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Why Compassion Is One of the Most Essential Skills to Being a Great Leader

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Why Compassion Is One of the Most Essential Skills to Being a Great Leader

Written by: Chantelle Fitzgerald 

Compassion is one of those “nice” words that is easily dismissed, especially in the workplace. I have had people literally roll their eyes at me whenever I even mention the word.  Compassion has this connotation of being “too soft” and “touchy feely”.

Don’t ask lawyers about compassion, they may not laugh directly in your face, but they have already made a pretty swift judgement about you, and I am pretty sure its not positive. (Not all lawyers of course…you might be that compassionate one :-).  

The workplace is rampant with a lack of compassion for others and leading with compassion for that matter. I mean, in general, the workplace culture could not care less about compassion. It’s like this — do you your job, make the company money or support the company in a way that is maximizing profits. If you make a mistake, there are consequences. If you get frustrated and say the wrong thing to the wrong person that could cost you your job. If I am a person of authority and I do not like you, your style, or I fear you are better than me and could take my job, I have the power to get rid of you. It’s that easy, it’s that simple and frankly, it happens all the time.

Often times we do not care about the people we work with or what they are going through in their lives, nor do we take the time to understand them and where they are coming from. The fact is, we are all struggling with something — kids, relationships, jobs, finances, co-workers, aging parents, illness; you name it, we are all going through it. But not many of us want to take the time to support another co-worker, employee, boss, or direct report, etc.

Why?

  1. Perhaps we do not want to understand where someone else is coming from
  2. Perhaps we do not want to take the time to understand
  3. Perhaps we are just too busy with our own stuff
  4. Maybe it feels awkward
  5. Maybe this behavior of caring for someone else was never modeled for us in the workplace so we do not know how to do it
  6. Or any other reason that you want to add…
     

I would argue that compassion in the workplace is one of the most essential skills to being a great leader and helps position the company for even more success. So what does it look like to lead with compassion in the workplace?

Well, I am so glad you asked 🙂

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, I was doing a training with a co-teacher. A participant asked a simple question and my co-teacher fired back (out of nowhere) a really rude response with a very negative tone without actually answering the question. It shocked everyone in the room including the person who asked the question. The room fell silent after the co-teacher responded. It was so awkward and people were looking at me wondering how I was going to respond to this outburst.

In my head I was thinking “What the hell, just happened? Did this co-teacher just snap at a participant with that tone? What!? What is happening right now?” I immediately went into judgement mode with my co-teacher. “How could they say something like that? This is the worst facilitator to work with. I can’t believe I am working with this person. They should know better than to respond like that.” All of these thoughts were swirling in my mind.  

I literally took an instinctive deep breath and replied to the participant. I smiled, calmly turned to the participant and answered the question with a kind and gentle tone. My co-teacher and I continued to teach, as if that incident never happened and we didn’t skip a beat.

A few minutes later, we had a break and my co-teacher asked to speak with me privately. I said yes, of course, wondering if they were going to explain their outburst. Before they could say anything, I immediately asked if something was wrong and if everything was ok?  The co-teacher began to apologize for their behavior. They told me that they were suddenly triggered by the topic we were discussing and had an emotional moment and just snapped. The co-teacher told me they had apologized to the participant and then apologized to me for the sudden outburst of behavior. The co-teacher looked distraught, embarrassed and really sorry.

I said that it was ok, having understood what was happening for them in that moment. I could appreciate that, as I have been in situations in the past where I have snapped at people too.  I appreciated them telling me about it and their honesty about what happened. I then asked if there was a way that I could better support or help them in some way. The co-teacher said that everything was ok, it would not happen again and appreciated my support and willingness to help.

Related: How to Help Others Find Purpose At Work

So, how does this example demonstrate compassion and leading with compassion?
 

  1. STOP: Well, for one thing just stop, when something is alarming, shocking, frustrating, etc.  Just stop whatever you are doing. When my co-teacher snapped. I paused, wondering what the hell is happening?
  2. Breath: Instinctively, I took a deep breath. Maybe it’s practicing a lot of mindfulness, but I needed to take breath in that moment. It was a heavy and awkward moment. A breath helps to continue to pause. So, take a breath.
  3. Notice: I immediately noticed that the room fell silent, it was awkward and everyone was shocked that the co-teacher just snapped. I was shocked.
  4. Reflect: If I responded in a subtle, passive-aggressive way that reprimands my co-teacher it will just make the rest of the presentation awkward moving forward and the rest of the participants will see right through it. Even if it is not subtle and I said something about it, it will still make things awkward and my co-teacher would probably feel even worse, also making it awkward. If I respond with kindness and compassion to my co-teacher by not saying anything in that moment (to my co-teacher) and just address the participant who just got snapped at, in a compassionate manner, it might go over more smoothly.
  5. Respond: How do I respond in a more skillful manner?  I just smiled, calmly and cooly responded to the participant and kept it moving with no drama or subtle passive aggressive comments or actions.
     

When my co-teacher and I finally debriefed about what happened, as much as I wanted to say “What the hell is your problem? How could you snap at a participant like that, are you crazy?”

INSTEAD of saying that…

I decided to say in a non-judgemental tone… “Is everything ok?” Fortunately, as you know the co-teacher opened up, apologized and was embarrassed about it etc.

Here is the point to leading with compassion:

When something or someone in the workplace really pisses you off, or shocks you in a way that we never anticipated, our natural reaction is to react, go into judgement and respond immediately without understanding where the other person is coming from.

Leading with compassion is about seeing a situation or person in distress, understanding where they are coming from and supporting them and helping them to be better. (In my case I did not understand where they were coming from in that moment, but I chose to lead with compassion even without understanding it yet).

How often do we just see the situation as one sided? (Our point of view.) They are wrong, they made the mistake, it’s their fault. I’m right, and I’m going tell them I right.  It might be their mistake, their fault, (and you are probably right) but are we ever willing to see it from their point of view? Can we take the time to understand what went wrong for them and can we actually have compassion to help them out of their mistake?

That is the biggest thing here. Can we actually help someone, when they are in distress? That is leading with compassion.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Leading with compassion can be tough. It takes deliberate practice. Our natural reaction to a situation that makes us upset, is to immediately respond. However, if we can practice taking a step back, understand why the person is acting this way and then respond in a way that can help them and yourself, the organization is better for it.

Related: The Impact of Stress on Self-Awareness

Why?

Because everyone wins. The person who made the mistake feels supported and is most likely motivated to do better next time.  You probably feel good about yourself for taking the time to help and being able to tame your judgment to understand what went wrong.  

Plus, you might have just built a relationship or strengthened one and you can work better together. Working better together builds safety in a team and therefore makes a bigger impact, more profit, and ultimately more success.

In my humble opinion, that is how you win.

In my case, the presentation with my co-teacher was a success and everybody won.

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