How to practice wise compassion to do hard things that humans respect

by | May 7, 2022 | Blog | 0 comments

Being a good human and being a responsible leader are not mutually exclusive.

Compassionate leaders do both. In fact, doing hard things and making hard decisions is often the most compassionate thing to do, according to the authors and consultants Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. In their new book, Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, the authors explain how leaders can practice “wise compassion.”

Wisdom, as they define it, is “knowing the right thing to do and having the courage to do it.” This means seeing reality clearly and acting appropriately, including being able to step up and deal with hard things rather than avoiding them or delaying taking action, especially when people are involved. Wisdom in leadership involves being brave enough to initiate candid and transparent conversations with others even when everyone is uncomfortable.

Compassion, as they define it, is “having the intention to be of benefit to others.” This can mean helping people acknowledge their behavior and helping them change it. Compassion is not about telling people what they want to hear and giving them what they want.

Combining wisdom and compassion generates the power. Based on the authors’ extensive research over the past decade, the sum of wisdom and compassion is greater than each part. Wisdom without compassion can be ruthless, they say. And compassion without wisdom can be naïve.

Two real life examples of wise compassion in action that I’ve recently experienced include:

  • A compassionate leader quickly switched out a project lead on a complex cross-functional global team upon learning the project lead had lost the confidence of the executive sponsor and several team members. The compassionate leader provided straightforward and constructive feedback to the project lead and then carefully worked with the lead to find a new work project better suited for their skills and interests.
  • A compassionate leader leaped into action after noting an unexpected dip in the pulse survey of a team managed by an accomplished direct report. The leader arranged for an external consultant, me, to confidentially interview the team members one-on-one about their recent experiences to learn what was happening. At the compassionate leader’s request, the consultant reported the findings back to the team’s manager first. The manager and consultant then brainstormed corrective actions for the manager to take. Next, the two shared the findings and suggestions to the compassionate leader.

My experiences with compassionate leaders corroborate the authors’ research. Their quantitative studies show that those who lead with wise compassion rise through the ranks more quickly. Also, those with high self-reported compassion reap other benefits. They have 66% lower stress than their less compassionate counterparts, a 200% lower intention to quit, and 14% higher efficacy.

Employees and co-workers of wise compassionate leaders also benefit. These individuals have higher ratings for job satisfaction, job engagement, organization commitment, job performance, decreased burnout, and leader satisfaction.

To learn how to practice wise compassion, the authors write their suggestions in a clear and direct style. By doing so, they’re practicing their own advice because they maintain that clear and direct communication is faster and kinder, especially when it’s “caring candor.”

“Caring candor” means delivering a message in a straightforward yet clear and kind and culturally sensitive manner with appropriate examples. In other words, don’t beat around the bush. When you’re direct yet sensitive, the other person can receive your message quickly without having to cut through the clutter, which helps them understand your point. You then can start the conversation to get to the crux of the issue and discuss what’s next.

By contrast, when you beat around the bush, individuals have to expend more cognitive energy to understand what you’re saying. By the time they figure out your message, they can be worn down, leaving minimal energy to have a conversation. And in some cultures, this indirect communication can be perceived as disrespectful.

Besides advocating for communicating clearly and directly, the authors advise to “connect with empathy and lead with compassion.”  Their distinction between empathy and compassion was one of the most enlightening and useful features of the book.  

As they describe it, compassion has two separate yet related qualities: having empathy by trying to understand what another person is feeling and experiencing and the willingness to act in response. To say it another way, empathy is an emotion you feel and compassion is an intention to act.

This distinction is important from a leadership perspective for these reasons. When you’re compassionate, you’re confident you can do something. You’re not just caught up in the feelings of the moment. Also, when you are oriented toward compassion, you’re more likely to focus on doing something for the greater good rather than contributing toward the well-being of one individual. You use your compassion to unite people and support everyone.

When many of us are striving to practice more human-centered and compassionate leadership, this book serves as a great tool. It’s not perfect though. In the spirit of “caring candor,” I’ll share my two concerns.

First, the authors fall in a common empathy and compassion trap, which is thinking we use empathy and compassion solely to respond to suffering. While alleviating suffering is a useful task, we also can feel empathy and act compassionately in position situations, especially in recognizing others’ achievements.

Second, the authors and many of the leaders they quote use the Golden Rule, not the better-suited Platinum Rule. The Platinum Rule in which you “do unto others as they like to be treated” is ideal for compassionate leadership. Followers of the Platinum Rule show respect, thoughtfulness, and compassion toward others. By contrast, the Golden Rule is egocentric. (For more about the Platinum Rule, check out my blog post Why and how to comply with the Platinum Rule.)

Nonetheless, being always good is hard. And the authors have given us a great gift: a well-researched book on compassionate leadership that explains how to become better at doing hard things in a human way.

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