Compassion is Advantage: Part 2
A large number of your people are probably struggling right now. Your ability to be compassionate, and inspire compassion in others, is the speed limit on your organization’s ability to learn. And your speed of learning is the biggest differentiator between you and your competitors. The great test for leaders right now isn’t who can best convince everyone that things will go back to normal soon. It is who can connect to what’s possible now that things are different, and help each person around them through the inevitable confusion and pain along the way to realizing it.
That is a tall order. Leaders are being asked to shoulder not only the survival of their firms, making hard calls with limited information, but also to smooth out the ripples of threat in themselves and others that make good thinking impossible.
The first part of this series defined compassion in the workplace, and provided guidance around how to cultivate compassion for yourself. If you missed it or want a refresh, you can see it here.
Leveraging Compassion to Unleash Team Potential
As discussed above, a leader’s ability to be compassionate to others will be a deciding factor in their ability to work productively through this crisis. While some of your people will be stepping up right now, many will be struggling. Many of those struggling may previously have been high performers who you never expected to “crack” like this. Beyond the general environment of fear, polarization and stir-craziness, people are facing a plethora of challenges you likely don’t see. Quarantines are testing relationships, many to the point of breaking. Dormant mental health issues are being triggered. Every single person I know has had to give up something precious to them: weddings, reunions, business dreams they’d poured their hearts into, sometimes people themselves. No matter someone’s particular set of threat triggers, this pandemic is lighting them up; people are losing their jobs and assets, terrified for their physical safety, furious at being told what to do, distrustful of leaders and others they believe are misjudging the situation, and on and on. And in all of this, they are expected to work in a new, challenging environment and somehow do thoughtful, creative work while their world falls apart.
While you need the people around you to deliver right now, you can only push them so far before you hit a wall. It may be hard when the people you rely on behave in ways you don’t expect — when they suddenly appear unreliable, or self-centered, or otherwise a pain to deal with. The natural instinct will be to join them in their confusion loop: to get frustrated that they’re adding one more thing to your plate, to feel even more alone. This is the moment when your compassion is called upon. While people who are an ongoing toxic presence in your firm will have to go, many of your people are huge reservoirs of untapped potential, ready to step up as heroes in this crisis — if you can help them make sense of how to do so. The first step in that sensemaking is understanding what someone is dealing with and why they’re behaving in ways that don’t make sense to you. Once you truly understand where they’re coming from, you can begin to actively help them refocus on what’s important.
Practically speaking, compassion for employees boils down to an orientation of understanding rather than blame or punishment. The following steps may help:
1. Context: People in a deep threat loop will likely treat any intervention by their manager or coworkers with suspicion. Thus the first step is working toward psychological safety. Start by establishing the context of the conversation. You’re not looking to evaluate or punish them; you want to help. In order to help you have to understand the problem. The conversation will be kept confidential, and nothing said will be written in stone — they should feel free to spitball with you to try to get clearer about what’s happening so you can get back to doing great things together.
2. Investigation: The key mistake most people make when trying to help someone in a threat loop is to jump to conclusions and solutions. While the motives behind such actions may be good, the effect is typically to shut down the conversation and prevent genuine learning. Confused people often don’t have a clear picture themselves of what’s creating their confusion, so active compassion requires active listening and exploration to get to the heart of the matter. Instead you can:
- Start with the gap between what they were expecting and what they’re experiencing: Confusion occurs when people’s realities don’t match their expectations. Helping them get clearer about the actual drivers of their confusion starts with understanding this gap.
- Ask open ended questions: How are they feeling? What are they experiencing? What stories are they telling about what’s going on?
- Gather evidence: While you want people to feel heard, active compassion means helping cut through confused stories about what’s going on, not taking everything someone says at face value. What is actually happening? What problems are grounded in reality, versus extrapolation?
- Reflect back what you’re hearing: A big part of active listening is simply letting the other person know they’ve been heard. The easiest way to do this is to just echo back what you’re hearing in your own words (or even just repeat the key words of what was said to you). Many managers may worry this is inefficient or patronizing, but give it a try; the simple act of letting people hear their own words can often be clarifying in and of itself. It also ensures you are both in sync on the developing picture, paving the way for clarifying what’s going on.
3. Clarification / synthesis: Once you have a reasonable grasp of what’s going on, including the gap between what someone was expecting and what they’re now experiencing, you can clarify the big picture of what you’re hearing and reorient to shared goals. You can do this through the following steps:
- Synthesize the problem: Reflect back to the person the gap you can see and the impact it seems to be having on them.
- Reorient to their “why”: People under threat tend to lose sight of the big picture. You can help by actively exploring it with them. What actually matters to them? What do they aspire to? How can they work toward achieving that big why through their work? What can they do to still pursue that bigger “why” even given the problem they’re facing?
- Reorient to your shared goals: Once you’ve helped them reconnect to their “why”, explore the problem through the lens of shared goals. What are you trying to achieve together in the immediate term?
- Explore how you can help: Now that you’ve established some measure of psychological safety, investigated the gap between their expectations and experiences, and clarified what matters to them both at a big picture and tactical level, you can brainstorm how to help. What actually stands in their way? Do they just need a day off? Help reprioritizing different items on their to-do list? Help thinking through a problem with a coworker who’s faced similar issues? A shift in the overall design of their role and workflows? It matters less that you find the perfect solution with them than that you find experiments that they’re willing to try that may provide a path out of their current pain.
In addition to how you manage, there is also a structural side of compassion. Everyone will be taking their cues from you on what matters right now. You can let people know it’s ok to limit their work hours, to take time to transition, to make triage calls amongst their responsibilities (like the CEO of Slack). For frontline workers, your compassion likely needs a more physical form — imagine being a father or mother being asked to risk your life for a low wage, when good PPE and safety policies could make all the difference. At the end of the day, extending compassion is a bet that your people have the potential to do great work through this crisis. While it may feel like a leap of faith to do this, if you genuinely don’t think you can trust your people to do great things if you take care of them, then your problems run much deeper than the coronavirus. More likely, you’re overwhelmed, losing trust, and need to go back to compassion for yourself so you can see more clearly.
And let’s not forget that there are benefits to compassion that extend beyond internal clarity. Customers, investors, and other stakeholders are watching, and how you treat your people during this crisis will define your brand for a generation (Mark Cuban agrees). One tweet making the rounds says, presciently: “when we get to the ‘any other questions’ part of the interview, I’m always going to ask how you treated employees during COVID19.” In one survey, 65% of consumers say company actions during this period will meaningfully affect their future purchases of that company’s products.
Whether for your customers, your employees, or yourself, compassion, especially in moments of big change, isn’t just a vague ethical guideline. It’s a source of ongoing competitive advantage. Cultivate it now, or see your best employees and customers go to someone who can.
- How are your coworkers / reports currently doing? How do you know?
- When you’re seeing problems / drops in output, how are you currently handling it?
- Think about a coworker who’s currently frustrating or confusing you – are you telling stories to yourself about how they’re somehow deficient, or are you curious about what’s driving their behavior?
- In your next 1:1 with a struggling employee, try the “context / investigation / clarification / help” sequence described above
- If you’re in a position of controlling broader company policies, put yourself in the shoes of your employees. Would you feel safe? Supported? What might you worry about? For each policy, write down 1-2 ways you could make it more compassionate. Then, take a rough guess of the costs involved. How do those costs compare to losing your best employees or a team-wide drop in output?