Leading with a Compassionate Edge

Why this soft skill is necessary and essential to the bottom-line of every organization.

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I remember stepping into my first performance review in my current job, a bit nervous after taking on a new clinical leadership role the past year. Before the review started, my boss first asked me about how I was settling into my new home. She gave me a little gift — a keychain in the shape of a home that she wanted me to have as a small housewarming. I must have told her weeks before that I was moving, and the fact that she remembered this surprised me but also made me feel seen as a person, not merely as an employee. Even years later, I remember that moment and how her small act of kindness made me feel. She continues to be a leader and a mentor who I greatly admire.

The traditional perception of a strong leader is often one we deem tough, stoic, driven, and results-focused. By itself, those characteristics seem inherent to being a good leader. And there is certainly no shortage of high-powered leaders in the Silicon Valley, where I live. I’m surrounded by innovative entrepeneurs in the tech industry, creative strategists in the business domain, and brilliant researchers that are pushing science and medicine forward. However, with the demands and rigor that these leaders place on themselves and their cohorts for succeeding at any cost, we often encounter behaviors that can be aggressive, coercive, and self-focused. This type of cut-throat style may work in the short-term, but long-term has been shown to create onging stress, toxic interactions, and disengagement in employees. I’ve witnessed this recently from several friends who have either left their organizations or are contemplating leaving as a result of burn-out, hostile work environments, and insurmountable expectations placed upon them by their leaders.

Emma Seppala, Phd, Science Director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Happiness Track, reported on a series of studies in her book that showed that self-focus, measured by the number of times a leader used the word “I” as opposed to “we”, was related to higher blood pressure, coronary atherosclerosis, and predicted heart disease and mortality. Psychologically, self-focus was strongly correlated with negative emotions, such as depression and anxiety. Seppala explains, “While the theory that you have to be self-focused to succeed actually hurts more than helps you, its opposite — the view that to succeed, you need to be compassionate — leads to positive results that are backed by science. Compassion is the reverse of self-focus. In fact, it is profoundly other-focused.”

While we can’t argue that the bottom line of any successful organization is to produce measurable outcomes and generate revenue, it’s how those results are achieved that matter. If a leader had the same talent and skills but also demonstrated a kind, supportive, and collaborative attitude, wouldn’t we want to work for that type of leader? The difference between a good leader who may become successful and a great leader who sustains success is the ability to cultivate compassion. Why? Because as human beings, we are hard-wired for connection and caring, whether we act on it or not. Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has spent years studying social connections, vulnerability, and shame. She explains that the root of all human desires is a need to belong, to be accepted, and to connect with others.

Compassion and leadership appear, on the surface, to be on opposite ends of the spectrum. After all, compassion sounds soft, weak, even a bit too “touchy-feely” to take a seat at the leadership table. However, ongoing research reveals that compassion makes you likeable, trustworthy, and inspires loyalty and engagement in the workplace.

Compassion, simply stated, is being conscious of someone else’s struggles with an authentic desire to help. In order to be compassionate, you must allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to connect with the other person. This requires courage and can frequently be uncomfortable. What does compassion in the workplace look like? According to Kim Cameron, professor of Management and Organization at the University of Michigan, a compassionate workplace includes the following practices:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends
  • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling
  • Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes
  • Inspiring one another at work
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust & integrity

The research conducted by Cameron and his colleagues showed that cultivating these practices allowed institutions to achieve “significantly higher levels of organizational effectiveness — including financial performance, customer satisfaction, and productivity.”

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We are slowly beginning to see this shift emerging in the Silicon Valley. Chade-Meng Tan, an early engineer at Google, created Search Inside Yourself, one of the most popular leadership programs for employees. The foundation of this program is to provide the strategies and tools for cultivating compassion, empathy and wisdom. Because of it’s popularity, a separate leadership institute was established in 2012 as a nonprofit organization to assist those outside of Google.

Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, is also leading this culture of managing compassionately. His personal vision statement is “to expand the world’s collective wisdom and compassion.” I attended his talk at the annual Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco last year, when he discussed the ways in which compassion encourages collaboration. He reinforced what he had stated earlier in a blog post.

“Most of us have a tendency to see things solely through our own world view,” he stated. “In these circumstances, it can be constructive to take a minute to understand why the other person has reached the conclusion that they have. For instance, what in their background has led them to take that position? Do they have the appropriate experience to be making optimal decisions? Are they fearful of a particular outcome that may not be obvious at surface level? Asking yourself these questions, and more importantly, asking the other person these questions, can take what would otherwise be a challenging situation and transform it into a coachable moment and truly collaborative experience.”

Compassion is at the core of my current role and organization. The vision at Stanford Health Care is to “heal humanity through science and compassion, one patient at a time.” The C-I-CARE philosophy, created by previous CEO Amir Dan Rubin, reinforces a model for compassionate communication with patients, families, and colleagues. Employees that demonstrate altruistic, kind, and selfless behaviors are acknowledged weekly by leadership and staff. How does this culture of compassion affect me personally day to day? It inspires me to work harder as a clinician and as a leader, encouraging me to search for positive behaviors within myself and others. It gives meaning to my work and challenges me to view a situation from someone else’s vantage point.

I think we all thrive in moments when we feel seen, heard, and valued in our professional and personal relationships. Great leaders care about connecting with the people they lead. Adopting a more compassionate leadership style is essential to fostering positive relationships and creating a more productive, supportive, and collaborative working environment.