Compassion: A New Management Imperative – Part 3
This is part three of a three part series. In part one we explored why employee well-being is vital to performance at work. We discovered that the skill managers need to effectively support well-being is something we don’t traditionally teach at work, compassion.
In part two we explored compassion and how it works. Today we are going to dig into how you can help your managers develop the ability and capacity to practice greater compassion for their people.
Helping managers practice compassion
Most google searches about how to develop compassion will lead you to Buddhist teachings or other mindfulness practices. And while these practices have proven to be highly effective for individuals, it’s probably not the ideal place to start in the workplace.
To see some immediate impact, these are some simple and actionable steps I’d recommend you start with.
Give your managers permission to care.
Last fall, as I was wrapping up a cohort of my online management training program, I asked each participant to share what they found to be the most valuable part of the experience. Most people shared some specific technique or mindset they had learned.
But one manager in the class said something that stuck with me. “What this program did for me more than anything was it gave me permission to really care about my people the way I had always wanted to but didn’t feel like I could.”
This was a reminder that most traditional management practices have taught managers not to get too close to their people. I remember the first time I heard the guidance, “you should never be friends with the people you manage,” and how absurd that sounded. I’m not suggesting there shouldn’t be boundaries, but we’ve scared most managers out of really caring and connecting with their people in the way we desperately need them to today.
To unlock greater compassion, you need to give managers permission to enter into a different kind of relationship with their people, one where they deeply care about their people. Managers need permission to embrace their role in actively supporting each individual’s success and well-being. This likely needs to start with your top leadership sending that message and setting that tone through their actions.
Encourage managers to really know their people.
It’s not difficult for us to show compassion to our close friends or family members. Because we know them so well and have a real connection with who they are, it’s more likely that we’ll notice when they are suffering and be moved to do something about it.
When managers choose to hold their people at arm’s length rather than getting to know them as unique human beings, it makes compassion much more difficult and elusive. Instead, if they invest in really getting to know their people – what they care about, what they do for fun, who the most important people in their lives are, where they are from, etc. – it creates familiarity and attachment.
Building deeper, more meaningful relationships with people informed by knowledge of who they really are beyond what they do at work brings our innate compassionate instinct into play. It makes noticing, caring, and taking action more natural. No longer are these just people to supervise; they are unique and interesting people who deserve to be truly cared about and helped when they are in need.
Teach managers how to effectively check in.
As a manager, I ignored the guidance not to be friends with my people and I invested time building authentic relationships with them. But despite how much I knew about and cared for them, my compassion failure tended to be noticed. My wife would probably accuse me of the same thing today. I’m sadly not super observant, as a general rule.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in work and busy with our own lives. This makes it likely that we might miss when someone we care about is showing signs that they are struggling or suffering. The best way to compensate for this is pretty simple: check in frequently.
A “check-in” is the act of reaching out to someone to see how they are doing. To do it effectively requires that you do three things.
1. Ask the right questions. Here are the two best questions I’ve found to create a meaningful check-in conversation.
- On a scale from 1-10, how are you today? The number scale is the key to this one. There’s a vast difference between a 2, 5, and 9. Regardless of the number you hear when you ask this question, ask a follow-up question. That’s when the good stuff will start to come out.
- How’s your head and how’s your heart? This might strike you as a little awkward at first, but when you start asking it, you’ll be amazed at what you will hear.
A word of caution here. Check-ins are about the human, not the work. If you want an update on a project or some other work output, do that separately from the check-in; otherwise, it will lose its value.
2. Really, deeply listen to what they say (and how they say it). The reason we say “fine” when someone asks how we are is that we don’t believe they really care. The way you demonstrate you care is to ask and really listen to what is said. Take notes. Ask follow-up questions. When someone offers the gift of opening up and sharing how they are, it should be honored with full presence and attention.
3. Offer support. Every check-in is an opportunity to exercise compassion. During any check-in, you will hear and notice where the individual might be struggling. The compassionate step is to then find a way to help. This might be saying something as simple as “how I can help you with that?” Or, to take inspiration from the great Brené Brown, you can say, “I want to help. What does support from me look like for you right now?”
Creating a culture of compassion
These are but a few ways to begin helping your managers to behave in more compassionate ways. Anything that helps cultivate an individual’s capacity or ability in the four components is a positive step towards fostering greater compassion.
Compassion will help your managers more quickly identify where employees might be struggling and take focused action to help. This will help improve employee well-being, which will have a positive ripple effect not just at work, but also in employees’ lives outside of work.
But the impact of this compassionate response by managers can have additional benefits. Recent research shows that observing prosocial behavior (those intended to help other people) by another at work boosts the well-being of the observer. So, when we see others performing an act of kindness, it improves our own well-being. But that’s not all.
The researchers also found that prosocial behavior seems to be contagious at work. When we observe someone on either the giving or receiving end of a prosocial behavior (i.e., someone doing something helpful or kind), it increases our own prosocial behavior.
When we begin to unlock compassion, even in small ways, we start creating culture change within our organization. And a culture of compassion is exactly what we need right now. Let’s get started today.
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