By Kriti Jain, IE Business School Professor of Human Resources and Organizational Behavior.
The dry business logic of balance sheets, profits, and shareholder value does not typically include concepts such as kindness, caring, and compassion. In fact, the general consensus is that companies must be ruthless when it comes to cost-cutting and layoffs, HR departments should be rule-bound, and managers authoritative and commanding.
If you’ve been a leader – be it of a small group or a big organization – you know well the feelings of insecurity that can underlie the armor of “bossiness.” Internally, you have likely thought, at one time or another: Are people going to listen to what I say? Are they thinking well of me? What if my friendliness is misinterpreted as a sign of weakness and leniency? Thought-patterns like this can be further exacerbated in some cultures, especially in Asia and Africa, where the leadership ladder is enmeshed with seniority and hierarchy.
Even the kindest of people can find themselves operating in ‘survival mode’ under the pressure of competition. Excessive rivalry competition between peers can lead to unethical conduct as well as sabotaging others. A conceived threat to one’s job, increased workload, and tight deadlines can induce short-termism, which in turn kicks off our primal instincts of self-preservation at all costs.
It is in times of pressure – such as now – when compassionate leadership becomes even more important. Jeff Weiner, Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, is one of the foremost proponents of this when he says that businesses need empathy + action. Employees and customers are carefully watching every move that leaders make, and respond accordingly. Take for instance, a student of mine named Robert, who told me recently:
“I have always enjoyed the fast growth of the firm where I work. But during this period of COVID, I saw that the main priority of the firm remains shareholder value maximization. I feel my company doesn’t deserve my loyalty and dedication. I am going to change my job soon.”
Leading with compassion can seem like a paradox to executives. Many leaders I work with assume that compassionate management means they must also accept a certain level of mediocrity. For example, imagine if an employee is dealing with some problems at home and thus isn’t able to perform at his or her best in office. Until when should you, as a manager, be considerate and accept the lowered performance?
However, this doesn’t need to be an either-or question. Leaders can cultivate an organizational culture that celebrates both excellence and compassion together. The key ingredient is Purpose.
Organizations that lack a clear and articulated purpose and are also devoid of compassion often have a culture of apathy: no one cares about anything or anybody. It’s a sinking ship. A clear purpose brings focus and direction, but without the ‘we’ mindset and solidarity, this can quickly become a cut-throat, vulture culture. Employees notice quickly, as my student Robert did, when they find themselves in a company culture with this mismatch between what is said and what is practiced. Likewise, a lack of purpose compounded by too much compassion leads to rudderless mediocrity: everyone is stagnant and complacent.
In order to thrive, leaders must combine purpose and compassion. I offer three lessons from recent pandemic-related experiences:
Building purpose-driven organizations doesn’t have to entail fancy language about social impact, climate change, and sustainability on the company website. Leaders can build small everyday practices into employee activities in order to cultivate a sense of meaning and purpose. Leading with compassion is not only about improving the health and well-being and pay of employees in exchange for increased loyalty and dedication. It is about re-building the confidence in each other. Our society has long been broken. It is time to be more human and more humane.