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How Compassion Increases Inclusion at Work

Imagine your friends and classmates suddenly shunning you at the playground. They call you dumb and other vicious names. They get extra time at recess and access to the water fountain. All solely on the basis of their eye color. How would you feel?


This was the “Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes” experiment carried out by Jane Elliot in 1968 in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. She wanted to teach compassion to her class of eight- and nine-year-old students, in a small, predominantly white, town in Iowa.

First, she told her students that those with blue eyes were better, smarter, and superior to those with brown eyes. She observed how quickly the dynamics in the classroom changed as students started to respond to this announcement. The next day, she switched the roles — now those with brown eyes were superior and received additional perks at school.


The students in this exercise learned what it felt like to walk in someone else’s shoes. They experienced what it was like to be discriminated against solely based on their appearance and had no way of changing or controlling that. Through the exercise, the students developed compassion and understanding for others different from them.


Compassion and Empathy

To develop more inclusive and equitable workplaces, we need compassion. Caring workplaces foster a growth mindset and a willingness to accept different perspectives tend to be more optimistic, productive, and creative.


One study found 76% of employees were more engaged and 50% felt more included where empathy was practiced in their workplace.


Compassion can be seen as empathy combined with deliberate action. Empathy is the understanding of another’s distress and sadness, which can lead to inaction when we identify too much with those who are suffering. Being compassionate is taking a step back to reflect on the situation and coming up with different ways to relieve the problem. When we identify too much and join in the suffering of others, we may develop tunnel vision and think in terms of “us” versus “them”, leading to further polarization.


But compassion alone is not enough. “Wisdom and compassion are sometimes compared to two wings that work together to enable flying, or two eyes that work together to see deeply. In practice, wisdom gives rise to compassion, and compassion gives rise to wisdom”, explained Fred Kofman, former VP of Executive Development at LinkedIn.


Compassion and Wisdom

Rasmus Hougaard, CEO of Potential Project, expanded on this concept and developed the Wise Compassion Leadership Matrix. The matrix illustrates the interaction between wisdom and compassion in the context of business. It shows the importance of fostering compassion and wisdom to enable better performance at work. Having too much compassion without the courage to make tough calls is just as destructive as focusing too much on results without empathy.


Source: Rasmus Hougaard

The Wise Compassion Leadership Matrix has four quadrants. Each quadrant represents a mindset that one could operate in at a given time, and as such one can move across the different quadrants. This means that each of us can learn to be more compassionate or develop more wisdom — compassion and wisdom are not hardwired characteristics.


Leaders operating in the first quadrant express a great level of compassion. However, they may shy away from difficult conversations or hard decisions that are needed to solve problems. There is empathy but also paralysis from identifying too much with those who are suffering.


Leaders operating in the bottom quadrants of three and four lack understanding and empathy to achieve sustainable results. These leaders have poor relationships with their team that could breed toxic work environments and feelings of insecurity. This results in reduced collaboration, trust, and loyalty within the workplace, and thus results in long-term impact and effectiveness.


Leaders who exercise wise compassion in the second quadrant know when it is time to give tough feedback and push priorities that may disappoint people, such as implementing reorganizations and layoffs. Leaders can be compassionate and practice effectiveness to make hard decisions in a human way.


Compassion and Direct Communication

This is similar to Kim Scott’s Radical Candor approach to leadership and giving feedback. Under the Radical Candor model, one gives feedback directly and humbly, without being obnoxious or aggressive. Shying away from giving feedback or difficult conversations can be potentially damaging as this does not empower others to improve. When communication is not authentic, intentions are not clear. It could mean not challenging someone and missing the opportunity to right something that is wrong. Ultimately the lack of radical candor in the workplace could mean that objectives are not aligned and goals are not achieved.


Both models advocate for compassion and caring for others, while not shying away from difficult conversations or doing hard things. The clarity and authenticity in communication results in increased trust and growth, which can help to build more inclusive and equitable workplaces.


To develop more compassion, it is first important to be kind to yourself. Taking care of your own mental health enables you to take care of others. When you have a bad meeting with a client, notice how this could affect your behavior and interaction with the next person you meet.


Compassion and Mindfulness

Develop an awareness of your own mental state and take a step back when needed, rather than rushing to complete the next thing on the to-do list. Increased mindfulness enables deliberate and constructive decision-making to produce better results. Being more mindful also enables us to be more aware of our own internal biases, and to question the validity of existing assumptions.


When you are kind to yourself, you are better positioned to actively listen to others. Pause and take interest after asking someone, “How are you?”. This question should not be out of courtesy but seen as an opportunity to practice compassion and express care for someone else. Show curiosity and ask questions where appropriate to indicate the intention to develop a deeper understanding of their perspective.


Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

To develop more wisdom and the ability to make difficult decisions, practice having direct interactions on a daily basis. This does not mean coming up with criticism for someone just for the sake of it! Direct conversation can also mean being specific about what someone is doing well. This fosters openness in communication and giving impromptu feedback, where people feel safe to share their opinion, rather than be judged for what they say. Promote reciprocity — feedback should not be one-directional. Leaders and managers should encourage their team to give them feedback too.


To build more diverse and inclusive work environments, we need compassion and wisdom. Having one without the other will lead to ineffectiveness in the long run. Practicing mindfulness and direct communication can help develop both these traits to create a positive impact and better performing teams.

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