One of the most common misunderstandings about compassionate leadership is that it looks like “being nice or soft” or “loving everyone.” It turns out that most leaders aren’t sure what compassion actually looks like in action. In a survey of over 1,000 leaders, 91% said that compassion was very important for their leadership, but 80% of them did not know how to apply compassion (source). In interviews, leaders often say that it’s difficult to know how to be nice when things need to get done or someone needs to be held accountable. But if compassionate leadership is not about being nice, then what does it actually look like?
Compassionate leadership is understanding where you and others are coming from, feeling for yourself and others in a genuine way, and helping you and others to be successful. This means that compassion can look fierce or gentle as long as there’s a genuine understanding of and caring for what’s needed, an intention to be of benefit, and it results in better outcomes.
This isn’t easy. Let’s say you want to provide honest feedback to a coworker who isn’t pulling her or his weight on the team. Being brutally honest can be direct and clear, but your coworker may not be able to receive that feedback without being defensive or hurt. Skirting around the issue with vague questions (“How do you feel about your performance lately?”) or piling on praise while sneaking in some criticism can be confusing and unhelpful. The compassionate response requires having a sense of what your coworker needs to hear, what you’re able to give in that moment, and what he or she is able to receive. This becomes easier with training. Research shows that cultivating compassion in addition to competencies such as mindfulness and emotional intelligence can help you better understand what’s happening in your own mind and generate a sense of genuine caring and concern for others. When you combine these with communication skills, you can deliver the feedback in a way that is true and kind, as well as more effective. And this works both ways. When you are given the gift of caring and honest feedback, it may not feel good in the moment — but if it results in you being more effective, this may be an example of compassionate leadership.
While compassionate leadership may now be easier to recognize when you apply it or receive it, it can be more difficult to assess when it involves other people. For example, compassionate leadership does not necessarily have to look “empathetic.” Empathy is defined as sharing what others are feeling, while compassion involves feeling for what others are feeling. In other words, acting with compassion does not require having to share the same suffering. This isn’t just a semantic difference — recent neuroscience research shows that compassion lights up a specific part of the brain (the medial orbitofrontal cortex and ventral striatum) that is distinct from the neural circuit for empathy (source). In the study conducted by Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute, empathy training led to self-reported distress or negative affect, while compassion training resulted in decreased distress and increased positive affect (source).
To be sure, if someone is acting extremely harshly then the likelihood that they are being compassionate is probably low. Yet compassionate leadership can sometimes require a firm stance, such as when standing up for injustice or holding someone accountable. Even the Dalai Lama, one of the world’s most powerful advocates of compassion, states that “Nothing in the principle of compassion involves surrendering to the misdeeds of others. Far from promoting weakness or passivity, compassion requires great fortitude and strength of character” (source). Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, speaks frequently about managing compassionately and often recounts that one of the toughest and most compassionate decisions you can make as a leader is to let someone go. Keeping someone in their role while they are struggling hurts them and others. He says, “True compassion requires superhuman strength.” (source)
Thankfully, we’re seeing more demand for compassionate leadership. Compassion has the power not only to create safety so that the truth can be told but also gives us the ability to act with strength when it’s needed. Raising awareness about what compassionate leadership can look like in your organization can help break the “being nice” myth and lead to more authentic and effective ways of working together.
This article was originally published at Forbes.com on February 27, 2019.