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25. May 2022

Doing hard things in good ways

Original Book: Raums Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter (2022). Compassionate Leadership – How to do hard things in a human way.

The book at a glance. The book “Compassionate Leadership” is a useful guide to bringing some order to today’s various ideas for a more human, responsible, inclusive leadership in organizations. It helps to conceptualize how to lead in human ways while not neglecting that this implies decisions that might have hard consequences for certain individuals. The authors propose a conceptual “fly wheel” of wise compassionate leadership with 4 strategies that reinforce one another: 1) Caring presence (“Be here now”); 2) Caring courage (“Courage over comfort); 3) Caring candor (“Direct is faster”) and 4) Caring transparency (“Clarity is kindness”). Based on empirical evidence and a lot of examples, the authors argue that being a leader, having to make “hard” decisions, and being a good person, caring for others, is not a binary “either-or” decision. However, wise compassionate leadership is not a matter of “being” but rather a matter of constant “becoming”. It does not emerge in one day. It’s a lifelong journey of transformation achieved by practicing the four strategies throughout each situation in each day.

What were my three most inspiring insights?

1) Busyness kills hearts. Constantly rushing and being distracted and inattentive is the #1 killer for connecting wisely and compassionately with others. And what most people don’t like to read: Busyness is not a given. It’s a choice – it’s how we respond to what’s given and where we put our attention and energy. And in most situations, taking time to connect in a compassionate way, saves time instead of losing it.

2) Too much empathy leads us astray. We are wired to be empathetic to others. This is part of our wonderful human nature. We can feel someone else’s pain as if it’s our own. That’s why we automatically solidarize and help to reduce this pain in others, and in ourselves. However, too much empathy with those around us can lead to groupthink, which thereby leads to the avoidance of decisions that might hurt other people’s feelings. Or even worse, it may evoke unethical and biased decisions, in which we decide in favor of the well-being of individuals or certain groups that are closer to us and with whom we empathize, at the expense of others - missing out on serving the greater good of all.

3) The distinction between compassion and empathy. If we feel empathetic towards others’ distress and pain, we might avoid e.g. to give critical feedback. Compassion instead leads us to step beyond the “feeling” and towards helping action, e.g. provide the feedback with ideas on how to become better. That means, empathetic leaders risk losing themselves in comforting others avoiding decisions that might be perceived as hard. Whereas compassionate leaders are empathetic too, but with the focus on actions. They do not avoid speaking the (sometimes hard) truth, but focus on offering helpful solutions, instead of compromising the greater good of all. Compassion needs courage over comfort, in that you know “if you don’t do the hard things today, they will become much harder tomorrow”.

How does the content relate to today’s times?

I would say it couldn’t be more timely! Since the global pandemic, our work involves increasingly more remote work and a much higher level of volatility. We realize that both will not go back to how it was. That means, for leaders to cultivate trust is, and will be, more difficult than ever. In other words: to learn how to build and maintain trusting relatedness across constantly moving and blurring boundaries, will become an even more important part of the leadership role than before. In that way, the compassionate leadership model is a helpful concept for leaders striving to become aware of the foundations necessary to create trusting human relationships in an increasingly unstable, uncertain and fluid environment.

How did the book change my thinking?

It made me caution to simply call for more empathy. It seems very important to distinguish between compassion and empathy. Empathy-based cultures can have the same toxic effect as fear-based cultures. If behaving empathetically with others becomes the ultimate social norm, people will tend to avoid any conversation, decision or action that might be controversial or hurt someone’s feeling. Paradoxically, people end-up feeling “unsafe” to speak-up or openly share their opinion, knowledge, or ideas, as in fear-based cultures. Counterintuitively, “psychological safety” is not necessarily created by empathy, rather by compassion. It’s more something like “What might help us right now to continue our meeting?” instead of “Tell me how you feel” that helps create a productive, yet psychologically safe culture. It shows that a compassionate leader needs the courage to avoid the “popularity game”.

What did I appreciate most reading?

The authors did a great job creating a very well-balanced, clear, easy-to-read conceptual self-help book. In my eyes it is a wonderful synopsis of the current ideas about inclusive, mindful, wise, human, agile and responsible leadership approaches. It bridges empirical evidence and practical reality by providing a beautiful mix of interesting research results, ideas of “how to” put it all into practice, enriched by quotes of contemporary leaders from well-known companies.

My most inspiring quote

“Be forewarned, though, that practicing wise compassion is not easy.[…W]ise compassion can often conflict with our neurological wiring. It sometimes can make us unpopular. And it definitely requires a lot of courage.”

What wisdom in this book will I use in my daily life?

I love the recommendation of making feedback conversations a “normal”, informal, on-the-go thing than “holy” formal meetings that most leaders and employees feel awkward attending. The authors propose sharing with employees short reviews on-the-go after any kind of meeting in the following way: “I had some thoughts on the meeting we just had. Is it ok, if I share?” or “It seemed to me that the customer wasn’t happy when you said x. Did you notice? And if so, what are your thoughts?”. This focuses on specific situations, forward actions and contributions rather than exchange on overall personality traits or behaviors.

Who should read this book?

Paradoxically, I would say firstly all empathetic leaders. They might question much less the possibility that there exists a “too much of a good thing”. It’s important for them to realize how detrimental, closed, exclusive and “caught-in-groupthink” a culture can become when building on too much harmony and empathy. Secondly, I think all those caught in the “busyness” trap, e.g. writing emails and making phone calls while attending a meeting. It’s important to understand how much potential for trust-building we risk to erode with not being present. And finally, it’s maybe interesting to know that men seem to rate themselves higher in compassionate leadership than women - whereas they get much lower ratings by their employees than women…I am happy to leave the conclusion with you :-).

Those who have no time to read the whole book might get a good overview in Strategy+Business, or in Harvard Business Review.

 Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Dr. Eva Bilhuber
Human Facts AG
Founder | Managing Partner
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