Our current work-from-home life has torn down the wall between our professional and personal lives. Recently, I was meeting over Zoom with a company’s vice president of operations when we were momentarily interrupted—not by technical difficulties or priority tasks, but rather by her son, who popped on the screen and whispered, “Could I have a hug?” It was clear that our forced compartmentalization of work and life was ending and everyone is juggling a precarious work-life balance. The question now is, will we rebuild those walls between our personal and professional lives?
Empathy for employees’ personal situations is more pressing than ever. COVID-19 is changing people’s lives in very real ways, and the push toward patience, sensitivity, and kindness has had a particularly profound impact on command-and-control businesses. There’s no more room for the aggressive leadership practices of the Industrial Revolution; I believe we’re now on the brink of the “Compassion Revolution.”
I know this shift will be tough. I was once a type A leader who thought that compassion made me vulnerable. However, we can already see signs of the Compassion Revolution taking hold, even in job titles—ask Cory Custer, the “director of compassion” at Brighton Jones, or LinkedIn’s “head of mindfulness and compassion” programs, Scott Schute. If you’re ready to embrace the revolution, here’s how you can keep those walls down:
Assess your workplace’s capacity for compassion
The definition of compassion is the desire to alleviate another’s suffering. When was the last time you asked a teammate “What’s keeping you up at night?” or started a meaningful conversation that helped you understand how and why someone else was struggling? Better yet, when did your employees last feel comfortable asking you those questions?
If initiating compassionate conversations with your team feels strange, it’s a sign that your workplace is ready for the Compassion Revolution. Not only does showing compassion to employees build a better workplace, but it can lead to great insights. Recent McKinsey research indicates that, though working fathers report working productively while remote, 17% still feel disengaged.
That’s why it’s important to ask tough questions and foster deeper employee connections. And as your employees open up, you’ll experience a transformation and become an emotionally intelligent leader who makes smarter decisions for all stakeholders.
Challenge your instinct to judge
Compassionate leaders look out for employees’ anxiety levels by asking them what they need. Try saying, “I’d like to brainstorm useful ways that I can support you.” This light approach introduces your desire to help but leaves the final decision to accept the offer in the individual’s hands.
One caveat to ensure this approach is successful: You must completely let go of judgments. The dialogue between you and the other person should not make them feel morally or ethically judged. Move forward with an honest eagerness. To be sure, not all of your team members will want to share their personal thoughts of fear, embarrassment, and pride. In those cases, you can probe further gently by asking, “Could we shift some of your responsibilities temporarily or adjust deadlines?”
When they agree to allow you to help them, follow through on your intentions. Remember that they’ve given you the opportunity to practice compassion; don’t misuse the opportunity.
Learn how to reverse the question
Emotional intelligence in leadership doesn’t extend only to how you treat others. Sometimes, you’re the one who’s awake at 2 a.m. or frantically struggling to finish your work on a Friday afternoon. When you’re under pressure, you have two choices: Shoulder the burden or show yourself compassion by requesting help. There’s no shame in asking, “Can I talk to you about some ways you could support me?”
When you grant permission to show yourself empathy, you grant permission for those around you to do the same. Research shows that asking for help is good for business, so set the example for your team that they can ask you for support just like you may ask them. Just don’t fall into the give-and-take mentality. If you only help others so that they can help you, you’re not practicing selfless compassion.
To fully embrace this moment of increased compassion, you must publicly commit to changing the way your organization operates. Work on developing and exhibiting your own emotional intelligence and highlight for your team the real-world examples of EQ you see to consistently reinforce the effects of compassion in action. Your employees will see that you’re serious about making a major shift.
Krister Ungerböck is a leadership communication speaker, CEO, and author. He is the founder of the global Talk SHIFT movement, which transforms frustrating communication through simple, powerful, and practical changes to our words.