People think compassion is a soft skill. The strongest people I know are the most compassionate. True compassion requires superhuman strength. Jeffrey Weiner, past CEO, Linkedin
A few days ago I decided to post an article on Linkedin. It was the blog, Kindness for Lent?
Linkedin’s mission is around making people successful and productive. It’s typically a site for business posts. I’ve never shared a post there before, so why share a post there about kindness?
Jeffrey Weiner, the past CEO of Linkedin, came to mind. He widely “preached” to business folks about the importance of compassion in the workplace. (Some say compassion is kindness holding pain).
We rarely talk about kindness and compassion in business, in organizations. Places where “the bottom line” is about money and “hard” outcomes, getting stuff done. Yet organizations are made up of humans.
Wherever there are humans, compassion and kindness need to take top billing. Weiner explains this in a commencement speech to undergraduates at Wharton.
Today I offer Weiner’s own words. He explains his understanding of what compassion is (taken from a book he read and still keeps by his bed); why it’s important in business (how it led to his success), for society, and in our larger lives; and especially how he practices compassion. That's my favorite part - how he contrasts his before/after leadership style and lays out a brief primer in the practice of compassion in action.
We can learn from him no matter what age we are. That fits right into Weiner's aim to expand the world's collective wisdom as well.
[However, if all that feels too heavy today, we can turn to this little, wise one for encouragement and advice on getting along better and opening our hearts. I’ve been watching her and learning from her same little speech for several days now https://youtu.be/y62veCinCvc.
Or enjoy some humor AND sound advice for happiness at work and school and in life from positive psychologist expert, Dr. Shawn Achor (kindness and gratitude can re-wire our brains). I’ve watched this video several times too over the years. Thanks to Dr. Gene Sharratt, initiator of the KindnessCountsNCW, for bringing it back to mind. It always makes me laugh and feel hopeful while understanding our common human predicament https://www.ted.com/talks/shawn_achor_the_happy_secret_to_better_work?language=en.]
Now, if we are ready to go to college, understand compassion from a business leader’s perspective, here goes…Jeffrey Weiner
…the advice I would give my 22-year old self is to be compassionate.
I wasn’t very compassionate when I was your age. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t particularly compassionate until the latter stage of my career. And if it weren’t for learning the meaning and value of compassion, it’s likely I wouldn’t be on this stage today.
When I was 30 years old, I came across a book called The Art of Happiness. It's about the teachings of the Dalai Lama. That’s how I first learned the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is feeling what another living thing feels. Compassion is putting yourself in the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their lens for the sake of alleviating their suffering.
Though most people in western society typically use the two words interchangeably, there’s a fundamental difference. The Dalai Lama explains it this way: Picture yourself walking along a mountainous trail. You come across a person being crushed by a boulder on their chest. The empathetic response would be to feel the same sense of crushing suffocation, thus rendering you helpless. The compassionate response would be to recognize that that person is in pain and doing everything within your power to remove the boulder and alleviate their suffering.
Put another way, compassion is empathy plus action.
That was a pretty profound realization for me, so much so that that book has remained a fixture on my nightstand ever since. It was my introduction to the meaning of compassion. However, it wouldn't be until several years later that I had the opportunity to put it into practice.
In 2001, with the encouragement of my then boss and mentor, Terry Semel, I moved to Silicon Valley and became an executive at Yahoo. A journalist once described my management style at Yahoo as “wielding his fierce intelligence as a blunt instrument.”
At least the first part was flattering.
Though I wasn't a yeller, I was pretty intense. If I saw something in a presentation that didn't make sense, I could barrage the team with questions. I’d listen with the intent to reply, and not seek to understand. I expected other people to do things the way I did and grew frustrated when they didn’t. Over time, I realized how unproductive this approach was. Rather than inspire and lift people up, it was a good way to shut people down.
