Becky’s frustration grew as she watched Joan blow up in her office yet again. Becky had served as the director of sales for a successful pharmaceutical company for the past six years and struggled with her relationship with her sales manager, Joan. Careful to not say anything that would trigger Joan, Becky began to hold back in their conversations and avoided meeting with Joan altogether.
“Not again,” Becky thought. “It seems that every time I meet with Joan, she gets upset when I ask her a tough question or I disagree with her position. This is driving me crazy! How can we work like this?”
Emotions are not wrong; they point to an unattended or unspoken request
“The major block to compassion is the judgment in our minds. Judgment is the mind’s primary tool of separation.” —Diane Berke
When you sit in judgment of those you manage and lead, frustration ensues and the opportunity for connection, understanding and honest dialogue diminishes. Compassion invites truthful conversation and opens space for exploration into potential resolutions. Compassion is defined as the emotional response we have when we perceive suffering and making an authentic effort to help. In the workplace, many leaders fear being perceived as weak if they show compassion, so they separate themselves from their own emotions as well as their team member’s, focusing solely on the task at hand.
Becky started questioning her own conversation style, words and behaviors. In a session with her executive coach, Becky described her relationship with Joan and detailed her concerns. Her coach asked her a very simple yet profound question:
“What would happen if you were to address her emotions head on and find out what is driving them?”
Honoring others as people
Becky was surprised and intrigued by this question. What if Joan’s emotions aren’t “wrong”? She had never thought about her relationship with Joan in this way. She decided that the next time things got heated, she would do just that.
A few weeks later, Joan and Becky were talking, and Joan began to go off on a rant again. This time Becky paused and acknowledged Joan’s reaction. “I see you are very upset. Can you tell me the source of your frustration?”
Joan stopped for a moment and did not respond. Becky said, “I have noticed a pattern in our interactions and want to find a better way for us to communicate. I am wondering what it is that I am doing or saying that is so frustrating for you so that we can find a better way. The quality of our communication is critical to our team and important to me.” Joan began to nod and then explained how she felt smothered by Becky’s constant direction and questioning her decisions. Joan described her desire for more autonomy and requested the opportunity to call on larger accounts and take on more responsibility with less direction from Becky.
Courage to lead with compassion
Current research from Stanford University found that organizations where compassion is emphasized experienced more employee loyalty and engagement. The employees are also less stressed and more satisfied with their jobs. They also cited lower turnover, higher productivity and increased efficiency as benefits.
As Becky shared this story, she acknowledged that many of her ways of leading were based on the assumption that she needed to “control” her staff to be successful and achieve results. This experience and shift in perspective reshaped her leadership. She began to have more patience with her staff’s shortcomings and was more open to forgiving them and encouraging them to do better. As a result of Becky’s compassion, Joan’s honesty and their ability to communicate truthfully, Joan went on to win a large account, and Becky was given a raise as her team began to flourish.
How do you lead with compassion in the workplace?
Here are three things you can do to practice compassion at work:
- To be compassionate with others, you must first practice compassion with yourself. Begin by noticing how often you judge yourself and others.
- Are you willing to see situations from another person’s point of view? Ask employees, bosses and peers questions to gain a better understanding of their view instead of making assumptions about what is driving their reactions.
Honoring others as people with hopes, needs and fears that are as real as your own empowers you to respond to human emotions with genuine concern. When you treat others compassionately, you have more ability to forgive; you experience greater resilience and less fear of failure and are therefore more effective.