Years ago, when I was a 23-year-old assistant HR manager at a large department store, one of our sales associates suffered a heart attack and died while at work.
At the time, I was out of town, attending my grandfather’s funeral. Upon my return to work, my boss, Mary, told me what had happened and carefully gauged my reaction. She was concerned about me suffering two losses in quick succession. When I assured her I was OK, she asked me to check in with Scott, the department manager of the gentleman who had died.
Scott had also experienced two recent losses, with the death of his mother coming just a month before the passing of his co-worker. Mary thought it would be helpful for me to talk with Scott because we were the same age and socialized outside of work.
Later that day, as Scott walked into my office, I thought, “What in the world can I possibly say to this man that will help him?”
There we were, two young people trying to figure out how to navigate a fast-paced work environment that, frankly, required us to “get on with it.” In the end, I settled for a simple, direct approach. I asked Scott how he was doing, offered my support and then settled in to simply “be” with him in silence for a few moments of acknowledged sadness. Given my inexperience in such matters, it was the best I could offer in the form of compassion, but it seemed to suffice.
Suffering has a way of creeping into even the most benign of workplaces. And leaders are in a unique position to “both create and alleviate suffering,” write authors Monica Worline and Jane Dutton in the book “Awakening Compassion at Work.” Worline and Dutton have researched the topic of compassion in the workplace and conclude that, unlike the positive psychology concepts of gratitude and happiness, compassion is an interpersonal concept that is linked to the darker side of the human experience.
“Compassion goes hand-in-hand with suffering,” the authors write. Even though the topic of suffering is a heavy one, Worline and Dutton point out a positive element: the chance for leaders to renew themselves through the display of compassion.
Breaking the cycle of continual leadership stress
Leadership is fraught with the stress of daily decisions and competing priorities. In the article “Mindfulness, Hope and Compassion: A Leader’s Road Map to Renewal,” authors Annie McKee, Frances Johnston and Richard Massimilian put forth the concept of learning to manage the leadership cycle of “sacrifice and renewal.”
They write that “leaders cannot sustain their effectiveness if they cannot sustain themselves. Leaders must deal with ‘power stress’ caused by a combination of responsibility, constant self-control and the inevitable crises, both small and large that the leadership role demands.”
Failing to do so causes what McKee, et al. call “Sacrifice Syndrome,” a cycle that leads to continued stress and eventual burnout. One way to help break the cycle is to exhibit compassion, which rests on caring about others in a profound way. Doing so puts the focus on someone else, which allows you to set aside your problems for the moment. I certainly found this to be true when I sat down with Scott to ask him how he was doing after the sad events that had transpired in his department.
The unexpected benefit of compassion in business
Compassion can exist within the business environment. McKee and her colleagues see an unlikely connection to a key business skill: inquisitiveness. They write that leadership compassion springs from a natural source.
“Compassion is natural. Why? Because compassion starts with curiosity about other people, what motivates them and how the world outside of our own actually works.”
This curiosity -- to know someone not because of the salacious details we might glean, but to genuinely walk alongside them in their time of suffering -- is what makes a great leader. “Generosity grows for the suffering that may sometimes make work life messy and difficult. Leading with compassion restores our belief in a better future so that we can feel our way forward together,” offer Worline and Dutton.
The power of tuning in
You may have heard the phrase “Are you a human being or a human doing?” Far from just another thing on your to-do list, dialing in to others can actually help renew your energy and refocus on your leadership purpose.
“To lead with compassion requires that leaders weave more attention to the full human state of others into their work relationships” write Worline and Dutton. Tuning in to someone requires you to simply “be” in the moment, hearing what someone is saying. Observing for what they are “saying” with their body language, but not their words. Intuiting for the right words of comfort to offer.
This is the approach I took with my colleague Scott. After a couple of minutes of conversation, it was clear he did not wish to explore his sadness while at work, so I settled for a few brief words of support and let it go at that.
All humans experience suffering. We can’t expect the pain to conveniently check itself at the door when employees arrive at work. Compassion isn’t the easiest of emotions to display for some, but demonstrating care for a person who’s suffering elevates a person from “manager” to “leader.”
Who is suffering today, and how will you care for them? How will you renew yourself through compassion?
Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”