All management, sooner or later, involves confrontation and difficult conversations. You might, for example, have to deliver critical feedback, tell a colleague they’re not getting promoted, fire an employee, ask someone to perform an unpleasant task, or acknowledge to a team that their jobs are at risk.
Few people run toward such confrontations—and many, at the least, view them as a burden of leadership. Often we torment ourselves in the process.
The new book Compassionate Leadership contends that willingly approaching confrontation is one of the most important skills of leaders. Published this week by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter of the leadership development and consulting firm Potential Project, it sets out to answer the question “How do you do hard things in a human way?” (p. 2)
Their answer is what they call “wise compassion,” which involves combining “caring presence”—or focusing on the person you’re with—with courage to tackle hard issues quickly and candor and transparency in facing them. People who rank high for wise compassion get promoted at work faster and have much lower stress levels than their peers, according to research the authors conducted. Employees who experience leaders as compassionate have higher job satisfaction and feel less burned out.
“We sometimes have to inflict pain on others,” Hougaard and Carter contend. (p. 126) “Being a leader means doing harm to others—which is difficult because it doesn’t come naturally.” (p. 71) They cite Brian Chesky’s May 2020 letter to employees announcing layoffs representing 25% of Airbnb’s staff as a standout example of directness and caring. “To those leaving Airbnb, I am truly sorry,” Chesky wrote. “Please know that this is not your fault. The world will never stop seeking the qualities and talents that you brought to Airbnb.”
Compassionate Leadership tackles some of the same terrain as Radical Candor by Kim Scott and Principles by Ray Dalio. It’s less groundbreaking than either of those, and for approaching difficult conversations more broadly I’d recommend Conscious Business by Fred Kofman.
While Hougaard and Carter say their book is based on interviews with hundreds of executives and surveys of 150,000 employees, it suffers from a surprising shortage of specific examples and scenarios. Chapter 10, which provides tips for delivering feedback and hard conversations, is an exception, and it is the section managers might learn the most from.
In that chapter, the authors make a distinction between “hard” conversations, where something is ending, and developmental or feedback conversations, where something needs to change. Their advice includes:
- Prepare. Think through thoroughly what you will say and how they might react. The authors cite Kevin Sneader of Goldman Sachs as saying that he scripts the first and last sentences of hard conversations, while leaving space to be more authentic in the middle. Eli Lilly CEO David Ricks plans difficult conversations for early in the day. Hougaard and Carter recommend leaving time on your schedule after a hard conversation so it can spill over if needed.
- Don’t put it off. Focusing on the one thing that the person should come away with makes it easier to share in the moment. And, where appropriate, being less formal—e.g. “I had some thoughts on the meeting we just had. Is it ok if I share?”—makes feedback more of a regular practice. “Ideally, 80% of feedback can be given informally in small, casual ways where we share perspectives and observations, and this becomes part of the culture,” Hougaard and Carter write. (p. 191)
- Give people time. It helps them process what they’re hearing, and slowing down allows you to avoid reacting in haste. This might involve sitting with the person in silence, showing you’re present there with them in a challenging moment.
- Focus on the positive. Avoid a “compliment sandwich” that confuses people by delivering criticism between two doses of praise. But also don’t assume that good performers don’t need positive feedback as well. “It is a way of saying, ‘I see you and I appreciate you,’” the authors write. (p. 190)
The select bits of data from Hougaard and Carter’s surveys of employees that are sprinkled in the book are genuinely interesting. Among them:
- People are on average distracted 37% of the time during the working day. Workers in their 50s and 60s are distracted 30% of the time, while twentysomethings and thirtysomethings are distracted roughly 40% of the workday. Relatedly, entry-level staff are distracted 42% of the time, and high-ranking executives 32%. Austrians are distracted just 14% of the workday, while Americans average 40%.
- The authors’ surveys indicated that female leaders engendered greater job satisfaction and loyalty than their male counterparts. “The best leader-follower relationship in terms of performance and satisfaction is when a female leads a female,” they write. “The second best is when a female leads a male. And the least productive, in decreasing order, are when a male leads a female and a male leads a male.” (p. 48)
- Hougaard and Carter’s research suggests that junior staff are more oriented toward empathy (feeling someone’s suffering with them) rather than compassion (trying to alleviate the suffering), while executives are more compassion-oriented. Government and public services workers are at the compassion end of the spectrum, while industrial/construction and technology workers are at the empathy end.
To be sure:
- There are at least two other books titled “Compassionate Leadership” and eight others with those words in the subtitle. Much of the material in the book is covered elsewhere—such as the advice about time management to avoid busyness that Oliver Burkeman treated more expertly in Four Thousand Weeks.
- Compassionate Leadership describes the Business Roundtable’s 2019 statement about “stakeholder capitalism” as “a monumental change,” without acknowledging the many ways—detailed by Peter S. Goodman in Davos Man—that its signatories failed to reform their practices.
- The book uses jargon like “the Wise Compassion Flywheel” (a “virtuous cycle” where caring presence, courage, candor, and transparency build on each other) and would benefit from more specific examples and scenarios. The executives interviewed too often just provide high-level quotes and generalities rather than detailing specific case studies or tactics.
- Compassionate Leadership focuses on the perspectives of individual executives and doesn’t explore less traditionally hierarchical conceptions of leadership, where teams rather than individuals are making hard decisions and governance responsibilities are deeply shared.
- “The greatest challenge for most leaders is doing hard things in a human way.” (p. 1)
- “The problem with many management programs is that they tend to turn people into robotic managers, often speaking and behaving based on scripts and models.” (p. 16)
- “Every time you are faced with a difficult decision, you can shape the nature and tone of your leadership by asking: Will this have a positive impact on my colleagues' genuine happiness and well-being? Will this action inspire others in a positive way? Will I be proud of this in 10 years?” (p. 37)
- “I think leadership is fundamentally to get people to do something they would not do if the leader was not there.” —Mads Nipper, CEO of Ørsted (p. 40)
- “We call them tough decisions, but they are often fairly obvious. We avoid them because they’re not in our own interest or they don’t give a short-term benefit. But when we align with purpose, the answer becomes clear.” —Paul Polman, former Unilever CEO (p. 45)
- “As leaders, we must connect with others through empathy, but we have to lead with compassion.” (p. 52)
- “I can make huge financial decisions, like billions of dollar investments. And do it very calmly. I can sleep well at night. But when it comes to making difficult decisions about people, I feel sad and uneasy. Those are the decisions that create anxiety.”—Mads Nipper (p. 74)
- “Sometimes, not taking action can be the wisest and most compassionate thing we can do to create space for people to figure out things on their own.” (p. 97)
- “If you cannot readily face conflict, you hinder your performance, negatively impact your career progress, and negatively impact the performance of your team or organization.” (p. 130)
- “Real honesty is a compassionate thing. Compassion equals speed.” (p. 131)
- “Let the good news take the stairs, but ensure bad news always takes the elevator.” —Narayana Murthy, founder and former CEO of Infosys (p. 155)
- “Transparency is the fairest and most humane approach to leadership, yet it is not easy because it often includes sharing things people don’t want to hear.” (p. 160)
The bottom line is that Compassionate Leadership contains a few sprinklings of fascinating research and a chapter with useful tips for approaching hard conversations. But the book frustratingly lacks the in-depth case studies of hard leadership situations that could make it more compelling.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive this briefing by email.