One Secret to Innovation, Collaboration, and Engagement
“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion … .” Albert Einstein
3 advantages of compassion*:
- Innovation. Compassion enables learning by fostering psychological safety.
- Collaboration. Compassion increases people’s willingness to work together.
- Engagement. Compassion helps people feel they matter.
*Adapted from, Awakening Compassion at Work.
Compassion feels like saying, “Gracias,” when you can’t speak a lick of Spanish. You’re a poser. In other cases, it feels like weakness.
How can you practice compassionate leadership when compassion feels awkward?
Think ‘and’ not ‘or’:
Think ‘and’ not ‘or’ when you imagine compassionate leadership.
Compassion elevates and expands leadership attributes. What happens in your thinking when you add compassion to the following leadership attributes?
- Technical skill.
Compassion enriches daily leadership behaviors. Toughness, for example, without compassion is cruelty.
Compassion enlarges thinking. One leader said the most impactful coaching conversation he had happened when I asked, “What does your compassionate self tell you to do?”
How do you learn compassion?
Monica Worline and Jane Dutton explain that noticing is the channel for awakening compassion. (“Awakening Compassion at Work.”)
I asked Monica how to show compassion in a specific situation. A member of a team I work with felt some unusual concerns the day the team was scheduled to meet. His brother was donating a kidney to his sister.
Monica explained the power of noticing.
At the beginning of the meeting, I mentioned Bob’s brother and sister. (Everyone already knew.)
“What’s the latest?”
Bob said, “My brother is heading into surgery right now.”
“Feel free to leave if you need to take a call.” I said. It was an acknowledgement. Bob didn’t need my permission.
“Please let us know if you receive any updates.”
Then we started our meeting.
What makes compassion a challenge for leaders?
How might leaders practice compassion?
**I recommend, “Awakening Compassion at Work,” I found it practical and useful.
What makes compassion a challenge for leaders? Perhaps asking too many questions, I believe when we acknowledge, affirm, assure, positive listening, tends to show compassion without too much information be requested and close with a positive statement, was a basic procedure we were was introduced to in my 19 years with a Telecommunication company. These items work well for me today, kind of embedded in a procedural way of doing business.
Thanks Tim. Yes, curiosity, when poorly expressed, can be a distraction. Asking “why” questions is one example of this.
I really like this…reminds me of a course i took that said “start with heart” focus on what you really want for them, you, your relationship and the organization. Imagine how great everyone would feel if we all started with compassion.
Thanks Kelly. Positive intention is powerful…”What do you want for them….” I’m always listening for positive intention when I talk with leaders. Who can resist your heart when it’s expressing positive intention.
Hi Dan. I’m Valerie Patrick, a team consultant specializing in creativity, innovation, and performance. I’m grateful for your thought-provoking blog posts. In getting us to think, you make us all a little wiser. I wanted to share my thoughts on your post about compassion. I have over 10,000 hours of experience as a team leader from my 25-year corporate career. While compassion is an admirable quality for all human beings to possess (compassion is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others”), compassion as a mindset tends to put you in a position of superiority over other people. If I was to choose one secret to innovation, collaboration, and engagement, then I would choose “theory of mind” skill or the ability to read the emotions and thinking of others. This is engagement at its best. Also, Dr. Anita Woolley of CMU has found that “theory of mind” skill correlates with performance in teams. I would also choose Dr. Carol Dweck’s “growth mindset” (viewing intelligence as something that can be developed through hard work, perseverance, learning from mistakes, and learning from others) as more potent than a mindset of compassion in fueling innovation, collaboration, and engagement. Thanks for the opportunity to think and engage on this topic!
Thanks Valerie. I see what you mean by superiority. It’s possible that compassion can be viewed as something a superior extends to an inferior. I like to encourage leaders to think of themselves as ‘one of’ not ‘one above’.
I can see that compassion might also make us feel superior if we aren’t suffering like others.
The difference between mindset and quality seems pivotal in your thinking.
Dweck’s work is tranformative. I’m not familiar with Woolley. Thank you for extending the conversation.
Is the element of superiority determined by the leaders starting point? If they walk in to the situation in that mindset, that is eveident and probably seen as the culture of that group. In that case then yes, I see that compassion can be viewed as a byproduct of that. Compassion would likely be seen as fake.
Compassion should be a byproduct of authenticity and true caring. Yes the leader has responsibility for the staff that report to them in org structure or based on a project and that in itself can create authority. I don’t see that authority as superiority though.
I will look into Dweck and Woolley. Who knows, I may need a re-frame.
Thanks Will. You are so right on the importance and power of authenticity. I think we need to make allowances for that un-authentic feeling we sometimes get when we try on new behaviors.
I can fully endorse Dweck’s book on the growth mindset. If you decide to read it, please feel free to let me know what you think.
What a thought provoking piece on leadership. Compassion is such a connective phrase, and I appreciate how you’ve framed it as not quite so much as a feeling, but bumping up to being a verb: noticing and awakening. This reminds me of Jim Collins work on leaders who are characterized by both resolve and humility. Thanks for that ‘and vs. not’ list.
Thanks Liz. I hadn’t thought of feeling vs. verb. I tend to think about behaviors. When I read ‘verb’ the ideas in this post became even clearer to me. Think of compassion as a verb.
I realize that behaviors and verbs must sound alike. But for me, it was helpful to think “action words” It’s funny how that works.
As a side note, I think love, in the context of work, is a verb also.
When I think of compassion as a descriptor for leadership attributes listed above, it adds a vibrant, soft colour to each of the words, amplifying it somehow. Leaders need to be tough at times, have drive, be decisive etc and for those who struggle with focusing on such attributes, adding compassionate as an adjective or a verb changes the context. For leaders who hold beliefs around such words, beliefs that they struggle to overcome, adding compassionate makes them more doable which is important because these attributes, I think, when used effectively all support effective leadership.
Thanks Kathy. I really enjoy how you came at this from two sides. I thought about how compassion makes something like toughness more effective. I hadn’t thought about how compassion makes the development of toughness more doable for someone who grapples with that quality. Very cool.
“Toughness without compassion is cruelty.” This is so true. No one likes or follows a leader that is harsh and tough and has no compassion for others. That’s more like a dictator.
Thanks Mitra. So, what I get from your comment is…if I want to earn the loyalty of followers I should consider compassion. 🙂
A little late to the game, but I wanted to thank you for continually correcting my course.