So I decided to change. I vowed that as long as I’d be responsible for managing other people, I would aspire to manage compassionately. That meant pausing, and being a spectator to my own thoughts, especially when getting emotional. It meant walking a mile in the other person’s shoes; and understanding their hopes, their fears, their strengths and their weaknesses. And it meant doing everything within my power to set them up to be successful.
I’ve now been practicing this approach for well over a decade. And I can tell you with absolute conviction that managing compassionately is not just a better way to build a team, it’s a better way to build a company.
The long-term value of a company is based on the speed and quality of its decision-making. It’s hard to make better decisions, faster when people on the team lack trust in one another and are constantly questioning each other’s motivations.
In an environment like that, you’ll spend most of your time navigating corporate politics, rather than focusing on the task at hand. I’ve been there, and it’s no fun. The flip side is developing a culture with a compassionate ethos. That’s what our leadership team has tried to do at LinkedIn; create a culture where people take the time to understand the other person’s perspective, and not assume nefarious intention; build trust; and align around a shared mission. After nearly ten years, I still celebrate the fact we can make important decisions in minutes or hours that some companies debate for months.
I’d now like to shift gears and talk about how essential it is to practice compassion at home.
A few years ago, I was walking to my car after a long day at the office and despite being exhausted, I was reflecting on how satisfying the day had been. However, on this particular night, the satisfaction would prove fleeting. As I opened my car door and started thinking about getting home to my wife and our two daughters, it hit me: For as hard as I worked to be compassionate at the office, I was not always as compassionate with my family.
By the time I got home on some nights, I'd be so spent that after putting the girls to bed, I had little left to give. So when my wife, who was also tired and had had a busy day, wanted to connect, or talk about important stuff, I would reflexively say it had been a long day, I was exhausted, and could we talk about it some other time. In other words, I was doing the exact opposite of being compassionate with the one person who mattered most.
My wife, Lisette, is the bedrock of our home and has built the foundation upon which my work exists. She’s taught me the importance of love, and kindness, and gratitude. My team at Yahoo used to joke that there was a pre-Lisette and post-Lisette version of me. They strongly preferred the latter.
Suffice it to say, I couldn’t do what I do without her.
I was making a far too common mistake: Taking the people we're closest to for granted by assuming they’re the ones we don't need to make an effort with. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It's taken me a long time to realize what makes me happy: Simply put, it's looking forward to going to work in the morning, and looking forward to coming home at night. The only way I can do this is by practicing compassion in both facets of my life, and not taking anything or anyone for granted.
One of the defining issues of our time will be socio-economic stratification, the growing divide between the haves and have-nots. It’s already hovering at historic highs and threatens to get even worse as new technologies potentially displace millions of people from their jobs. When people lose access to economic opportunity, they become disenfranchised and that can have serious consequences on society.
As if that wasn’t challenging enough, we’re also facing the rise of tribalism. It’s human nature to gravitate towards people that look and sound like we do. That sense of belonging helps keep us safe and feel protected. But there’s a dark downside.
All these tribes spend too much time thinking about themselves, their own self-interests, and their own belief models. Technology facilitates the divide by making it easier than ever to connect to those who reinforce our own worldview. It’s a vicious cycle: We don’t spend enough time thinking about other tribes, which drives us even further apart.
But we can reverse these trends.
By breaking free of our own tribes, even if only for a moment, and seeing things through the lens of people unlike ourselves, we can begin to close the gaps, whether they be socio-economic, racial, gender, political or otherwise.
So I’d like to close by giving you the same advice I’d give my 22 year-old self:
We’ll all be better off because of it.
How might we journey together to The Good Life by practicing more compassion in business and work groups?
(Some of you are physicians, teachers, dentists, psychologists who deal frequently with the importance of compassion at work. You have stories for sure. And how about others, do you have stories of the importance of compassion and kindness particularly at work? If so, please share with me and I will pass them on. firstname.lastname@example.org. With love, June)