, and then switching to another and bringing that into focus.  For example, listen to the announcements about flights over the public address system for a minute, and then shift to listening to the airline attendants helping passengers check in.  We can shift our attention visually too, looking from one passenger to another in the waiting area, noticing something we see as positive about each of them.  In addition to being great practice in deciding where our attention and energy flows, this can also be quite entertaining.

We can also practice in everyday conversations with family and friends.  When others are talking, notice where your attention is focused. Where are you looking?  What are you hearing? Are you hearing every word said, or just some of the words and also the response you are planning in your head? Are you picking up what is being communicated through tone of voice or facial expressions? It is not beneficial for us to judge ourselve in this practice, just to notice and then set the intention of how to focus attention so energy flows in the desired direction. Practicing on a daily basis in low-stakes situations makes it easier to do in high-stakes conversations.

My clients that practice this intentional attention tell me that it becomes easier to really listen, that conversations flow much more naturally, and that they are surprised at how much more information they are able to learn from others.  In addition, they build a reputation for being thoughtful and attentive with the people in their company and industry, a key component for effective leadership.  

Mindfulness is Vital to Exceptional Leadership

Leaders excel by being aware of self and others, and the situation at hand. We lead in a time of perpetual chaotic change, we drink from a fire hose of information, and we interact with people from around the globe with different perspectives, cultural norms, and communication styles. To achieve high performance, we need to uptake massive information quickly, process in a non-biased open-minded manner, and respond compassionately. Mindfulness practice gets us there. With training, through meditation or other mindful techniques, our minds become more sensitive and less reactive to the stimuli that are constantly flowing through, permitting us to move out of automatic mode and make more deliberate choices about what we say and how we act.

Leaders Need to Train Their Minds As Well as Their Bodies a recent Forbes article explained.  Based on information from Megan Reitz, researcher and author, three important mindfulness practices are meta-awareness, allowing, and inquiry. Meta-awareness is the ability in the moment to notice and acknowledge our own thoughts, feelings, sensations, and impulses – understanding that they are temporary and we can choose if we act on them. Allowing is a kind and compassionate attitude – letting things be without judgment.  Inquiry is a curiosity of the present moment – wondering how the current situation will unfold. We build a leaders mind by practicing these techniques, just like we build muscles through exercise. Mindful leadership is additive to other skills and techniques required to be an excellent leader as heightened awareness simply helps us apply learned skills more wisely.

Entrepreneur article, Mindfulness Isn’t Just a Trend, It’s Key to Being a Better Leader emphasized the benefit of unlocking intrinsic motivation for today’s workforce that is seeking meaning and purpose.  Based on the extensive research of Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, mindfulness generates greater mental effectiveness for the realization of a leader’s potential. In their recent book, “The Mind of the Leader” the authors’ claim mindfulness, selflessness, and compassion are essential leadership skills. Mindfulness, in particular being present, attentive, and curious is what teaches us how our own minds work. “By understanding how your mind works, you can lead yourself effectively.  By understanding and leading yourself effectively, you can understand others and be able to lead them more effectively.” Long-term mindfulness practice leads to selflessness, where we no longer constantly act as if we are the center of the universe, and to compassion, where we are able to take others’ perspectives into consideration before we speak or act.

In the words of LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner,  “Compassion is putting ourselves in the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their lens for the sake of alleviating their suffering.” For him compassionate leadership meant “pausing, and being a spectator to my own thoughts, especially when getting emotional. It meant walking a mile in the other person’s shoes; and understanding their hopes, their fears, their strengths and their weaknesses. And it meant doing everything within my power to set them up to be successful.”

Here is the rub. Being an attentive leader simultaneously processing information about ourselves, others, and the environment is not easy. I have practiced mindfulness almost daily since 1999 and I am still constantly learning about my own mind.  That said, I have developed acute sensitivity to my thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses, and to others in my environment.  That allows me to make decisions based on a greater amount of information.  My practice also allows me to change course quickly when I discover a bad habit arising or see that my current course is not effective.  There is a good reason it is called ‘mindfulness practice’ because it is an ongoing effort and, just like exercise, it takes constant hard work to see the benefits.

We are better leaders when in a chaotic moment we can simultaneously be aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and sensations and have a broad enough vantage to incorporate diverse perspectives of others.  Tapping all that information we can make better decisions and communicate compassionately. To get there, we practice mindfulness daily. There are now several meditation apps to support us, including my favorite Insight Timer.  Then when we are aware of something awry in a given situation, be that in our own minds or in what we observe in others, we pause, take the time to acknowledge and allow what is happening, and then respond with intention.