Renewing Your Leadership Purpose with Compassion

by Jennifer Miller on February 19, 2018

in Leadership

Years ago, when I was a 23 year old assistant human resources manager at a department store, one of our sales associates suffered a heart attack and died while at work. At the time, I was out of town, attending my grandfather’s funeral. Upon my return to work, my boss Mary told me what had happened and carefully gauged my reaction. She was concerned about me suffering two losses in quick succession. When I assured her I was OK, she asked me to check in with Scott, the department manager of the gentleman who had died. Scott had also experienced two recent losses: the death of his mother just a month before the passing of his co-worker. Mary thought it would be helpful for me to talk with Scott because we were the same age and socialized outside of work.

Later that day, as Scott walked into my office, I thought, “What in the world can I possibly say to this man that will help him?” There we were, two young people trying to figure out how to navigate a fast-paced work environment that, frankly, required us to “get on with it.”  In the end, I settled for a simple, direct approach. I asked Scott how he was doing, offered my support and then settled in to simply “be” with him in silence for a few moments of acknowledged sadness. Given my inexperience in such matters, it was the best I could offer in the form of compassion but it seemed to suffice.

Suffering has a way of creeping into even the most benign of workplaces. And leaders are in a unique position to, “both create and alleviate suffering,” write authors Monica Worline and Jane Dutton in the book “Awakening Compassion at Work.”  Worline and Dutton have researched the topic of compassion in the workplace and conclude that, unlike the positive psychology concepts of gratitude and happiness, compassion is an interpersonal concept that is linked to the darker side of the human experience. “Compassion goes hand-in-hand with suffering,” the authors write. Even though the topic of suffering is a heavy one, Worline and Dutton point out a positive element: the chance for leaders to renew themselves through the display of compassion.

Breaking the Cycle of Continual Leadership Stress

Leadership is fraught with the stress of daily decisions and competing priorities. In the article “Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion: A Leader’s Road Map to Renewal,” authors Annie McKee, Frances Johnston and Richard Massimilian put forth the concept of learning to manage the leadership cycle of “sacrifice and renewal.” They write that, “leaders cannot sustain their effectiveness if they cannot sustain themselves. Leaders must deal with ‘power stress’ caused by a combination of responsibility, constant self-control and the inevitable crises, both small and large that the leadership role demands.” Failing to do so causes what McKee, et al. call “Sacrifice Syndrome,” a cycle that leads to continued stress and eventual burnout. One way to help break the cycle is to exhibit compassion, which rests on caring about others in a profound way. Doing so puts the focus on someone else, which allows you to set aside your problems for the moment. I certainly found this to be true when I sat down with Scott to ask him how he was doing after the sad events that had in my own life.

The Unexpected Benefit of Compassion in Business

Compassion can exist within the business environment. McKee and her colleagues see an unlikely connection to a key business skill: inquisitiveness. They write that leadership compassion springs from a natural source. “Compassion is natural. Why? Because compassion starts with curiosity about other people, what motivates them and how the world outside of our own actually works.” This curiosity–to know someone not because of the salacious details we might glean, but to genuinely walk alongside them in their time of suffering–is what makes a great leader. “Generosity grows for the suffering that may sometimes make work life messy and difficult. Leading with compassion restores our belief in a better future so that we can feel our way forward together,” offer Worline and Dutton.

The Power of Tuning In

You may have heard the phrase, “Are you a human being or a human doing?” Far from just another thing on your To Do list, dialing in to others can actually help renew your energy and refocus on your leadership purpose. “To lead with compassion requires that leaders weave more attention to the full human state of others into their work relationships” write Worline and Dutton. Tuning in to someone requires you to simply “be” in the moment, hearing what someone is saying. Observing for what they are “saying” with their body language, but not their words. Intuiting for the right words of comfort to offer. This is the approach I took with my colleague Scott. After a couple of minutes of conversation, it was clear he did not wish to explore his sadness while at work, so I settled for a few brief words of support and let it go at that.

All humans experience suffering.  We can’t expect the pain to conveniently check itself at the door when employees arrive at work. Compassion isn’t the easiest of emotions to display for some, but demonstrating care for a person who’s suffering elevates a person from “manager” to “leader.”

Who is suffering today, and how will you care for them? How will you renew yourself through compassion?

A modified version of this article appeared as a SmartBrief Original and is reprinted with permission.


Real-World Ideas for Developing Your Team

February 14, 2018

What does internal career mobility look like at your company? Maybe it’s a fancy program spearheaded by your HR or talent development team. Or maybe it’s a boot strap operation with limited funding. Providing your employees with “career mobility” inside your organization starts with you, the leader, providing professional development opportunities. No development dollars, you […]

Read the full article →

Resources to Counteract Mean and Nasty in the Workplace

November 27, 2017

In November, people observe World Kindness Day, which was started in 1998 by an international coalition of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that wanted to shine a spotlight on the positive power of being kind. There are many corners of the world right now that are just plain mean and nasty. Incivility has always been part of […]

Read the full article →

Leadership and the Civil Workplace: It Starts with You

November 21, 2017

Did you know that nearly half of the people in your organization are afraid to be civil to one another? According to Georgetown University researcher Christine Porath, 40% of employees say they hesitate to show civility at work because they fear people will take advantage of them. Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School […]

Read the full article →

What Does it Mean to Work Human? Join Me in Austin, Texas to Find Out

October 30, 2017

Would you like to bring a bit more humanity into your workplace? Who wouldn’t? Sometimes our work lives make us feel like numbers on a spreadsheet. As an antidote to the daily grind of the workplace, I attend the WorkHuman conference to hear the best and brightest talk about the science behind human motivation, happiness […]

Read the full article →

5 Human Capital Management Trends

October 10, 2017

There’s a lot going on in the Human Capital Management (“HCM”) industry. My role as writer and industry analyst affords me the chance to interact with many thought leaders in this arena. I recently wrote a round-up of emerging HCM trends that have implications for HR and business leaders, especially as it relates to employee […]

Read the full article →

Is Failure to Speak Up Impeding Your Team’s Productivity?

October 5, 2017

As a leader, you know that productive employees bring value to your team.  Recent findings from a white paper by consulting and training firm VitalSmarts highlight the magnitude of high performers’ productivity: they are 21 times less likely to experience tasks or responsibilities that “fall through the cracks.” Moreover, the research found that these same […]

Read the full article →

Our Egos are a Problem at Work. But Not in the Way You Think.

September 25, 2017

The word “ego” carries a lot of baggage, with connotations like: Blowhard. Difficult to get along with. Egomaniac. Middle man to the Id and Superego. Rarely have three letters evoked so much emotional drama. In fact, perhaps you experienced a bit of inner turmoil prior to clicking the link to this blog post. Because, of […]

Read the full article →

3 Tips for More Productivity with Less Stress

September 5, 2017

When you think “time management,” what are the productivity practices that will make the most difference? We’re always trying to squeeze as much as we can out of our days. But here’s the thing: there are only so many hours in the day and only one of you. I’ve finally surrendered to the fact that […]

Read the full article →

Don’t Overload Your Team Ecosystem With Star Players

August 31, 2017

You want a team loaded with star players, right? What leader wouldn’t want a team filled with high-performing folks?  Isn’t a team stacked with rocks stars is a good thing? It depends. Research into team performance reveals a surprising element: you can have too much of a good thing. Consider the study reported in Gartner’s […]

Read the full article →