Well-Being//

Compassionate Directness: The Cultural Value That’s the Ultimate Competitive Advantage

Creating a culture of continuous and honest feedback allows both employees and the company to grow.

Malte Mueller/ Getty Images
Malte Mueller/ Getty Images

In the 21st century workplace, company culture will be more important than ever. The future will be defined not just by constant change, but a constantly accelerating rate of change. Success won’t just mean being able to adapt to any one particular moment, but to the idea of accelerated change itself. This is why, more than ever, company culture will function like a company’s immune system. A healthy culture is resilient, able to manage external challenges, identify internal weaknesses, root out toxic elements and allow both the business and the employees to grow and flourish.

At Thrive Global, we believe the key to building a healthy and resilient company culture, one that will serve as the foundation for sustainable success, is something we call “Compassionate Directness.” We both teach it to other companies, and it’s the centerpiece of our own internal cultural values.

We define it as empowering employees to speak up, give feedback, disagree, and surface problems, pain points and constructive criticism. And to do this immediately, continuously, and with clarity, but also to do it with compassion, empathy and understanding. With this as the foundation of company culture, both employees and the business can course-correct, overcome challenges, grow, evolve, achieve peak performance, reach their highest potential and truly thrive.

Too many companies believe we have to choose between being direct and being compassionate, between being honest and effective and being considerate and understanding. But we don’t. Compassion and directness are not mutually exclusive — they’re independent qualities that can be nurtured. And when brought together, the sum is greater than the parts.

The key is the unique, transformative power that both qualities have when combined. But only when combined. As we’ve seen in many of the companies we’ve worked with, when only one quality is present or is overvalued in a company culture, the result will be toxic, with damaging consequences for both employees and the company.

According to a poll from H.R. management platform 15Five, 85 percent of employees are dissatisfied with the level of communication in their workplace. And the quality of communication isn’t just about what is or is not being communicated, but about how information is being communicated. And that makes all the difference. The number one reason, according to Gallup, that employees leave their companies is the quality of their managers.

This can obviously be for many reasons, but we’ve seen what happens in the many companies in which directness without compassion is prized. Employees feel talked at instead of talked to. They become demoralized and disengaged. Feedback is met with defensiveness and resentment. Turnover goes up. Teams break down. And so do employees. One study showed that workers who felt that their managers were unjustly critical or ignored them had rates of heart disease one-third higher than employees who felt valued and listened to.

At Thrive Global, we’ve had a lot of experience with companies built on hard-charging cultures that focus on short-term growth and revenue at all costs. And yes, it can work — until it doesn’t. It’s the kind of short-term growth that sacrifices company culture, and along with it the prospects for long-term growth. Instead of growth built on expanding outward, it’s growth built on the company eating itself. And it’s not sustainable.

The idea that tough bosses who lead by fear and intimidation drive better performance is still believed in some quarters. But, as researchers have found, it’s a myth. “We’d love to find out if there are good aspects of abusive leadership,” Rebecca Greenbaum, a professor at the Rutgers School of Management, said. “There’s been a lot of research. We just can’t find any upside. Productivity may rise in the short term. But over time the performance of the staff or team deteriorates, and people quit.”

It also breeds what we call a culture of “brilliant jerks,” which arises when companies overvalue a narrow definition of performance. Creating a cult of the top performer leads to tolerance of otherwise unacceptable behavior. The collateral damage, often in the form of lower rates of retention and increased difficulty recruiting, might not be immediately obvious. But over time, as growth slows and appears to hit a glass ceiling, the costs become too great to ignore. It’s a phenomenon that’s difficult to root out. A study by researchers from The University of Central Florida’s College of Business confirmed that bullies who are thought to be top performers are much more likely to have their behavior overlooked.

Likewise, company cultures that undervalue directness have their own set of problems. When employees and managers are reluctant to speak up, whether it’s out of fear of being “the bad guy,” or rocking the boat, or because feedback is discouraged and disincentivized, ordinary challenges and setbacks are allowed to take root and fester. Opportunities to course-correct (“Captain, we appear to be headed for an iceberg”) are missed — often until it’s too late. Not every missed opportunity sinks the ship, but they’re still costly. One study found that every time an employee sidesteps raising an important issue, the costs to the company are an average of $7,500. It also becomes impossible to iterate and improve. And it sinks morale. Employees see things that aren’t working and become disengaged when there’s no acceptable way to say so.

