We do not need to look far to witness the exponential rise of the machine. Artificial intelligence (AI) is ubiquitous; we use it to drive our cars, design our logos, schedule our meetings and even detect cancer. If AI really is smarter, faster and more reliable than we are, what hope do we have? Today, when societies are becoming fractured, opinions polarized and people are feeling increasingly isolated, it is precisely the things that make us human, such as our fallibility, vulnerability, care and compassion, that we need enacted in our leaders.
Our workplaces are becoming increasingly transactional and increasingly dehumanized, with people being treated as a human resource rather than a human being. We are preoccupied with our own tasks and to-do lists, which means that our capacity to notice and care for ourselves, let alone our colleague down the corridor, is diminished.
Furthermore, we have become so reliant on technology as a means of communication that opportunities to connect and care for one another at a human level are decreasing. In an attempt to seek human connection, many people spend more time at work than they do with family members, yet few of us have someone at work whom we trust enough to share our vulnerabilities and the things that worry us.
Compassion: A Core Human Value and a Business Imperative
To be human is to suffer, yet our struggles can remain hidden from work. Consequently, compassion as a core human value is too often overlooked in leadership. Whether we like it or not, it is our leaders who set the “feeling rules” in our organizations. As the ones who occupy formal positions of power, they set the expectations for what is appropriate when suffering surfaces at work.
Compassion is fast becoming a business imperative, since it is not money or career success that make people happy. There is growing evidence that positive relationships lie at the heart of our well-being, engagement and performance at work. It is the relationships we have with friends, colleagues and loved ones that are the key to life satisfaction. Close social bonds help us to cope with life’s ups and downs; slow down our mental and physical decline; and are better predictors of life expectancy and happiness than class, IQ, and genes combined.
Compassion cannot be mandated from the top down; however, leaders are an inescapable focal point, as they have the power to facilitate compassion and to mobilize resources through the roles they play and the examples they set. When it comes to leadership, stories are important, particularly the stories that leaders tell about their own suffering.
António Horta-Osório, CEO of Lloyds Banking Group, who was ordered to take time to rest only weeks after taking up his position, may be a good example. At the time, both he and the bank refused to say that his absence was stress-related, but since then, Horta-Osório has spoken openly about his struggles and has become an advocate of ending the “taboo around mental health” at work.
The leaders who build trust most quickly are the ones who model compassion by showing genuine care for others and who have the courage to be honest about their vulnerabilities. That said, leaders also need to be up to the job. An individual can be the kindest and most genuine leader in the world, but unless we see them displaying ethical and competent leadership, they tend to elicit pity rather than respect, as Amy Cuddy writes in her book “Presence.” Equally, leaders who only project strength and present themselves as the all-controlling, all-knowing hero generate fear and mistrust. Leaders who demonstrate both warmth and competence create the biggest impact when it comes to creating a culture of compassion.
Encouraging Compassion and Self-compassion
For example, Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, has oriented the entire company around compassionate leadership. LinkedIn has grown from 300 employees 10 years ago to 12,000 employees today, and its enduring culture is founded on the principle of trust. For example, all-company meetings are held every fortnight for Weiner to share what is happening across the business. The company also holds regular “in days,” when employees are asked to clear their diaries and spend time with their teams. This time away from tasks and targets builds trust and connection.
LinkedIn also encourages self-compassion. Each employee receives an annual budget to spend on anything that makes his or her life easier, such as child care or a gym membership, and Weiner developed on online course called “Managing Compassionately,” which is offered through LinkedIn Learning. In this course, he shares his own experience of the importance of learning to manage with compassion and talks about the need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to try to understand his or her struggles. He expresses the importance of leaders’ understanding the triggers and vulnerabilities in each of their team members.
In an effort to promote and cultivate compassion in organizations across the world, LinkedIn recently launched a Compassion Award. To enter, individuals submit a 90-second video in which they explain how they are bringing compassion to the world and how LinkedIn might support them. The winner receives $100,000 to help scale his or her efforts.
LinkedIn is an example of an organization that is nurturing and promoting compassion; however, it is not something that executives can mandate. As we move into a world driven by artificial intelligence and automation, we must work with our leaders to realize the power of human-to-human connections. Embedding compassion in our organizations may be the key to unlocking human performance in the 21st century.