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Three Ways That Compassion Can Help Leaders Be More Effective

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

At some of my leadership development workshops, I ask participants to recall and visualize the worst bosses they’ve ever had. No one ever has difficulty doing this. When participants explain what made particular execs exemplars of bad-boss behavior, they describe things like a lack of humanity and excessive self-focus, and sometimes, flat-out functional incompetence. When I prompt for the reverse—the best bosses—the descriptions include both competence and multiple examples of caring, attunement and concern for employees.

Why do so many leaders seem to behave without empathy or compassion when it’s so well understood that empathy and compassion lead to better organizational performanceKira Schabram, Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, explains that leaders who want to express compassion can face numerous situational and institutional barriers. Even the most well-intentioned leaders may not actually recognize employees’ struggles, given how overloaded the leaders often are themselves, and the fact that “employees are often socialized to hide their pain and emotions at work.” 

Those leaders who actually notice employees’ suffering “may wish they could do something about it but have a million other things demanding their time.” They could be overwhelmed and burned out themselves, or worry that the attention of a compassionate response could actually embarrass employees. If you’ve ever worked in a suck-it-up culture, you’ll understand exactly how leaders might believe that empathy is important, yet still not show it. But compassionate action doesn’t have to be terribly onerous or complicated. Adding these three strategies to leaders’ day-to-day behavior can help.

Acquaint yourself with what employees are going through. Include direct check-ins as part of every team meeting and one-on-one. This can be as simple as asking, “Who needs an assist this week?” or “Is there anything I should know to help you handle things smoothly?” These inquiries will be better received if the leader has already put in the effort and attention to establish a trusting environment and knows which team members have a sick parent at home or a child in a difficult school situation, or simply need a few days break from unrelenting work pressures. But even if you haven’t done this relationship work, all the current concern about athletes’ mental health can provide helpful conversational openings to get started: Leaders who praise the candor and courage of Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles are more likely to be believed when they say they’re concerned about their own team members’ well-being.

Raise concern for employees to the level of a business imperative. Leaders don’t have to worry that caring about their team members is “too personal.” By identifying and alleviating stressors and barriers to employee effectiveness, leaders simultaneously support better team performance as well as individual satisfaction. Straightforward requests for information about what’s not working will not create new problems, although it may encourage employees to bring issues to the table that leaders hadn’t known about previously. Clarifying communications and processes to ensure that work assignments, schedules and goals are clear and aligned will both improve groups’ results and enhance individual success. And if an employee has a personal problem that is likely to affect their work, it’s better for leaders to know as soon as possible so they can guide the situation and help the employee come to a resolution that serves all parties.

Don’t neglect your own needs. Leaders are at risk of burnout, too, but may not ask for help in order to avoid seeming weak or ineffectual. Feeling overwhelmed by events and overwork can cause leaders to retreat from their colleagues and, as a result, make it harder for them to attend to the needs of others. Schabram notes two other aspects of burnout besides exhaustion that leaders may be subject to: cynicism, including callousness towards others and detachment from work; and inefficacy, or the sense that you’re not accomplishing anything despite significant effort. She suggests that an ongoing mix of continuing to care for others and practicing self-compassion can increase both self-control and self-esteem and therefore help leaders get back on an even keel again. Don’t try to go it alone, though—whenever you’re not feeling at the top of your game, partnering with trusted colleagues or seeking out a coach or other professional support can diminish negative impacts more quickly.

Most leaders intend to be compassionate toward employees and many believe that they are. It’s often the pressure of their own responsibilities that can make them seem detached or uncaring. But if they can demonstrate visibly what they’re feeling internally, they stand a better chance of serving both their organizations and their employees. These three aspects of compassion will help leaders strengthen work relationships and business results—and they’re just good practice.

Onward and upward —


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