And, worst of all, it’s not just the company that won’t grow and evolve, but the employees. Feedback is how we improve and get better. There’s nothing wrong with failure or mistakes. They’re inevitable. But being able to learn from them isn’t. And ignoring them or not giving employees honest, constructive feedback isn’t polite, it’s disrespectful — it doesn’t acknowledge their potential or help them reach it. It’s not supportive, it’s indifferent.

But for feedback to be given — and, even more important — received in a constructive way that leads to real growth, it has to be done not just with directness but with real compassion and empathy. This isn’t about being soft or solicitous, it’s about acknowledging the way humans work and that we bring our whole selves to the workplace. And this can only be achieved if the company cultivates a culture of trust and psychological safety.

As Emma Seppälä, science director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, says, it’s also good for business: “A new field of research is suggesting that when organizations promote an ethic of compassion rather than a culture of stress,” she writes, “they may not only see a happier workplace but also an improved bottom line.”

But to be able to flourish, compassionate directness has to be undergirded by a strong sense of trust. Once that trust is there, feedback is taken not defensively, but in good faith. Employees and colleagues know their best interests are being taken to heart and they’re being supported. They know it’s not about the person, but the job. Problems can be surfaced in a way that’s not about blame. Companies can course-correct in real time. Employees and teams are much more likely to take risks, innovate, think unconventionally, and approach problems creatively. And they become much more deeply engaged.

That’s when the much buzzed about concept of “psychological safety” can take root. The term was coined several years ago by Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, who defines it as “a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.”

This is why compassionate directness just can’t be a top-down policy — it’s an on-going, two-way conversation. But it does have to start at the top. As research by Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley shows, as people gain more power in organizations, they actually become less empathetic. “We often underestimate, once into positions of power, the effects we have on other people,” he says. That’s why compassionate directness requires that leaders and managers model it themselves, and work hard to be just as open to immediate and honest feedback and as willing to grow as every other employee. This requires courage, transparency and vulnerability.

Compassionate directness isn’t just another way to do performance reviews. To harness its unique power, it has to be a 360 company value — baked into every part of the company, its mission and its long-term goals. That’s why it’s first on Thrive Global’s list of cultural values — it creates the conditions for all of our other values. It’s the foundation of our ability to grow, scale and achieve our ambitious goals.

When a culture of compassionate directness is created, people respond. They want to be empowered to make their voices heard and they want to be respected enough to get the honest feedback they need to realize their full potential. Changes in technology, workplace culture and the culture at large have ushered in a new era of expectations. Today’s workers place an unprecedented value on engagement, transparency and workplaces that offer the opportunity to grow. And when we learn to be better communicators, we’re more creative, we take more risks, and we’re far better able to identify problems and course-correct before they become crises.

Competing in today’s world requires recruiting talented employees, being able to retain them once they come aboard, and then being able to unlock their full potential. Compassionate directness doesn’t just make a company a more pleasant place to work — it drives better business outcomes, provides a competitive advantage and creates the resilient culture necessary to navigate constant change.

For many of us, compassionate directness may not come easily at first. And that’s ok. What’s important is finding ways to put it into action. When you flex your compassionate directness muscle, you’ll not only begin to see the benefits – you’ll see that it gets easier with practice. To help you get started, here are three of my favorite compassionate directness Microsteps:

Before your next one-on-one, pause to reflect before giving feedback.

If you’re stressed or rushed, you’re more likely to deliver feedback without compassion or empathy — even if that’s unintentional.

Each time you notice a problem, find a way to surface it immediately.

Don’t just hope a problem will go away, or assume someone else will fix it. When you speak up with compassionate directness, everyone benefits.

Each time you have constructive feedback, share it with compassion.

Giving compassionately direct feedback is how we course-correct and grow as individuals. It’s also how many of our best ideas come to light.

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