Leading With Heart: Cultivating Compassion at Work

I cringe when I hear or read, “people are our greatest resource,” as a reason for leaders to treat employees with respect. I think the intent is to express that people are an undeniable component to any organization’s success. But I fear that if we think about people as mere resources, we lose sight of the qualities of compassion and heart that are essential to effective leadership. We should want treat people right because they are humans, not because they are a means to an end for our goals. It’s not about what people can do for us or our company, but rather that people deserve our respect and compassion.

The competency of compassion is absolutely applicable to leadership, but it’s often thought of as soft or inappropriate at work — that leaders need to be tough cookies or their people will walk all over them and not meet goals. But compassion and the behaviors that demonstrate true concern and a respect for people are a must for leaders.

Who wants to follow someone who doesn’t care about them as fellow human beings? The good news is that compassion can be learned — and compassionate behaviors can be demonstrated by anyone. Here are some ways I try.

Really Listen

I ask myself, am I truly listening to what someone is saying, or trying to say? Or am I listening simply to respond, or just going through the motions of listening — nodding my head, saying “uh huh” — instead of really, truly taking in what they have to say?

The impulse to point to my own experience is strong. I want to say that I understand — I get it, I’ve felt this or been through this, too. But that makes the conversation about me, not them. I know other leaders who struggle to resist offering solutions, and that’s understandable. Leaders are used to solving problems at work, so going into solution mode is a natural response. To listen and respond to someone in a truly compassionate way, I’ve moved to sit or stand next to them, to show I’m on their side. I’ve said, “I’m sorry you have to go through this,” offered some kind of help. Do they need time off? Even an afternoon can make a big difference. Help with their work? Would running an errand for them relieve some pressure? After the death of a loved one, we bring food. Without asking, we know there will be people to feed and no time or desire to cook. When someone’s hurting, what could be helpful? Offer it up or just do it. It’s a show of compassion.

Look to Compassionate Role Models

I found inspiration for compassion in the book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion” by Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang-intervention program in the country. The story is a testament to the power that looking for the good in everyone can have on individuals and the world. The book changed my understanding of compassion. It’s not about pity, and it’s not about being a pushover. It’s not about being a savior or a hero either. It simply means extending a measure of empathy, understanding and care to others without an expectation of anything in return.

There are inspirations for compassion all over — colleagues, friends and family. What are their actions when I approach them? What do they do or not do that tells me I can go to them with problems or feelings? Think WWMD — “what would mama do.” Then, within reason, strive to demonstrate those behaviors.

Fight the Urge to Judge

To be truly compassionate is to put aside the urge to judge others and their actions. This is difficult — I have my own personal moral code, and I tend to view other people through the prism of that moral framework I’ve created for myself. I have to stop and remember that while I’m entitled to my own moral code, I do not have the right to impose it on someone else if it doesn’t affect me.

I can make the mistake of thinking everything’s about me. It’s not. When someone is revealing something to me, it’s about them. It costs me nothing to remove the filter of my own bias or feelings. Whether I agree or approve of what someone is doing or saying, it’s not my place to say. I have the right to judge only the person in the mirror, and she’s never perfect.

For me, remembering to withhold judgement is an important aspect of developing the competency of compassion and becoming the most effective leader I can be.

As leaders, we have a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate empathy and understanding that is often missing in the modern business world. So don’t be afraid to add a little compassion at the office. It’s an investment that will have a positive impact on your own work experience, your team members and your organization. It’s also the right thing to do.

Success Labs is a full-service, strategic organizational and leadership development company located in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For more than 25 years our expert team of consultants has worked with hundreds of companies to explore their business potential and improve their company and cultural performance. Contact us to get proactive about your people strategy.