Empathy And Compassion

Mar 09, 2021

As you lead any group of people it is important to strike a balance between caring for your people personally, yet also being able to challenge them directly regarding their performance.


As Kim Scott writes about this topic in her book “Radical Candor”, if you care for your team personally - that’s good - but do not challenge them directly you can produce ruinous empathy toward them. If you do not express care for them nor challenge them directly you create manipulative insincerity. If you challenge them directly - good - but do not care for them you risk being an obnoxious aggressor. The goal is to both care for them personally and challenge them directly - this is called compassionate candor. 


There is a difference between empathy and compassion - in the book The Art of Happiness it is described this way; picture yourself walking along a mountainous trail. You come across a person being crushed by a boulder on their chest. The empathetic response would be to feel the same sense of crushing suffocation, thus rendering you helpless. The compassionate response would be to recognize that the person is in pain and to do everything within your power to remove the boulder and alleviate their suffering. Put another way, compassion is empathy plus action.


This goal of Compassionate Candor engages the heart (care personally) and the mind (challenge directly). Building good relationships should be at the center of a boss’s job. If you think you can fulfill your responsibilities as a manager without strong relationships, you are kidding yourself. It may work well in a baboon troop or a totalitarian regime, but not so much in a successful organization. 


Regarding relationships, also understand they do not scale. Regardless of how successful a leader you are, you cannot have a real relationship with more than a handful of people. But the relationships you do have with the handful of people who report directly to you will have an enormous impact on the results your team achieves. 


If you lead a large organization, the relationships you have with your direct reports will impact the relationships they have with their direct reports. The ripple effect will go a long way toward creating - or destroying - a positive culture. Relationships may not scale, but culture does.


If you have listened to my previous podcasts you may remember the one I did regarding values and culture. Values are your stated beliefs, and culture is your behavior. Culture is by far the more important variable in that equation. As you intentionally cultivate strong relationships within the circle of people you can influence then you positively impact the culture in your organization.


I experienced strong relationships for the majority of my career in the Air Force; when you are flying as an aircrew you form a strong bond between the group. As we flew the mission, usually internationally, we came to learn how each other operated and synced into a cohesive team to complete the mission. We did not fly as permanent crews, so for each mission you typically had at least a couple new crewmembers you had not flown with before, or had only flown with them a few times. Within a couple days on the trip though, the relationships were created and honed with these newer members and the team strengthened. 


Over the course of years these bonds made with fellow crew members spread throughout the flying squadron, numbering usually around 200 or so people. We each created these special relationships with each other through the course of flying our missions and shared experiences. Since I was in the Air Force Reserves most of this time, our crew members remained within the squadron and were not required to move on to other bases, so the relationships had deep roots over years of growth. It was a compelling reason why I stayed as long as I did.


In addition to being a pilot I also had an office job where I was a supervisor, mostly overseeing a team of non flying personnel. I worked to foster the same relationships here that I had with my flying crew members. I made it a priority to learn more about my team as individuals - the names of their family members, if they had one, where they were from, what their goals were outside of work and so on. This may sound pretty straightforward and obvious, but surprisingly I have found that it is not. If you are a supervisor of any people, I highly recommend making this a practice. Go beyond learning the obvious information and really get to know them, as much as they are comfortable with sharing with you. 


I also recommend making a protected file folder for each team member for keeping their information, so when you meet with that particular person later, say for a performance review, you can refresh your memory about their family. I realize you likely have files on each of your team members already, but does the information include details about what really matters to them - their family, their goals? When you are able to ask a team member how their aging parents are doing, or how their son is adjusting to college life in that different state - and they realize these are details they shared with you a while ago and you made a point to remember them, you clearly strengthen the relationship. Trust me, this type of intentionality will go a long way toward creating a strong bond with your team. I make this suggestion to you because I experienced first hand that this is not practiced by all people in leadership or management. 


