“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.” — Woodrow Wilson
The fog seems to be lifting slowly. Recently I have been thinking about the need for leaders to have new behaviors to contribute to their continued success in the increasingly competitive environment that is becoming our new normal. I say this not just so leaders may experience success in their careers but so they may enable themselves and others to feel a “finer spirit of hope and achievement” which is so necessary right now.
I recently heard Dacher Keltner, Ph.D. and founding director of the Greater Good Science Center and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, use the term “tough compassion.” These two words together made me pause. Social Awareness and Relationship Awareness are very important to developing a leaders Emotional Intelligence and compassion and empathy are certainly cornerstones of those competencies, but where does tough fit in? Maybe this is one of those new edges for leaders to explore that could potentially contribute to their growth and potential?
Tough compassion does not diminish the softer side of one’s ability to listen with a calming and empathetic presence, but it adds an element of acting “for the greater good.” Sometimes a leader will have to show tough compassion toward an individual if it is better for the whole team or organization. It is a delicate dance of communicating that you value a person while disagreeing with their actions. One way Elizabeth Svoboda describes tough compassion in her article on GreaterGood.edu is as follows:
“If you’re a parent, you probably practice small-scale tough compassion on a daily basis, vetoing pre-dinner snacks or enforcing homework time before kids go out. Larger-scale tough compassion flows from a similar source: the willingness to bear—and even inflict—some discomfort in the moment to promote longer-term well-being.”
While leaders know best when tough compassion is needed and why, it can still be difficult to practice with grace and forward momentum as these “tough conversations” can be more emotional. Sometimes busy leaders side-step these interactions to avoid escalating tensions. Here a a few ideas for employing tough compassion in a way that will not just make leaders more effective, but will elevate others simultaneously:
How Do Leaders Practice Tough Compassion?
Listening to Understand
If someone is behaving harmfully, there is a misconception that if leaders listen to them and engage with them, we are surrendering or somehow becoming influenced by the toxic behavior. The opposite is true. Without a leaders ability to listen with the will to understand, using tough compassion to change the toxic behavior for the good of the whole is nearly impossible. By trying to understand the negative behavior, leaders give the person demonstrating these actions a safe space to think a bit differently versus putting them on the defensive with a punitive attack.
Storytelling as A Teaching Tool
If someone feels attacked for their unwanted comments or behavior, especially by someone who is in a senior leadership position, they will withdraw but not retreat. People who feel attacked will often quietly (or not so quietly) find others who agree with their toxic viewpoints and the problem will multiply, sometimes without a leaders knowledge, until it is too late. Leaders may then face implementing a large-scale cultural shift versus a one-on-one dialogue with the person with whom the problem began.
One way to avoid shaming a person into submission is through storytelling. Many leaders are great storytellers and it is a skill that is incredibly powerful in shifting behaviors from unwanted to wanted. Stories allow leaders to take a hard line without launching a direct attack. Tania Diaz, a psychologist at Albizu University describes storytelling, “you’re really communicating—in a way that is enveloped in compassion—your fundamental boundaries, what you can and cannot accept, and inviting the other person into that conversation.” Studies show that this story-based approach can move the needle on someone’s worldview in powerful ways.
Staying Grounded When Things Heat Up
Often when leaders utilize tough compassion, the recipients of these messages fire back. When emotions run hot, it can be very challenging to stay grounded and leaders may fall back into reactive and survival-based behaviors. It is critical to stay grounded. Tough compassion is the anchor because, at its core, is a desire to move to a new understanding for the greater good.
When tough compassion is delivered authentically by a committed leader, the leader will be able to feel grounded in their larger vision for the conversation versus reacting to another individual’s behavior. It is important to plan these conversations and be intentional about what stories a leader may tell and what the “why” is behind the need for change. Preparation tells the other person receiving the tough, yet compassionate message, that the leader cares and has put time and energy into this dialogue. That demonstration of planning and care goes a long way in a difficult conversation.
Knowing When to Walk Away
While the needs of the greater good are very important, a leaders own well-being should always be the priority. If a tough and compassionate conversation goes awry and the person being coached is not willing or able to be in conversation, the toughest most compassionate thing to do is disengage. Keltner says. “Exiting from a harmful situation can be its own form of uncompromising truth-telling.” The ability to shift the behavior is ultimately up to the person receiving the feedback, but as leaders, creating space for the conversation to happen is instrumental in investing in other’s growth and development.
As Woodrow Wilson said, “You are here to enrich the world” even, and perhaps especially, during challenging times. The courage to demonstrate tough compassion through listening, storytelling, grounding oneself, and sometimes walking away, is a huge undertaking and one that just might distinguish good leaders from great ones in the months ahead…
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