As things accelerate and get increasingly complex, it's easy to lose sight of who matters

Simply considering what's best for the success of our organization is not always what's best for people. 

  • Putting "profit" over "people" is causing burnout and eroding our communities and environment
  • Designing technologies without considering human implications is threatening our democracy
  • Compensating and praising leaders without recognizing the front-lines is perpetuating self-interested leadership behaviors
  • Over-prioritizing efficiency in services such as transportation, hospitality, and healthcare without considering human needs is creating policies that hurt the very people we intend to help
  • Constant restructuring without considering the impact on employees and families is creating overwhelmed and toxic workplaces

How we get things done is just as important as the impact we have. To succeed in the long run, we need to consider the people within and beyond our organizations.


Compassion is a unique tool for considering the human implications of our decisions and actions

We don't need religion or a universal ethical framework to consider how our decisions and actions are resulting in harm to people. Compassion is innate to all of us and can also be trained and cultivated. It is a powerful tool for relating to and caring for the needs of others on both interpersonal and societal levels. 

Yet, bringing compassion into leadership is difficult for two main reasons:

1. Compassion is misunderstood

80% of leaders we surveyed believed that compassion is about "being nice or soft," or "loving everyone." In fact, one leader recommended we avoid the word altogether and think about empathy instead. This misunderstanding is creating an aversion towards and an under-utilization of compassion in leadership. 

2. Few models and examples exist for leading with compassion

Many leaders believe that it's hard to balance results with compassion. Yet, in interviews, we discovered numerous examples of how compassion is foundational to how people lead.

So, we need to redefine compassion for leaders and show what's possible when it's applied — the first step is to move beyond empathy

Empathy is the first step towards compassion, but it is insufficient. 

  • Empathy can lead to positive or negative behavior. Compassion always leads to prosocial behavior. In studies, empathy training significantly increased people's negative affect in response to distress. In contrast, compassion training both reverses negative affect and increases positive affect. (source)
  • While empathy can lead to fatigue, compassion can increase our resilience improve our approach to stressful situations. (source)

 

  Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Klimecki OM, Leiberg S, Ricard M, Singer Tania.

Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training.
Klimecki OM, Leiberg S, Ricard M, Singer Tania.

The second step is to move beyond mindfulness training

Mindfulness training is largely popularized as a tool for increased productivity and stress-relief. Recently, it has also become increasingly associated with improving interpersonal relationships.  

Recent research while mindfulness leads to increases in observation, non-reactivity, and presence, it does not increase acceptance or non-judging behavior. In fact, only perspective-taking and compassion-based practices lead to broad changes in ethical-motivational qualities like a nonjudgmental attitude, compassion, and self-compassion" (source).

Differential Effects of Attention-, Compassion-, and Socio-Cognitively Based Mental Practices on Self-Reports of Mindfulness and Compassion
Lea K. Hildebrandt, Cade McCall, and Tania Singer

Finally, we need to move beyond basic compassion training to providing practices, models, and frameworks for applying compassion

Compassion training using loving-kindness and affective meditation practices work to cultivate genuine caring for others, but they fall short of telling us what to do when things get really difficult. We are talking to leaders to learn about how they approach decision-making, collaboration, developing employees, living their values, etc. to learn answers to questions like the following:

  • How can I make decisions collectively, especially across divides?
  • How can I include numerous stakeholders in my decision-making without getting bogged down?
  • How can I best communicate and implement the changes we need to make while remaining sensitive to the needs of the people we're impacting?
  • How can I make the best case that the current policies are hurting not helping?
  • How can I consider the human implications of my products and services while still achieving results?
  • How can I design technology with a more holistic lens towards the impact on greater society?

We can learn from experienced leaders to craft frameworks and practices that work across contexts and situations for creating lasting change and positive outcomes for all.