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How to Be a Compassionate Manager in a Heartless Organization

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Liz Kislik for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit: Anthony Harvie/Getty Images

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Research shows that employees who work for compassionate managers are 25% more engaged in their jobs, 20% more committed to the organization, and 11% less likely to burn out. But too many organizations seem not to have gotten the memo yet. They still have rigid hierarchies and treat their employees more like resources than humans, requiring excessively long hours, pressuring people for unrealistic results, and treating them as if they were all exactly the same, without regard for their individuality.

What can you do if you want to manage your team with compassion, but your leadership hasn’t bought into this philosophy? These six strategies will help you be a compassionate leader and may even convince some of your less-compassionate colleagues that they can do better.

[Here are the first three of six recommended strategies.]

Work out your own robust, business-focused definition of compassion.

Some aspects of compassion fall into what are sometimes called “soft” skills, but a more apt descriptor is “activist.” A good working definition is that compassion is the feeling you have when you see someone else struggling or suffering in some way and feel the desire to take action to help relieve that suffering.

It’s that desire to act and create change that differentiates compassion from empathy. For example, you might be empathetic if you feel bad because the current requirement to be back in the workplace is creating a personal hardship for your team member, but you’re being compassionate if you take steps to change the schedule so they can work more comfortably. It’s the action that makes the difference.

Model self-awareness and self-regulation.

Your behavior sets the bar. People notice how you change your position when you receive new information, how you deal with pressure, and whether you’re negotiating with another leader on their behalf. They look to see if you’re willing and have the capacity to triage priorities or make tough decisions, as well as to take responsibility, clean up your own mistakes, and ask for support or forgiveness when necessary. That’s how you model what appropriate behavior is within your group, even if that’s not true for other departments.

One of my clients got involved trying to help sort out a dispute between two team members. During the conflict, it became clear that she had offended one of them, and as part of the discussion, she expressed her regret, asked for forgiveness, and explained how she would try to conduct herself going forward. For months afterward, the offended teammate expressed his appreciation to his colleagues and acknowledged that he hadn’t previously worked with any leader who would be willing to face up to their own errors like that, and his interpersonal behavior began to improve.

Recognize that you can never be everything to everyone.

Even as you try to treat everyone with kindness and interest, you will still have to make choices about where to invest your precious time and energy. Otherwise, you’re leading yourself right into burnout territory. So choose your priorities carefully and without overpromising. It doesn’t help to make big public announcements or hang banners with mottos about the things you intend. I’ve interviewed too many employees who refer to these communications with disdain as “flavor of the month” or “just another campaign we’ll have to wait out.”

Instead, learn from your people what matters to their well-being and take specific steps to improve conditions for them and raise group morale. As you begin to make headway, you can start to point out which things are working better and then start to tackle the next area of interest. You won’t have all the answers, be able to change everything about the organization that’s bothersome to your team, or help them resolve all their struggles, so don’t create false hope or expectations — explain which things are within your purview to change. And don’t expect that everyone will be grateful for what you’re doing or how much effort you’re expending on their behalf. It’s not their job to appreciate you, but the team’s resilience, longevity, and esprit de corps are likely to increase.

For example, one manager came up with a creative gambit that did not require any official permission or resources. When her people were feeling burned out by the challenges of the work and the organizational environment, she helped them each identify a “passion project” that supported the team’s goals and then carved out dedicated implementation time. The employees got the benefit of scheduled independent time for deep work, an opportunity to learn about things that interested them, and the sense of personal commitment and achievement.

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Being a compassionate leader is being a good leader. It can be hard to do that when the rest of the culture seems to rely on favoritism or neglect. But if you apply these six strategies and choose your shots, you can make a difference for your people and for the business. And eventually, others outside your area may come looking to see how you’ve been so successful and learn from your actions.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Liz Kislik helps organizations from the Fortune 500 to national nonprofits and family-run businesses solve their thorniest problems. She has taught at NYU and Hofstra University, and recently spoke at TEDxBaylorSchool. You can receive her free guide, How to Resolve Interpersonal Conflicts in the Workplace, on her website.


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