What Stops Leaders from Showing Compassion

Harvard Business Review

Most good people want to act compassionately at work. And recent research suggests that compassion also creates positive outcomes in organizations: People who experience compassion feel more committed to the organization and feel more positive emotions at work; when people receive bad news that is delivered with compassion, they remain more supportive of the organization; and acting with compassion can increase your own satisfaction and mitigate your own stress at work.

And yet even if you want to be compassionate with others at work, you may find it difficult. You may find yourself either judging others or making assumptions about what will happen if you are compassionate.

This can be especially challenging for leaders. As a leader, you get paid for your judgment. You are constantly evaluating situations and people. But that strength can become a liability when others need your compassion. If you find yourself thinking any of the thoughts below, chances are you're letting your judgment get too much in the way of your compassion:

"Your suffering isn't that serious." When you tell yourself that others' suffering isn't serious enough, you're saying they don't deserve compassion. When your direct reports say, "We're totally overwhelmed with work and can't get any cooperation from the other divisions," do you think, "Your workload is nothing; you have no idea how much I'm working. Stop complaining and make it happen"? Suffering isn't a competition. Other people's suffering doesn't have to exceed yours for you to be compassionate. Remember that acting with compassion can also reduce your own stress.

"You contributed to your problem." In this misguided approach, people must be fault-free to earn your compassion. If they didn't take complete initiative, respond as effectively as possible, or seek help early enough, they don't merit your compassion. But most of us contribute at least somewhat (if not largely) to our own challenges. If you extend compassion only to those who are totally fault-free, you will exclude most of the people you work with — including yourself. Instead, try shifting your mindset so that you are willing to respond even if others made their situations worse.

"You're acting like a victim." People act like victims when they discount their ability to help themselves or blame others for their problems. It doesn't mean they're not suffering, but rather that they don't see the extent of their ability and responsibility to deal with their problems. Instead of getting angry at them or feeling pity for them, you will be more effective if you respond with compassion as you help them see their own ability to respond to their problems.

A second reason some managers struggle to be compassionate is their own assumptions about negative outcomes that might occur if they show compassion. Here are some common assumptions and how to think differently about them:

"If I'm compassionate, they will think I agree with them." You may worry that if you show people compassion, they will think you agree with what they've done. But you can and should be compassionate even as you disagree or can't support their actions. You can 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. Still, I feel for you. You're in a really tough situation."

"If I'm compassionate, I can't hold people accountable." You may mistakenly believe that if you show people compassion, you lose the ability to hold them accountable. But this is a false choice. You can and should hold people accountable while being compassionate. In fact, if you don't hold people accountable when it's appropriate, you risk taking on their responsibilities.

"If I'm compassionate, I could open a can of worms." You may worry that if you show compassion, people will start to tell you about their mental health problems, their challenges at home, or other problems you're not prepared or qualified to address. You may think, "Have I gotten myself in too deep on this? I'm a boss, not a therapist." The problem here is assuming that you have to solve the problems others confide in you. The good news is that you can be compassionate without expertise about the situation that is causing the individuals' suffering. That's because compassion isn't about solving problems. All you may need to do is listen, express your concern for the person, and if you're able, simply help the person think about ways to get help for the non-work problems.

Remember that compassion doesn't mean taking responsibility for solving other people's problems or pitying them. Compassion does rely on three things: noticing others' suffering, connecting with them cognitively and emotionally, and responding to them. By being compassionate you help others, you help your organization, and you help yourself.

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