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How to Build Your Compassion to Be a More Effective Leader

“Can you be a good-to-great leader without being compassionate?” Russel Lolacher asked me during our wonderful conversation for his Relationships at Work podcast. It’s a tough-minded and practical question given the current challenges in many workplaces today. While some leaders are demanding that people return to the office full-time even though they’re not necessarily there themselves, others are expecting people to go above and beyond when they don’t actually foster an environment that helps employees feel inspired or valued.

Compassion doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and it’s unlikely that you can be a good leader if you don’t even care enough about other people to work on developing it. But since compassion requires taking an active stance toward people, conditions, and events, and strong leaders tend to be active rather than passive types, they can learn to have compassion through practice. Here are five approaches that can help you develop the practice of taking compassionate action to create positive change that will make it easier for you to retain good employees and help them be more productive.

Five Regular Management Practices to Help Build Compassion

Ask questions to learn the specifics of how to help other people generate results. Leaders need to move quickly from their emotional reactions to work problems to figuring out what to do about them. Whether you feel empathetic regarding a challenge someone is having or you’re frustrated about why someone won’t behave the way you want them to, one of the most effective ways to move forward is to find out more about the circumstance, like how it came to be this way and what would make it better. 

So ask questions! What makes each individual tick? What’s important to them? What would help them be more successful at work and feel more enthusiastic about their role? What things could you provide to help them do their job better, such as resources, coaching, or attention?

To make progress, emphasize what your team needs more than what you need. It’s the responsibility of your senior hierarchy to help you get what you need to manage your team—and the truth is that you won’t always have everything you need. But when you’re actually facing your team, you are simultaneously representing management as well as the person who has to manage the conditions for your team’s sake. That’s why management is hard and not instinctive, in the same way that parenting is hard and not instinctive. It’s really about doing what works best for others, not necessarily for yourself. 

When you explain the requirements and procedures relevant to your work group, it’s important to find the balance point in how much information you share, without focusing on your own struggles. You’ll need to present the management hierarchy’s expectations in a way that is relevant to your team—and do it without complaining about why you’re in a tough position. Instead, try to stay attuned to your team while remaining decisive about what needs to be done. This way, you can make things feel clear, doable, and worthwhile for your team members so they can generate those results.  

Move decisions closer to where the action is. Leaders who issue fiats about being back in the office without paying sufficient attention to the lives of the affected employees will get more pushback, engender more presenteeism, and encourage employees to look for work in more flexible places. But when most decisions are made at the level of management that is closest to the people affected, leaders can take their people into account better. A prerequisite, though, is to foster an environment and develop processes that support mid- and lower-level managers so they know how to handle those conversations and can make the right decisions. Then, each manager can figure out what they need to do to deliver and how to do it with the people they have.

Care about the people above you as well as the people below you. The best context and underpinning for managing up is actually caring about your boss. Learning what’s important to your boss and helping your boss be successful will strengthen that relationship, thereby earning you more leeway for the actions you want to take to support your people.

Know when the organization and an individual employee need to part company. Compassion is not about being soft or saying that anything goes. Compassionate people and organizations have effective rules and boundaries. If someone’s behavior is so challenging that they derail projects or ruin multiple relationships or environments, it’s crucial to explain to them exactly what it is about their behaviors that are ineffective or damaging. Offer the individual help in changing those behaviors and make clear that if they cannot or will not change those behaviors, then the organization cannot afford their presence. Stay curious about them and aware of what’s in the way of their satisfactory performance and ask directly what would help them do better so you can support them as much as possible. But if providing support, resources, counseling, etc., does not create improvement, then you must take action to preserve the rest of the team. It’s not compassionate to let the team flounder.

Onward and upward —

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