Giving Leaders The Superpower Of Compassion


Organizational Psychologist, President at QuestionPro Workforce, helping employers build Empathy at Scale in their organizations.

We’re halfway through 2022, and the world is still anything but normal. Although the notion of “normal” may be a fleeing concept, doing our best to understand the current realities and how those around us—those we lead and have an influence over—experience them has never been more important.

But why would I call compassion a superpower? Perhaps it is because I spend a lot of time with my three-and-a-half-year-old son, who has a growing fascination with superheroes. Or perhaps it is because I believe compassion is so critical that, if executed right, it can have an indefinitely positive impact on humanity.

Leaders have never had a more important role than they do today. Historically, much of what was expected from leadership was to achieve financial results. But the definition of a successful leader has changed and continues to evolve as we support the importance of a life blend. And with that, business leaders not only have an opportunity to make a profound impact on a person’s professional life but also on their personal life. How about that for enormous privilege (and pressure)?

For good leaders, this realization will excite them—it’s an opportunity to have an even greater impact. Smart leaders will ask how they can be even better in their roles, what is changing, what others in their role are doing differently and what they can do themselves differently.

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Based on our research, here are some key things to look out for.

Understanding your team’s experience, particularly when it comes to career development.

In our study of over 3,000 workers across the United States, United Kingdom and Germany, we found some large differences in how managers and individual contributors experience career development in their organizations. Here are a few highlights.

• More managers (61%) are satisfied with where they are in their careers than individual contributors (52%).

• Significantly more managers (62%) say that their leaders care about their career progress than do individual contributors (46%).

Perceived lack of career progression is one of the key reasons people leave their job. With retention being a challenge for organizations globally, this is an area where organizations will be spending a significant amount of time. Understanding that, as a leader, you are likely to be more satisfied with your career, and the support you are getting should give you enough incentive to proactively and frequently check in with your team on how they’re doing and provide opportunities for growth and development.

When it comes to being compassionate, the first step is understanding what another is feeling (i.e., practicing empathy). When you truly understand their experience, you can effectively help remove what is challenging them.

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Speaking of empathy, what is the playbook?

In a recent article, Sherry Turkle provided some sound advice on practical ways to display empathy. She spoke about embracing the “not knowing.” Leaders may feel like they are expected to know it all, so being open to saying they do not, especially when it comes to how each of their employees is feeling or what they are going through, is an important mind shift, and it’s not easy.

This approach resonates well with Adam Grant’s concepts from the book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know. It’s not easy to think there are things you do not know or understand as well as you thought you did, but as soon as you realize that there is much more to learn, the next phase of your life will begin.

Today, empathy as a concept is getting a lot of attention, and that is great because being empathetic is a precursor to being compassionate. What Hougaard, Carter and Afton recently highlighted in their research is the critical next step. They emphasize that “Compassion occurs when we take a step away from empathy and ask ourselves what we can do to support the person who is suffering. In this way, compassion is an intention versus an emotion.” Understanding a person’s needs before acting on them is crucial, but the action afterward carries a lot of power.

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With all the best intentions, how do you know if you are truly compassionate?

Practicing empathy and compassion is not simple; effectively connecting with others can take different forms. Check in with employees on a continuous basis in one-on-ones to know if your intentions and actions match up. This is important because, as leaders, we can have blind spots, and the unintentional impact we might be making can threaten to destroy all of our positive efforts. This is one of the key reasons why 360-degree feedback platforms exist—so those who leaders regularly interact with can have a safe way to share how effectively their intentions are becoming a reality.

The world will only get more complex, with workers’ needs continuing to vary. This is why now is the time to help leaders gain the superpower of compassion. It will become an increasingly important skill in how effectively they are able to lead teams and grow businesses.


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