Wisdom//

Compassionate Directness Is an Essential Ingredient for Innovation

Reframing feedback to be about growth rather than criticism creates an environment for creativity and risk-taking.

Illustration by Ryan Wattaul / The We Company
Illustration by Ryan Wattaul / The We Company

In “Secrets of a Thriving Work Culture,” a series by Ideas by We and Thrive Global, we explore the new practices and philosophies that are redefining what a successful work culture looks like.  

Of all the secrets to being happy and productive at work, perhaps the trickiest for many people to master is the idea of compassionate directness. And yet this practice — in which you address problems and issues swiftly, directly, and with compassion, rather than ignoring them to avoid uncomfortable conversations or hurt feelings — is essential to a vibrant work environment

“Compassionate directness is the core of a healthy, resilient, thriving company culture,” says Arianna Huffington, the CEO of Thrive Global, whose offices are in a headquarters by WeWork space. It’s so essential that it’s become a core company value at Thrive Global and other companies. “Creating an environment that allows for continuous and honest feedback allows both the employees and the company to grow and meet their goals. It’s the ultimate competitive advantage for the 21st century,” Huffington says.

One of the first steps in cultivating a sense of compassionate directness in the workplace is to make sure the physical space is conducive to such conversations, says Liz Burow, VP of workplace strategy for WeWork. “Compassionate directness can be supported with a workplace that connects people as much as possible,” she says. “Making leaders, mentors, and colleagues and the work progress as accessible and visible as possible helps connect colleagues to the mission and purpose. The more people are connected with a sense of ‘we are in this together,’ the more they are open to feedback.”

The idea is to create physical spaces that signal comfort, openness, and strength by including comfortable, soft seating so that two people can sit and talk easily side by side; acoustics that soften echoes and hard tones; soft, indirect light; and space that’s off the beaten path, creating a refuge from the regular pace of the office. “It encourages constructive conversation modes,” Burow explains, so that two people can focus on the issue at hand, as well as ideate and brainstorm a path forward together. 

Before you’ve settled into the quiet corner for direct, helpful feedback, it’s important to know how to give and receive it in the spirit it was intended. Joey Hubbard, Chief Training Officer at Thrive Global, shares his insights. 

Why is compassionate directness so important?

When employees and managers don’t feel empowered to surface problems as they arise, ordinary challenges, setbacks, and unexpected developments don’t get resolved on their own — they take root, fester, and then become major issues. Resentments build between employees and managers because they don’t talk about something in the moment. And when they do talk about it, they can’t let it go and they can’t move on, and they carry the resentment for days, weeks, months, even years. 

When you course-correct on a continual basis, you don’t veer off course very much. It’s healthier for all parties — from a performance perspective and from a mental health perspective — for those conversations to happen in the moment versus down the road. It’s even OK to say, “I’m upset about this, but I want to take some time to calm down. Can we talk about it tomorrow?” As long as you talk about having the conversation, it’s enough. 

Why is it so hard for many people to address conflicts and problems head-on?

People avoid conflict because they’d rather be liked than not liked. Or they’re unwilling to risk disapproval. But even though that might be the motivation, those aren’t actually good strategies for success, or even being liked and approved of. Avoiding conflict doesn’t mean escaping it — it mostly just means pushing it down the road to a point where it’ll be much more challenging to deal with.

We also don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings. Often, out of attention to care, we do more harm. Ignoring problems by not giving employees and colleagues honest, constructive feedback isn’t polite, it’s disrespectful — it doesn’t acknowledge their potential or help them reach it.  

So what’s the first step in practicing compassionate directness?

Compassionate directness is a skill — and like other skills, the more you practice it, the better you become at it. When you’re raising an issue with somebody, do it in a way that makes them feel safe, so the feedback isn’t met defensively. If we can reframe the conversation by saying, “I want to help you succeed and share information that will help you do that,” then that’s a compassionately direct response, since what you’re really saying is “I care about you and, therefore, I want to help you succeed.” 

Shifting the mindset is critical to even feeling the willingness to give feedback. People will know their best interests are being considered and they’ll feel supported. They’ll receive the feedback as being about the job or a workplace issue, not about them as a person. In this environment, they’ll be much more likely to take risks and think creatively.

It’s also important to understand that compassionate directness works for both sides. So, as someone comes to give you feedback, you have to be in the mindset that “this person is giving me this information to help me get better.” We have to be compassionate with ourselves and not take it personally when we receive this information, but rather see it more as an opportunity for growth.

Does everyone need to master this — not just managers and leaders?

Yes. Compassionate directness isn’t just about top-down reviews. It has to be a 360 company-wide value, baked into every part of the company and its mission. It allows the company to course-correct, take risks, and innovate, in the same way it does for the individual team members who make up the company. It allows the company to deal with challenges and dispatch hostile elements that could otherwise break through and create havoc. It creates an atmosphere in which everybody feels heard and respected. It reduces conflict and tension points and allows the company to devote its energies to its mission and to the things that matter most. And that allows the company to be better able to meet its long-term goals.

When you create an environment where people feel empowered, then you don’t lose out on great ideas. We want people to feel free to share their ideas. That’s how you get the most innovative and creative environment. 

How do individuals benefit from practicing compassionate directness?

Compassionate directness creates a platform for people to grow, improve, unlock their true potential, and meet their goals. Honest and direct feedback is how we improve and get better as individuals. Failure and mistakes are inevitable — they’re just part of life. But the key to growth is being able to learn from them.

If you have the right environment, people feel free to fail, toss out crazy ideas, and take risks. In environments that are stale, companies lose their edge because no one wants to take risks that can lead to failure and take a hit. So, you really want an environment where people aren’t afraid to fail and get feedback — where people feel safe knowing that this conversation is not against them but about them performing at their best. 

Joey Hubbard is the Chief Training Officer at Thrive Global. He has dedicated the last 30 years to coaching and facilitating motivational seminars to assist individuals and professional organizations in improving their lives, their careers, and their businesses all over the world. 

Melanie Mannarino is a writer, editor, digital strategist, and author of the upcoming book The (Almost) Zero Waste Guide.

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