Compassion is Advantage
Part I: Start with Yourself
By Jake Bornstein
What is Compassion?
As Wikipedia offers, “compassion involves allowing ourselves to be moved by suffering and experiencing the motivation to help alleviate and prevent it.”
To offer a more active definition, “compassion is the act of curiously, openly and charitably exploring another’s experience.” It means taking someone else’s experience seriously, to the point that you can, in some way, know it like it was your own. This includes enough fundamentally positive regard that you can make sense of their behavior even when you don’t like it — to see failings as the copings and learnings of a human on their way to uncovering their potential, rather than condemnations of their character. Compassion means to decide, genuinely, to give a shit.
Why is compassion essential to business success?
Research suggests that compassionate people are more successful leaders. While there are the immediate advantages of greater trust and loyalty, there is a deeper operation at play: compassionate awareness is a central mechanism for, in Talentism terms, transforming confusion into clarity.
When people face situations they don’t understand, the most common reaction is to go into threat, which shuts down access to higher-order thinking. This means losing access to the creative, open-minded, strategic processing required to learn rapidly and make probabilistic calls in the current crisis. Effectively transforming confusion into learning, instead of retrenching into protective narratives, is brutally hard. It requires us to expand our perspective in moments when our biology is often telling us to narrow it. Sure, we can do this on our own up to a certain point, provided our curiosity outstrips our fear. But very, very few people are capable of doing it consistently in the face of significant or prolonged confusion.
However, adding an external infusion of compassion to the equation can significantly tip the scales. Not only can others help us sort through what’s going on and reorient, some research suggests we may directly cue our nervous systems off of each other, where certain people are felt as having a “calming presence.” It’s not simply that it’s helpful for us to have access to compassionate sensemaking from others, it’s literally a requirement for learning at a certain level of trigger and complexity.
To put all that simply: a large number of your people are probably freaking out right now. Your ability to be compassionate, and inspire compassion in others, is the speed limit on your organization’s ability to learn. And your speed of learning is the biggest differentiator between you and your competitors. The great test for leaders right now isn't who can best convince everyone that things will go back to normal soon. It is who can connect to what's possible now that things are different, and help each person around them through the inevitable confusion and pain along the way to realizing it.
That is a tall order. Leaders are being asked to shoulder not only the survival of their firms, making hard calls with limited information, but also to smooth out the ripples of threat in themselves and others that make good thinking impossible.
If you want to be up to that challenge, it’s going to take compassion. And accessing that compassion starts with the person many leaders most struggle with most: themselves.
Compassion for Yourself
It is rare that someone successfully grinds themselves into doing great work. When it does happen, it often comes at the expense of the health and judgment required to sustain it. I see many high performers stuck in that loop: believing that if they just push through the next thing, and the next, that they can by sheer force of will become the leader their people need, even as increasing fear, irritability, and knee-jerk reactions suggest otherwise.
This is a particularly fraught moment to rely on grinding yourself through the next challenge. Many leaders I work with are reporting the warning signs of that very grind, accompanied by a deep confusion loop: disassociation, irritability, exhaustion, brain fog, etc. While people express their confusion loops in different ways, a pervasive sense of shutting down to shoulder a burden that seems impossible to hold is a strong signal that your own “check engine light” is flashing. Many leaders try to “do it all,” stepping up to take on all the problems their firms face, while despairing that the list of what needs to be done seems to only grow no matter what they do.
Compassion for yourself walks the middle path between denial and self-flagellation. It means connecting so deeply to what truly matters to you that you see the ways you’re falling short of your best self, and then cutting yourself a break for it. It means recognizing that your judgment is compromised and that taking care of yourself — taking a day off, going for a walk, rearranging your workspace, connecting with the people you care about, going to outside sensemakers — may be more important (and ulitmately more productive) than the next dreaded to-do item you’ve used to torture yourself. It means accepting that you’re human, that humans flail and fail in all kinds of ways, and that humanity — our imperfect striving to try to be a little bit better each day — is exactly what is called for right now.
People who are demonstrating compassionate awareness for themselves right now are in a much better position to articulate how they are causing their own problems, without judging themselves for it. They get confused just like everyone else. They show themselves genuine compassion, as they know that being confused is just a thing that happens to all of us. And they use that compassion to do what they need to do to get into a healthier mind space, and use it to explore what really matters, what they might be missing, and what matters most to focus on to take the next step for themselves and their business.
Then they show up with that compassion for others.