Compassion has been named in Harvard Business Review as a major character trait of leadership.
What is compassion, why is it important in leadership and how can we develop it?.
If you really want to know more about compassion, who would you go to? We would need to find compassionate role models. Several years ago, I felt the gap between the need for compassion towards my son and my actual abilities with respect to compassion. I am a single parent and for me, my biggest priority was the well being and character of my son. So I researched how to develop this resource. I identified leaders who I thought had extraordinary compassion. One of them was my mother. I was also deeply impressed by spiritual heroes such as Jesus, Buddha and Muhammad. These three were leaders of the world’s major religions. But, followers of these religions i.e., most of the world struggles to have compassion. Compassion is difficult work because it forces us to transcend our self and reach across to the other person. Often, people who want to be compassionate, have not received it from their environment. There are other reasons for failure to be compassionate enough –including the idea that compassion takes more energy. Compassion in fact takes less energy because it retrains the mind to be less reactive.
In our attempts to be kinder, we can either do too much of it or too little. Neither of which serves to make us leaders. Some of us who are empathetic see too much of the other person’s point of view and not enough of our own. That too isn’t compassion because it does not include us.
Then there is unbridled self interest because of fear of survival. The fear of survival is justified, none of us can guarantee our life. However, unbridled self interest can mean exploitation and harm of vulnerable people and creates distrust in our economic and financial systems. War and violence are prime examples of unbridled self interest at the expense of others.
Compassionate leadership shows the way out of conflict and into cooperation.
Compassion has four characteristics:
Objective, non-judgemental, inclusive, verbal and non-verbally consistent.
Non-partisan: Compassion focuses on the common ground. Saying, “We live in times of conflict about how we live on the planet and thus we need to protect our country’s interests” is more compassionate and in the long run more effective in making people co-operate with one another, rather than, “there are bad people out to get us, so people from a, b, c countries aren’t allowed to enter our country anymore.”
Inclusive: Compassion does not differentiate between people and anyone who can do the job is given a chance instead of excluding people based on their culture or race. I once volunteered for a justice cause around immigrant diversity called Capacity BC. But, ironically, the people who got paid work for promoting immigrant inclusion were white and local. Do we doubt the value of inclusiveness? Yet compassion, a major treat of effective leadership is inclusive.
Verbal and non-verbally consistent: Saying that we are open to talent from everywhere and actually having a diverse workforce are two different things. People look at non verbal cues, rather than verbal. For example, a brown woman walking into a meeting room full of white men will see the obvious inconsistency between the posted ideal on the website and the reality. Let’s for a moment imagine that there aren’t any well trained and smart brown women out there to do the job as well as a white man. Err…one search on linked-in, disproves it completely. Some of the most consistent and professional are often brown women, but their obvious skills, talents and abilities are overlooked and made invisible. When everyone doesn’t see the elephant in the room, it isn’t the elephant’s fault.
80-90% of communication is non verbal and feelings oriented, regardless of gender. While in hypnosis, people can relate the emotional content of communication to a higher degree and it appears that we are more influenced by things that are not explicit or intentionally said, but believed subconsciously by the actors in the environment. – “What hypnotherapists know about how people think”, by Saima Shah
Here are some suggestions on how to embody compassion in every day communication at work:
Objectivity: Instead of attachment or defense of a point of view, compassion requires that we listen to all sides and ask questions to learn the truth of a situation. If time is short, we can indicate to the other person, how much time is available.
Listening skills: Listening requires that we pay attention with our body and eye contact. Averting the face, turning the body away, signals to the other person that their point of view is unimportant. Listen preferably without distractions.
Practice non-judgement: Avoid the impulse to gossip, solve a problem, label or judge anyone or anything.
Avoid complaining about anyone: Remember that nothing is about you and avoid reacting to their judgements.
Summarize the basic question and if you are completely ready, propose a solution: For example, sales and production can often have differing and conflicting goals. Conflict is actually a spark of energy that can move an organization towards its goals, if handled effectively by the leadership. In such a situation, a compassionate leader would say, “So, you are saying that because of the pressure to attract clients, you have a concern about asking questions from clients about their source of income? What would it take for you to get comfortable with knowing your customer? Would you like additional training on soft skills such as listening so that people tell you more about themselves?”
Assurance: Give reassurance and gratitude to the other person for speaking and sharing their thoughts. It may not necessarily have to be verbal, because 80-90% of communication is non verbal.
Ask questions: For example, in the above example, a compassionate leader would choose to ask proactive questions: “Since this is about our common interest (mention the organizational goal), do you have any suggestions about the issue? What kind of support does your team need?. You don’t have to answer now, think over these things.”
Ultimately, compassion is a practice that requires patience. Are we ready to become leaders?
Note: By Saima Shah, with special thanks to Northwestern University.