I once worked under an editor-in-chief, who despite a tough exterior, had the compassion to sit me down one day and set me straight.
Being a fresh-faced kid a few years out of college, I was eager, a bit full of myself, and also quite emotional. She told me I had natural leadership ability but one offshoot was that my moods tended to affect the entire team. If I was bright and cheerful, everyone started feeling the same as I did. But on the days I brought a bad attitude to work, I was teaching the others it was fine to be moody and rude. She told me she needed me to be professional despite whatever I was going through in my personal life — to lead by example. Because the team needed a fully functioning managing editor, not a dysfunctional one.
That talk seriously opened my eyes to the responsibility of being a leader, and how important it is to influence your team positively.
Compassion is an Action
In a February 2018 leadership article in the Harvard Business Review, compassion is defined as an action — something that can become habitual, something we can commit to doing:
Compassion is the key. While empathy is the tendency to feel others’ emotions and take them on as if you were feeling them, compassion is the intent to contribute to the happiness and well-being of others. Compassion, therefore, is more proactive, which means we can make a habit of it. By doing so, we can counter the loss of empathy that results from holding power, and in turn enable better leadership and human connections at work.
Compassion isn’t just about being nice in the workplace, which I’ve written about before. Rather, it’s the concept of cura personalis: Latin for “concern for the well-being of the person.” It’s a decision — an action — to nurture others to their full potential.
It’s not saying “Hi, how was your weekend?” and then shifting to focus on your phone without listening. It’s asking “Which of those items can I take on?” when you notice your teammate is overloaded.
Compassionate Leadership Nurtures Innovation
When you lead with compassion, you invest time into people and set them on a path for success. You support their growth, and clear their path of obstacles — whether that means redefining processes that bottleneck production, or simply making it easy to ask for a day off.
This kind of leadership strengthens and mentors others. It provides stability and psychological safety, very real ingredients for a healthy working environment. They’re necessary for growing your people into leaders themselves and are the primary elements that workers search for in a satisfying job.
When workers feel safe enough to take risks, they reach beyond their comfort zone for stretch goals. According to studies, psychological safety leads to risk-taking, frank speech, and creative problem-solving — exactly the elements you need be innovators and disruptors.
Like teaching children how to ride a bike, your team won’t risk their necks trying to do the impossible unless they know you’re jogging alongside them, ready to support them when the wheels wobble or the potholes come.
Leaders Who Only See Cogs in the Machine
On the other end of the spectrum, there are leaders who focus on results to the detriment of their people. Perhaps it’s indifference and apathy for individuals (“I need to make 10 million in revenue, therefore I need to hire 10 sales reps”). Perhaps its self-centered thinking (“You’re here to make me look good”).
Whatever the case is, nothing corrodes morale faster than realizing your boss looks at you like a cog in the machine.
As a manager, you should watch out for language that reinforces this worldview. If you call people management skills “soft” skills, or if colleagues are “assets,” “resources,” or “headcounts,” then you may be losing empathy for your team. Especially if you start using the word “performance” more than “people.”
Watch your behavior as well. Managers who lack compassion often display temper problems. Why should they care about the feelings of others, after all? That’s a “soft” skill for the HR folks.
Don’t end up becoming the horrible boss who pretends to be nice one second, and in the next, screams at people who’ve made a mistake.
Don’t be the one who crushes all out-of-the-box thinking and stunts innovation because you must enforce processes for the sake of processes.
Don’t bottleneck every decision with your stamp of approval because you want to safeguard the power. You’re surrounded by talented and intelligent colleagues who need to feel a sense of ownership over their work. By choosing not to trust their decisions, you rob them of that empowerment.
Don’t be the one who turns the workplace into a wasteland bereft of creativity.
The Right Choice is Always People over Process
If you care more for the process than the person, you build up a constantly moving conveyor belt that produces mediocre results, at best.
Your people won’t give you their best work. Why should they try anything new and get blamed for not sticking to the formula? Better to submit work that flies under the radar. That usually means “easy work” with the least effort necessary.
Do you want excellence or do you want mediocrity?
Do you want to be remembered as a manager who trained people to be bold leaders themselves, or as the mad despot who prioritized process for process’ sake and eventually bungled it all up?
The right choice is always people first.
And the skills it takes to manage and prioritize them –skills like compassion and empathy– aren’t “soft” skills, they’re power skills. Because these skills empower your people to be their best, which in turn leads to powerful, and tangible, business results.
If you liked what you read, you might like these other pieces I’ve written:
- How Startup Silos (Literally) Lead to Death
- Leadership: the Keys to Instilling Autonomy, Mastery, and Purposs in Your Team
- Age Discrimination is Everybody’s Problem
Meanwhile, say hello on Twitter!