In the last couple years of my career I had two bosses in quick succession who failed miserably at building relationships, and they served as the catalyst for me to separate from the military. One boss rebuked me by text message while on family vacation in Hawaii because he erroneously thought I was taking advantage of my schedule on my company timecard. In actuality I had been taking work home with me to complete a special project this very boss had asked me to accomplish, on top of my normal full-time office duties. I annotated this work on my timecard, prompting his rebuke. His texts came out of nowhere - he never chose to pick up the phone and ask me about it, so I did; I cleared up the immediate situation in a couple minutes.  But later when I returned to work he never acknowledged the situation attempting to close the loop on this incident, nor did he apologize for jumping to the faulty conclusion. I was a direct report to him; the opportunity was there for him as a leader to repair the relationship and discuss the subject, thereby strengthening the relationship, but that opportunity was not taken. 


Key point here; in the book “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People” habit #5 says this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood. I am not invalidating his need as a leader to correct an erroneous-looking timecard from one of his team members, but his failure to ask about the issue before jumping to a conclusion - which proved to be wrong - then proceeding to  exercise discipline via text message on his wrong conclusion exemplified a total number of zero leadership traits and principles. Had he simply taken the time to call first and seek clarification this would have been a non-issue. Additionally, at this time I was a supervisor of nearly a hundred people and personally managed an accurate and compliant timecard program for this entire team - had this boss taken a moment to stop and think, he may have realized this situation warranted more investigation than simply firing off disciplinary text messages.


Later work with a different boss became the tipping point for my decision to leave. I was working for the person called a Wing Commander - he is the equivalent of the CEO of the organization. I was one of only three directly reporting staff members to him. While working for him my mother passed away. I took vacation time to plan her funeral and tend to her affairs. This boss had told me if I needed anything while on vacation to give him a call. 


One day I called his secretary in an attempt to reach this boss to ask for a couple more days off, as I was still arranging my mother's affairs. Accessing my boss through his secretary was the only communication avenue I had available. When the secretary did not answer I called one of my staff members and asked them to relay my request to my boss, since our department was located near his office. Within 15 minutes my boss called me and proceeded to berate me for contacting my staff instead of him. Even further, my boss erroneously thought I was asking my own staff for their approval to allow me to take these additional days off! It was one of the most shocking calls I had ever received from a supervisor - and after all this he did not approve my request for the additional vacation days, contradicting his initial offer. So, I put my mother’s affairs on hold and went to work the next day, and scheduled a meeting with this boss. 


During the meeting he was still mad; he angrily asked why I had never called him on his cell phone...I told him because I did not have his number. Only then did he realize he had never given me his cell phone number, something he gave all his direct reporting members, because he had failed to accomplish a basic onboarding meeting with me when I moved to his department. His tone immediately changed, and he went a bit pale. However, he never apologized for his actions, either for his behavior in this meeting or from the previous day. I lost all respect for this guy during that meeting.


Months later I made the decision to separate from the Air Force. When I tendered my resignation to this boss, he never asked me why I was leaving, let alone consider performing an exit interview with me. After 32 years of military service, this guy never bothered to ask why I was getting out. He did not sit down with me to discuss my decision, or offer to meet over coffee, heck even argue and disagree with my decision - he did nothing. I have developed more of a relationship with the barista at a Starbucks drive through than I did working with this guy. It is still stunning to think of this level of incompetence for his position.


I tell you all this to show that this is a real issue; some people in positions of leadership wind up doing harm to their organizations because of their failure to establish positive working relationships, in spite of the data showing this is a key activity in their role. 


Let me contrast these poor examples of relationships with a good one. Tim Cook, then COO now CEO of Apple, willingly offered to give part of his liver to Steve Jobs when Steve was battling cancer. Job’s ultimately refused to accept the sacrifice, but this exemplifies a profoundly personal relationship between these two leaders. 


It is likely we all have had great examples and poor examples of leaders. It is my hope to give you the reasons why building the relationships within your spheres of influence will create that scaling positive culture enabling you to achieve great things with your team, while simultaneously creating massive value for them through the bonds you have intentionally created. 


Relationships, not power, drive you forward. 


I hope this can be of some help as you lead your teams; best to you!