Is Compassionate Leadership the Key to Successful Change?
By Thor Olafsson
Thor Olafsson is author of the book BEYOND EGO: THE INNER COMPASS OF CONSCIOUS LEADERSHIP. He’s an award-winning leadership coach and consultant with over 20 year global experience. Click here to keep updated on Beyond Ego.
Read time: 5 minutes.
As the global market is shifting so rapidly in the aftermath of the pandemic, we look at how leaders can navigate rapid changes in their company, while still maintaining compassion for their employees.
It was the second time since the start of the global pandemic that Annabel’s job had been under threat. 2 weeks into the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, early one morning her whole company had been abruptly called to a Zoom meeting. In a moment that she’ll never forget, her CEO casually announced, “We’re making cutbacks due to COVID.” And without any prior warning: “By the time I hang up this call, half of you will be gone.”
As the call ended, names started disappearing from the Slack channel in a quick-ﬁre elimination round. Already dealing with survival issues due to the intensity of the pandemic, members of the team were threatened with sudden income loss and the fear of what would come next. Annabel didn’t lose her job that day, but her trust in her company was shattered, and she immediately found employment elsewhere.
So when two years later her new company called an emergency meeting, Annabel’s stomach churned with dread, and her sense of fear was not misplaced. Once again, in an almost identical scenario, mass redundancy was announced. This time Annabel was among the unlucky ones, and her position was immediately terminated. And although some attempts had been made by her most recent company to soften the blow, the quick ﬁre pattern was almost identical to the ﬁrst time around.
As I scan the global marketplace, I’m seeing similar reports on this topic. Bloomberg reported that New York based rapid grocery delivery service Fridge No More’s CEO came under ﬁre when he abruptly ended the employment of over 600 staff by simply writing on the slack channel, “Fridge No More is no more,” on the day that the company folded. And with companies all over the world undergoing mass changes and layoffs in the current ﬁnancial climate, the question that many leaders are asking is, “How do we approach mass change in our companies while still remaining conscious of our workforce?” We need an approach that is realistic for our budgets but that also recognizes the humanity of our employees, and supports transitions in ways that are less brutal and more compassionate.
LACK OF COMPASSION IS ROOTED IN THE EGO
To identify why many change projects lack compassion we need to go straight to the source. The core of any lack of compassion is rooted in the ego, where we build a whole world of separateness. In the world of ego, there is a “me” who I must take care of and “the others,” who aren’t my concern. When we are wrapped up in our egos, if the whole world revolves around us, why should we care about how others feel and whether their needs are met? This is how ego builds its world, and there isn’t any room for compassion when it does.
Compassion is a quality that is also included in ego-based misconceptions. Someone who is operating from ego will likely tell you that compassion is ﬂuff, costs too much energy and there is no gain. Yet compassion is one of our highest human qualities, and research in neuroscience has shown that it does not require self-sacriﬁce. Instead it lights up areas of our brain that increase our well-being, along with increasing the well-being of those that we support.
RECOGNIZING THE SURVIVAL MECHANISM
One of the core elements of working with compassion with our employees in general, is recognizing the survival mechanism in the brain. Humanistically, there are two main states that we can operate from: surviving or thriving. Thriving is our more expansive human state where we are able to operate from our highest potential. But we can only thrive if our basic human needs have been met. Survival mode gets triggered in our brains when we feel like we are under threat, and this is not just when our lives are threatened, it’s when our jobs are threatened too. Fear of job loss can spiral us into visions of ultimately being out on the streets. These spiralling catastrophic visions of failure and rejection can be deeply entrenched, and some people have a greater sensitivity to them than others, depending on how severely their survival mechanisms were activated in childhood. As a leader, the more compassion we can have for our team members, and the more we understand them as humans and acknowledge their human condition, the more effectively we can handle transition periods.
GOING WITHIN AS LEADERS
The challenge with compassion is that it’s not something we can switch on at will. It’s something that we develop as a by-product of doing our “deep personal work” as leaders. In the system of The Inner Compass that I developed over a couple of decades of working with leaders, compassion is one of the last elements that we explore, not the ﬁrst. There are six other components that we look at before we even get to compassion (ﬁnding what’s true for us as individuals, discovering a meaningful purpose, setting a true intention, connecting to our humility, developing trust, and ﬁnding forgiveness). We do the core inner work as leaders and one of the by-products of that inner work is that we develop more compassion. It’s not something that we just switch on at will, especially if we haven’t really explored our deeper driving forces and our patterns that have been running the show.
THE OUTCOME OF COMPASSION IN CHANGE PROJECTS
When we do get to compassion, something changes within us as leaders, and when it comes to the big change projects in our company, our humanity is ignited in a whole new way. We saw this with one CTO my team worked with who was going through a difﬁcult change in digitalization. She shared with her team: “We’ve made a difﬁcult decision. We are securing everyone’s jobs but the servicing of our systems will be outsourced.” She explained this change to her team with tears in her eyes while going into great detail on how she would support the transition process in every way possible. Those who were present had expected strong reactions including people walking out the door, and protesting about being moved. But because of her authenticity and the fact that she showed compassion, her people weren’t triggered into survival mode, and the change was implemented with sensitivity and care.
In summary, this is one of the most volatile times in recent history when it comes to the changes that many companies and organizations are facing. But as leaders, if we are prepared to do our inner work then we can help our employees navigate these changes with our compassion still intact, and remember that there is someone on the end of our communication who may be triggered into survival by our actions. We can work towards supporting their transitions with sensitivity, and that requires us to do our inner work on our own egos as leaders.
For a more in depth exploration of developing compassion in leadership, you can explore “Beyond Ego: The Inner Compass of Conscious Leadership.”