Not long ago, I read the 2018 commencement speech Jeff Wiemer, the CEO of LinkedIn, gave to the Wharton School of Business.
It caught my attention because he attributed compassion as the skill responsible for his success. He stated, “if it weren’t for learning the meaning and value of compassion, it’s likely I wouldn’t be on this stage today.” He is convinced practicing compassion is a better way to build a team and a company.
I’ve been advocating for leaders to practice empathy and compassion when enabling change for over a decade. That’s why I was surprised and pleased to hear Jeff Wiemer talk about its importance to his success.
Like its cousin empathy, compassion is not the skill leaders usually talk about when they talk about their success or building a better company. I hear many leaders refer to compassion as soft. It is viewed at best as a nice to have. And at worse unnecessary. Leaders are afraid practicing compassion will make them look weak.
Leaders who overlook or dismiss compassion or empathy as soft are making a critical mistake. A mistake that is sabotaging their change efforts and will ultimately hurt their organization. I talked about the importance and value of empathy in a previous blog post.
Leaders who cultivate empathy and practice compassion can enable an organization that thrives during immense change, giving them a unique competitive advantage.
What Compassion Gives Us
When we practice compassion, specific areas of the brain are activated, which triggers our desire to reduce the discomfort and suffering of others. In return, we experience more positive feelings and build resilience. Leading and managing change with compassion will reduce the stress and discomfort of change while building the readiness needed for people to adopt the new activities and behaviours.
Compassionate Leadership is Not Soft Leadership
Leaders who categorize skills like compassion and empathy as soft are making a critical mistake. Compassionate change leadership is hard work. But the payoff is worth it. Practicing compassion delivers tangible results that will directly impact your bottom line and the survival of your organization.
A study done at the University of Michigan found that organizations that demonstrate compassionate practices such as support, fostering respect, integrity, forgiveness, and gratitude improved turnover, organizational climate, and employee participation. “The more compassionate the workplace, the higher the performance in profitability, productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement.”
Beyond the benefits to your bottom line, you need compassion to survive. Dacher Keltner, professor of psychology at the University of California Berkley, states we need to let go of the idea that compassion is weak because it has and continues to serve our greatest needs as individuals.
Compassionate leadership also increases trust, co-operation, and collaboration required for healthy and sustainable organizational change.
Compassion Helps Build Readiness and Prevent Resistance to Change
That’s why for your organization to thrive, especially during change, you need to cultivate an environment where people recognize the need and are willing to help each other navigate the complexities of change.
During change, empathy and compassion are needed to build readiness and achieve the desired outcome. The work inter-dependently. Empathy gives you the ability to understand, see and feel the change from the perspective of the people who will do the heavy lifting—compassion cues you to take action build readiness which will eliminate resistance. Readiness enables people to let go of the current state, move toward the new state, and maintain the commitment to sustain the desired new activities.
Linda Graham, the author of Resilience, notes that when we give and receive compassion, we can approach experiences with greater flexibility, making it easier to find resolutions or come to terms with the things we can’t resolve. Flexibility is essential when it comes to engaging with change and helping others to engage with the change.
Practicing compassionate change leadership doesn’t mean you don’t make tough decisions or that people won’t feel uncomfortable or experience stress, and push back on the need for change. It means recognizing, respecting, planning, and taking actions to minimize the discomfort and help people move toward the new environment.
 Goleman, D., & Davidson, R. (2017). Altered Traits. New York: Penguin Random house.
 Cameron, K., Leutscher, T., Mora, C., & Calarco, M. M. (2011). Effects of Positive Practices on Organizational Effectiveness. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 47(3).
 Seppala, E. (2016). The Happiness Track. New York: Harper Collins.
 Dutton, J., Lilius, J., & Kanov, J. (2007). The Transformative Potential of Compassion at Work. In D. Cooperrider, R. Fry, & S. Piderit (Eds.), New Designs for Transformative Cooperation. Standford: Standford University Press.