Well-Being//

Why Compassionate Directness Is the Most Successful Way to Lead

As a leader, it's important to understand the emotional lives of your employees.

Courtesy of Tom Merton / Getty Images

A Q&A with Mandy O’Neill, Ph.D., associate professor of management at the George Mason University School of Business. 

Thrive Global: Why is it more effective to lead with compassion and empathy?
Mandy O’Neill: Compassion is recognition of others’ suffering. Empathy is feeling what others are feeling. In speaking about why it’s effective, it’s helpful to think about what the alternative to those emotions is.

Workplaces struggle with emotions like anxiety and anger. It’s important to note that the opposite of compassion and empathy is not anxiety or anger. It’s something closer to indifference. That’s an important distinction. Leading with empathy and compassion involves a recognition of others’ perspectives, and some of that includes embracing the negative emotions people are experiencing in the workplace. Leading in this way is more effective, because it gives leaders a unique insight into the emotional lives of their employees, which often includes a lot of painful emotions that can be impediments to them being their best at work and doing their best work.

TG: How does a leader’s ability to be compassionate and direct benefit the entire company?
MO: Leaders, especially top management, are in a unique position to design policies and practices that benefit the entire company. If they include emotions employees are dealing with in their day-to-day lives, this can lend unique insight into policies and practices that could widely benefit employees. That’s something that is uniquely in the hands of top leadership, whether that be top HR, the CEO, the COO or business partners.

One of the best examples of this is Sheryl Sandberg’s work at Facebook in response to her own personal tragedy. She designed a policy at Facebook that recognizes and responds to employees who are struggling with grief in the workplace, and it’s one of the most innovative policies I’ve ever seen. By experiencing this pain herself and recognizing how it impacted her work, she acted on an opportunity to create a policy that allows people to take time off work to manage this grief in a more flexible way than most companies allow. This is something really innovative that came from someone in leadership using empathy, in this case her own pain, to see how it might benefit the whole company.

TG: What are some easy ways to introduce compassionate directness into your leadership style?
MO: Within the field of organizational development, we have a variety of ways to design interventions for corporations that have an “affective” component, including daily diary programs, “reciprocity rings,” kudos boards, trainings, team-building interventions, individual coaching, culture assessments and culture change interventions. Until you’ve actually been in someone’s shoes, it’s hard for you to really understand the emotions they’re going through, particularly as a top leader. We know from research on power that simply putting people in positions of power causes them to do less perspective-taking and pay less attention to people who are lower in power. One type of intervention is to put people in a position of low power, so they can open their eyes and experience what it’s like to live a day in a frontline employee’s shoes.

TG: Giving negative feedback can be one of the most challenging tasks. What are some methods that allow you to be compassionate and constructive while still delivering the message clearly and directly?
MO: This is a struggle I often hear about from companies that either lack in compassion or have too much compassion. The conversation depends on whether you’re an organization that’s so callous and cut-throat that communicating with compassion is so new, or one that’s so loving and caring that passive aggressive behavior sometimes occurs when it comes time to have difficult conversations.

Compassion can be really difficult for hyper-competitive and extremely bottom-line oriented organizations. In those type of situations, one practice I observed and found really useful is “compassionate firing.” Very rarely do we take into account the perspective of the person who’s receiving news that their position has been eliminated or their performance is not up to par. We assume we know what they want in terms of how the actual process is done, but very often, people have strong opinions about whether they’d like to pack up their things and leave immediately or take some time to say goodbye to the organization and to the people they’ve worked with, sometimes for a very long time. People who have to have this kind of difficult conversation should think about how this news will impact the person and structure the conversation in a way that preserves the person’s dignity as much as possible.

In terms of email communication, there’s a terrible tendency for us to not think about the perspective of the receiver. For example, when you send an email in all caps, it can look like you’re screaming. And for some people, depending on their background, this is absolutely not intuitive and can seem like you’re being overly aggressive. I’ve also encountered email issues with people for whom English is a second language. If you have a colleague from another part of the world whose English isn’t as fluent as yours, give them the benefit of the doubt rather than jumping to the conclusion that they’re a jerk. I find that a common theme in these interventions is learning to give people the benefit of the doubt and to put yourself in their shoes.

TG: Compassion is a quality we value but not necessarily at work. Is it important to make compassion part of the conversation around workplace success?
MO: For better or worse, we sometimes spend more time with our colleagues than our friends and family. It wasn’t until recently that we realized workplace relationships could be deep enough to be what we call “companionate love.” Workplace relationships can involve affection, compassion and tenderness — all things you’d expect from any close relationship. In some cases, these relationships are close not just because you spend so much time together, but also because your colleagues understand you and the work you do more than anyone else. These people also help you through pain from other sources in life, such as family stress or financial problems at home. 

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