False Assumptions About Being a Compassionate Leader

Many challenges leaders face in being compassionate stem from their false assumptions about unwanted outcomes. Here are some examples .

If I’m compassionate, they will think I agree with them.

Some leaders worry that if they show someone compassion, that person will think the leader agrees with what he has done. But you can be compassionate even as you disagree or can’t support what the person has done. It’s perfectly reasonable to show your concern for someone at the same time you express concern about what he has done. You might say something like, “I don’t agree with how you went about doing this, because I think you contributed to the situation you’re in. But I feel for you. You’re in a really tough situation.”

If I’m compassionate, I can’t hold the person accountable.

Here you believe that if you show someone compassion, you lose the ability to hold him accountable. This creates a situation in which you must choose between holding someone accountable and being compassionate. But this is a false choice. You can do both. In fact, if you don’t hold people accountable when it’s appropriate, you risk taking on the other person’s responsibilities.

If I’m compassionate, I could open up a can of worms.

Imagine that in your meeting with Jason, one of your direct reports, he mentions that his role as corporate spokesperson is becoming overwhelming. You respond with compassion, saying that you’ve noticed he looks tired and that you’re worried about him. Hearing your compassion, Jason tells you that the daily attacks from the media and activist groups combined with the organization’s shifting strategy for dealing with the public are making it impossible for his team to accomplish any other work. All of this is taking a heavy toll on his team and him. Some people are showing signs of burnout, others are reporting being depressed, and Jason has starting taking antidepressants on the advice of his physician. As he tells you this, you’re feeling bad for Jason. At the same time you’re thinking, “Have I gotten myself in too deep on this? I’m his boss, not a therapist. Besides, I can’t afford to have Jason check out. The organization needs him now.”

Sometimes leaders feel for others, but they worry that if they respond compassionately, they might encourage the person to open up about issues that they think are better left undiscussed. It’s natural at times to wish you didn’t know something. But not knowing doesn’t make the problem or its impact go away. By being compassionate and curious, you learn about challenges that already exist, and get the information necessary to support others in eventually resolving the problem.

Sometimes leaders worry that being compassionate will take them into conversations they are not qualified to deal with. People might talk to you about strained relations with their children or spouse, financial trouble, or mental health illness. The good news is that you can be compassionate even if you have no expertise about the situation that is causing the person’s suffering. That’s because compassion isn’t about solving problems. All you may need to do is listen, share your concern for the person, and extend an appropriate offer to help. Sometimes being a leader simply means being a human being.

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