Why It’s Hard, But Necessary, To Be Human At Work
This article was originally published in Forbes.
Last fall, the top 250 executives of a major, global telecommunications company gathered together for a three-day leadership summit. The summit kicked off with a strong call to action by the CEO. Even with the company’s growth, strong performance, and market dominance, the CEO exhorted the leaders gathered in front of him to work harder and to do even better. Seventy-two hours later, the CEO took the stage again, but this time he delivered a different message. The company would continue to drive performance and deliver results, he shared, but care would be at the core of the company’s strategy. “Performance” and “care” would be intertwined – two vital and necessary elements for the company’s long-term health and viability. Though the speed was remarkable, this kind of pivot was not unique to this CEO.
A year ago, we published our research into a human-centered model of leadership in a book called Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, based on hundreds of conversations with senior leaders. Over the past 12 months, the book has been the catalyst for many honest, complicated, enlightening, and humbling conversations with senior leaders who are looking for firmer footing and fresh direction post the pandemic. This isn’t to say that these leaders are arriving new to the concept of people-centered leadership. Many have been pursuing this for years. But, in our observation, many are engaging with new urgency.
For the previous two years, many leaders had been over indexing on the care part of their leadership. They needed to. Employees were struggling with pandemic-driven mental health challenges, grief, loneliness, and fatigue. In some sense, their priorities were crisply defined in their urgency. Now, it’s not as straightforward. Pressures and uncertainty still swirl, the pace is unrelenting, and these same leaders are oscillating between being a leader who cares and a leader who must deliver results.
Into this moment, we entered the conversation with two things to offer to leaders.
An Alternative Vision
Leaders are struggling with an either-or mentality. It looks like this: “Either I drive performance and results at the risk of pushing my employees to disengage or even quit, or I take care of my employees at the risk of seeming too soft and ineffective.” What we have offered is an alternative vision that replaces the either-or mindset with a both-and mindset. Even better, we offer research-backed confirmation that being a human-centered leader who balances care (what we call compassion) and performance (what we call wisdom) actually drives the best outcomes for the business. When we offer this vision, and share the provocative data, you can almost see the lightbulb of realization going off and hear the sigh of relief.
But the lightbulb is just the first step. And for some leaders, it’s as far as they go. Knowing who you can and should be as a leader doesn’t always mean you will embark on the journey to get there. Despite the data, changing to a new way of leading still demands some faith that you’re going in the right direction. It also demands an uncomfortable release of old ways of operating and a willingness to admit mistakes along the way. Recently, we spoke with a senior executive at a major pharmaceutical company who is leading a significant business transformation. After self-diagnosing that she hadn’t found the right balance between driving the initiative and caring for people along with way, she stood up in a Town Hall and said, “Here is how I didn’t show up in the ways I wanted to. Here is what I will do differently moving forward.”
Yes, the road to both-and leadership can be difficult, but it doesn’t have to be a solo journey into unchartered territory. Through our research for the book, we uncovered what caring performance (or wise compassion) really looks like in action, what skills one would need to cultivate it. We identified four skills: presence, courage, candor, and transparency. This was the second thing we offered to leaders this past year – a guide to the practical and tangible aspects of leading for care and performance.
The guide – what we call the Flywheel – has 4 skills to practice and master – presence, courage, candor and transparency. The simplicity and clarity of the Flywheel is appreciated by the leaders we work with, who also recognize quickly that the simplicity is deceiving. It’s like a river which, from a distance, seems easy to cross...just follow the four stones to reach the other side. But, up close, those stones are more challenging, perhaps bigger, or more slippery than anticipated.
For many leaders we work with, presence is the skill they most want to improve. Why? In part because they know when and how they struggle with it, and in part because it feels so much better when they get it right. Mastering presence can mean watching our tendency to react and taking a few breaths before responding. It can mean letting go of what we planned or hoped would happen in a meeting and being open to what is actually happening. It can mean acknowledging that we often don’t know what another person is experiencing and instead bringing genuine curiosity to a conversation. One of our senior executive clients now makes it a point to ask her team, “How are you doing...really?”, appreciating that the last word creates space for honesty to emerge.
While presence may be the skill leaders aspire to, it is courage that often challenges them the most. During interviews for the book, we repeatedly heard, “I wish I had been better at making hard decisions sooner.” This struggle is not unique to leaders; human beings are hard-wired to avoid actions that hurt us or others. At work, this can mean giving honest feedback, confronting bad behavior, or telling someone their job has been eliminated. Leaders mistakenly think that avoiding or delaying these actions, or distancing ourselves from them, displays kindness and caring. In fact, it is the exact opposite. Toxic environments bloom when the courage to do the right, honest thing is absent. We were inspired recently by the courage shown by a client – a multi-billion-dollar technology company – who needed to lay off 5% of its workforce in a restructuring. They wanted to conduct the lay-off with care and compassion, so they abandoned the usual highly scripted and legalese-heavy conversations with impacted employees in favor of courageous honesty. In practice, this meant leaders sat with the discomfort of the conversation, not rushing to fill the silence or to brush aside the sadness and confusion that arose.
Once courage is in place, leaders often find candor an easier step. Once they realize that the goal is not to be nice or well-liked, they often find it easier to practice candor – delivering information in a kind and direct way, being decisive and open to other’s perspectives. One of the rewarding things we observed this past year is that frameworks from the book have helped to advance candor in the workplace. For example, there is a simple but powerful framework called the Wise Compassion matrix. The goal for leaders is to operate from the upper right of the matrix – Quadrant 2 – where they are doing the hard things of leadership in a human and caring way. We heard from a senior executive recently that the matrix has become a neutral way for him and his senior team to hold one another accountable: “I’ve been called out by my colleagues once in a while – ‘You’re operating in Quadrant 4 right now.’ And guess what? I appreciate being called out because that’s not where I want to be. I always want to be operating in Quadrant 2.”
Transparency is distinct from candor in that you can be candid and still conceal information. This skill can be hard for leaders to master because information often bestows power and comfort and places you in a privileged inner circle. Sharing information and making the invisible visible can seem too risky. Other times, a lack of transparency is simply a matter of not tuning in. We often hear from leaders, “I am clear about our direction, so I assume my people are clear, too.” This is not a good assumption. Caring transparency for leaders means doubling down on clarity; for example, how often do you tell your team the 1-2 big things they should be focused on? It also means sharing not just information but also your feelings – hopes and fears. Honesty on this level drives a deep level of connectedness.
It has been powerful and inspiring to witness leaders on a journey of personal transformation, especially those who already occupy very senior positions. They are guided and driven by a vision for a more human world of work that places performance and care on equal footing. They know that it’s possible and necessary and will blaze the trail for others.