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Managing compassionately

Of all the management principles I have adopted over the years, either through direct experience or learning from others, there is one I aspire to live by more than any other. I say “aspire” because as much as I’d like to do it consistently and without fail, given the natural ebb and flow of day-to-day operations and challenges, and the subsequent range of responses that follow, I find this particular principle harder to practice consistently than others. That principle is managing compassionately.

There are three elements of managing compassionately I’ve learned through the last decade or so that have very much influenced my career path and management style. They are the meaning of compassion, and specifically how compassion differs from empathy; the fact that compassion can be learned, and is not solely innate; and the importance of striving to achieve both compassion and wisdom, and not one without the other.

The meaning of compassion

Through reading the book “The Art of Happiness” — the teachings of the Dalai Lama as told to author Howard Cutler — I learned the difference between compassion, defined as walking a mile in another person’s shoes, and empathy, which is feeling what another person feels. Though oftentimes used synonymously in western culture, the contrast between the two is an important one. As the Dalai Lama explains, if you are walking along a trail and come along a person who is being crushed by a boulder, an empathetic reaction would result in you feeling the same sense of crushing suffocation and render you unable to help. The compassionate reaction would put you in the sufferer’s shoes, thinking this person must be experiencing horrible pain so you’re going to do everything in your power to remove the boulder and alleviate their suffering. Put another way, compassion is a more objective form of empathy. This idea of seeing things clearly through another person’s perspective can be invaluable when it comes to relating with others, particularly in tense work situations.

For example, when strongly disagreeing with another, most of us have a tendency to see things solely through our own world view. In those situations, some will immediately assume that the other person is ignorant and/or has nefarious intentions. Your mind immediately turns to the thought, “How could they possibly not agree with me?”

In these circumstances, it can be constructive to take a minute to understand why the other person has reached the conclusion that they have. For instance, what in their background has led them to take that position? Do they have the appropriate experience to be making optimal decisions? Are they fearful of a particular outcome that may not be obvious at surface level? (Ray Chambers refers to this process as being a spectator to your own thoughts, and offers a good illustration here). Asking yourself these questions, and more importantly, asking the other person these questions, can take what would otherwise be a challenging situation and transform it into a coachable moment and truly collaborative experience.

Compassion can be taught

Once I had started to fully appreciate the significance of compassion, I oftentimes wondered whether or not it was a quality that could be taught. It turns out the answer is yes; a realization I came to serendipitously.

One night while traveling on business, I was having trouble sleeping and came across a PBS Frontline documentary that has stuck with me to this day. The program was entitled “A Class Divided” and was about Jane Elliott, a third grade teacher in an all-white town in Iowa. The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, she divided her class into blue-eyed and brown-eyed students.

On day one, the blue-eyed children received first class treatment at the expense of the brown-eyed. On day two, she flipped everything, so that those who had been subjugated were now in the privileged class. Watching the reaction of the kids in this situation was truly awe-inspiring. The documentary tracked down the students many years later, well into adulthood, and almost to a student, they were advocates of the civil rights movement.

Compassion can and should be taught, not only throughout a child’s K-12 curriculum, but in higher education and corporate learning and development programs as well. I can’t think of a more worthwhile thing to teach.

Wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness, compassion without wisdom is folly

After having worked at Yahoo for seven years and making the decision to leave, I started to think a lot about what I wanted to do next. I’ve long been interested in education reform, and specifically the democratization of knowledge, which was one of the primary dynamics that drew me to the consumer web, and digital media and search specifically. It had occurred to me that as much value as Google created by organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible, there was still much more to be done in the category. The thinking was that on a classic Information Science continuum, i.e. data > information > knowledge > wisdom, as valuable as information was, it was putting that information into context — knowledge and ultimately wisdom — that created true insight.

The challenge at the time (early 2004) was that for all of the billions of information artifacts that had been indexed by the world’s leading search engines, the vast, vast majority of all human knowledge still remained in people’s heads. The idea was to make it easier for people to share that knowledge in a universally accessible repository and to not only make use of it, but to expand it as well. Bear in mind, this was long before social platforms and sharing content had reached critical mass on a global basis. Today, this is common practice, and increasingly influences the way in which we find what we are looking for, whether through more socially influenced results produced by search engines or the knowledge being shared directly through social platforms (Fred Wilson shares a great example of the latter here.) However, at the time I was leaving Yahoo in 2008, this was still an evolving concept and one I was passionate about pursuing. I went so far as to draft a personal vision statement: to expand the world’s collective wisdom.

A few weeks later, I found myself at dinner one night with my friend Fred Kofman, founder of Axialent, author of “Conscious Business”, and one of the most enlightened people I’ve met throughout my career.  After sharing my objective with him, he said, “That’s very powerful, but bear in mind, wisdom without compassion is ruthlessness, and compassion without wisdom is folly.” The line stopped me cold in my tracks. It was so elegant in its simplicity that it required no debate or follow-up. Withhout any further discussion I said I was amending my initial vision to read “to expand the world’s collective wisdom and compassion.” That objective has influenced every aspect of my work ever since.

by Jeff Weiner, CEO Linkedin

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