Over the last several years I have had the pleasure of working with some incredibly impactful and talented leaders. I have observed an interesting quagmire emerging regarding the values of compassion and accountability and their apparent conflict.
In its simplest form, there is this tricky balance between prioritizing getting the work done and ensuring that tasks are completed, while simultaneously trying to support staff navigating their complex experiences.
With evolving best practices for workplace culture over the last decade, compassion and empathy have crept more into our mainstream lexicon and into our requirements when searching for leaders and employees.
As leaders, we have lost sight of compassion and have become disillusioned in the ability and need to hold space for both accountability and compassion. As a result, I have seen too many taking on others' pain, responsibilities, and hardening their outlook and own humanity.
If you do not read anymore, my key coaching is this: Compassion is not feeling for, fixing, or sacrificing yourself or a boundary. By modelling true compassion, you will instill accountability within your staff.
What is Compassion?
Compassion means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.
Compassion is different from empathy, though the concepts are related. Empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person while compassion is about when those feelings and thoughts include an active desire to help.
It is about to get a bit personal
Last week I was burdened with some personal, professional, and fundamental human life things (relationship, finance, business partnerships, deadlines, etc.). I felt like I was getting hit on every front. One morning, right before a team meeting, there had been a straw on a camel’s back situation. My three girls telepathically decided to play a game of “pass the tantrum” trying to out scream each other. I was late to the meeting, I was in a parenting guilt spiral, exhausted, and feeling vulnerably charged.
In my discomfort I mumbled an apology for being late and stated upfront that my morning was rough, disclosing some of the details. As my own insecurity and raw vulnerability increased, I attempted to pull one of my colleagues (who is also a parent) into my mess, seeking validation and comradery.
My colleague paused and said “I am not sure how you need me to respond to this. What do you need me to do so you feel supported and able to go forward to today?” My other colleague quickly followed up “Do you need us to listen, validate, or take some of your tasks today so you can regroup?”
This response was exactly what I had coached, modelled, and instilled in my staff, but when my own coaching came back at me, it took me by surprise. In that moment I felt supported by my team, I was able to share my story and state my needs to the group without fear, shame or compromising any personal dignity or integrity. They held me accountable to my own feelings, for the work we had to accomplish together and held space for me to share my story.
Below are four strategies that I coach, use as a leader, instill in our workplace, and utilize as a parent and life partner.
Four strategies to help foster compassion
1. Remember each person is unique
We all grew up being taught the “golden rule” which was some variation of the sentiment “treat others the way you want to be treated.” We are evolving that rule and replacing the “golden rule” with a “platinum rule” which is “treat others the way they want to be treated.”
Never assume you know what someone is thinking or what they want. Remembering that how someone processes their struggles is their own process. This year, as an example, I had two separate individuals, whom I hold some degree of responsibility and leadership for, face some tragic personal circumstances. One individual wanted to focus on work and invest in their community, another asked for some time off to be with loved ones. My role is to show support and compassion to them individually.
2. Lean into discomfort and curiosity
Ask the question that is uncomfortable. Use behavioural observations. When my colleague stated, “I don’t know how you want me to respond to this. What do you need me to do so you feel supported and able to go forward to today?” They recognized, as did I, that I put them in an uncomfortable position, rather than avoiding it, they leaned into it, named it, and asked a question about how to support my current situation. There was not any judgment about me or my comments or situation. They observed their personal reaction and kindly came back with curiosity.
3. You do not need to “fix” it
There is this growing personal/professional pressure that leaders “should have all the answers.” That pressure comes internally, as much as it does organizationally and societally. Most folks who are seeking support and compassion want someone who will listen to them and acknowledge their struggle. As Simon Sinek says, “Sit in the mud with people.” Just be in the mud. Recognize and acknowledge with genuine feeling the situation or circumstances that are impacting that individual. You do not need to carry them out of the metaphorical mud, or pile on, or compare other mud to theirs. Just sit in the mud with them. By creating a space for others to voice their concern it eliminates shame and fosters connection.
4. Hold firm to your own boundaries
A boundary is an action that you can take or set for yourself. It is not about forcing someone to act or behave in a certain way.
Without boundaries, people are likely to feel taken advantage of, depleted, mistrusted, and burnt out. Cultivating healthy boundaries is an act of self-respect and self-care since we can only have empathy and compassion with guidelines and by taking care of our own needs first.
Compassion is like any other skill or muscle; it needs to be used to grow and develop. By passing on, teaching, modelling, or introducing proper compassion tools/tactics, you are creating a psychologically safe environment and cohesive team that can hold each other accountable.