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Compassionate Leadership: 'Slow Down to Speed Up'

Leaders can be both strong and caring

A person writing the words speak less listen more on a notebook.

​Canceling a team's project, denying a promotion, laying off employees. Making decisions that can be hurtful to employees is hard, but it's all part of being a leader. Most leaders want to be compassionate, but the demands on their time can get in the way, according to a new book.

Many think they must choose between being a good person and a tough leader. But leaders can be both strong and caring, according to Marissa Afton, co-author of Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way (Harvard Business Review, 2022). Displaying compassion can be as simple as listening to the other person, she and her co-authors wrote in a Harvard Business Review article

"Many problems just need to be heard and acknowledged," they noted. "In this way, taking 'nonaction' can often be the most powerful means of helping."

Their book is based on data from 15,000 leaders and 150,000 employees representing more than 5,000 companies in nearly 100 countries, as well as interviews with 350 C-suite executives.

Researchers also collected data from two compassionate-leadership assessments in collaboration with Harvard Business Review and researchers at Columbia Business School; Harvard Business School; the University of Amsterdam; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Toronto.

SHRM Online spoke about compassionate leadership with Afton, who also is an international partner and head of global accounts at Potential Project, a consulting and professional services firm in New York City. She will discuss the struggles and strategies of compassionate leadership during a concurrent session at 10:30 a.m. CT on June 13 at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 (SHRM22) in New Orleans.  

The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

SHRM Online: We've heard a lot in recent years on the importance of empathy in the workplace. What's the difference between empathy and compassion?

Afton: We define compassion as empathy plus action. It shows up differently in the brain—empathy shows up as an emotion and compassion as an intention of being of benefit. We need empathy; we're not getting rid of it. Empathy is the roadway toward compassion.

SHRM Online: In researching this book, you found that "most leaders find it harder to make a decision that impacts people than to make huge, strategic, and potentially risky decisions." What is the stumbling block for them?

Afton: I don't think it's fear of making a wrong decision. It's more about what the impact of the decision is going to be and the reflection back on them. Most leaders do agree that compassionate leadership—being caring—is the way [to behave], rather than just being hard-nosed. The pandemic has brought this out a lot, this recognition that we have to treat everybody as a whole human and not just as a commodity and not just as a function of our organization.

SHRM Online: Research for this book included interviewing 350 executives—mostly CEOs and CHROs. Why focus on them?

Afton: CEOs are responsible for the strategy of the business and where the business is going to be focused. CHROs are responsible for how that impacts the humans of the business, the employees. These two groups together are the two main contributors to building culture, to building employee experience and the humanness of the organization.

SHRM Online: There's a chapter in the book, "Busyness Kills the Heart," that looks at how the pressure of one's job and the "busyness" associated with it can stymie compassion among leaders. What are one or two strategies leaders can use to avoid that trap?

Afton: One is to "slow down to speed up." We have embraced busyness as a badge of honor, especially in the Western world. To say we're busy, for many people, is a connection to feeling important. [But] there isn't necessarily a correlation between busyness and productivity.

Reprioritize, refocus, delegate and ensure that you are purposefully placing moments of nonaction into your workday. [Take] a break simply to disconnect—something as simple as looking out the window, petting your dog, taking a step outside for fresh air.

SHRM Online: How does busyness impact compassion or lack of compassion in leadership?

Afton: When asked what it is that kills their ability to be compassionate, the majority said too many other priorities, too many other things to do.

SHRM Online: The book includes tips on how to overcome the busyness trap. One tip is to create a "to be" list versus a "to do" list. Please explain.

Afton: So many of us pride ourselves on the "to do" list in our leadership roles, and it feels good. We get a dopamine kick when we cross off those things on the list; it helps us feel like we're achieving something. We forget how we want to show up, what's the legacy we want to be known for as a leader.

[Compassion] has to do with how present we are with somebody when we are talking with them, how caring we are in asking about things. We tend to be very attentive in the moment directly after an event, such as when someone lost a loved during the pandemic. It's obvious what you must do—give them time off. Two weeks later, though, are we still checking in with them?

SHRM Online: Another tip in the book is to not make assumptions about how the other person will react when having a difficult conversation and—what may surprise many people—not to tell the person, "I know this is difficult for you," or "I understand what you're feeling." Why is that? Isn't that a way to display compassion?

Afton: It's a tricky one because we are assumption-making machines. The reality is what I assume is bad news or a difficult conversation [for you] may be incredibly freeing for you. Pay attention to what [the other person is] not saying as well as what they are saying, noticing their body language, tone of voice and facial expressions.

What I can do is be present, listen openly and ask myself how I can be a benefit [to this person]. It's having an open, listening awareness that allows us to be more present.

SHRM Online: What is one thing you would like attendees at your SHRM22 concurrent session to learn?

Afton: Compassion is a trainable skill. There are some false beliefs that compassion is something you're born with. The other thing I would want attendees to come away with is you can only be as compassionate to others as you are to yourself. 


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