I recently had the honour of co-hosting an event with Chief Digital Officers (CDO) from multiple industries. The CDO is a relatively new role that is still establishing itself in a world that has gone digital at an exponential rate. The topic we covered was one that combines my greatest passion in life (other than my husband and kids of course): that of building caring and compassionate teams to create better performance.
When someone takes the time to attend a session on this topic, perhaps they already have a conscious, caring, and curious leadership style? Whether there is bias or a representation of the nature of people in a CDO role, I was impressed with their open dialogue, honest self-reflection, and the calm reception on having a group meditation sprung on them.
We discussed the potential inhibitors of bringing compassion to work and identified difficulty in finding authenticity at work, especially in cultures that aren’t safe.
One big inhibitor is how people perceive compassion itself – often seen as ‘soft’, ‘weak’ or not fit for the work environment. This is where our understanding of Compassion* comes in.
1. Caring Commitment
Imagine a firefighter; they are the perfect example of a compassionate leader. Their role requires caring commitment and tonnes of courage, but without wisdom they could not perform at their best, in fact they would be putting themselves and others at risk. This approach to Compassion requires us to have the courage to tolerate distress, whether it be our own distress or others’. It is only in understanding and tolerating distress that we can grow and build resilience.
Sounds simple enough, but quite often the reason we struggle to enable compassion flow is because our internal threat systems (the part of our brains that send us into flight, freeze or fight mode) are online, and this could be triggered by our external environment, or it may be that we don’t have a very compassionate internal environment (for example, if we are very self-critical, or get stuck in worry or rumination).
In the second half of the session, I took the group through an experiential exercise where I asked them to think back to an experience where they had a manager that cared for them and a manager who had been critical. I asked how their bodies felt as they recalled these two different types of managers. The majority of the group experienced what I hoped for. A relaxing of the body (parasympathetic nervous system switching on) when recalling a nurturing compassionate manager; and a tensing and discomfort in the body (increased heart rate) when recalling the critical manager. This is what we see in the science and data. That compassion can switch on the parasympathetic nervous system, lower our heart rate and in turn enable us to make more balanced and authentic decisions.
To build caring and compassionate teams we need to commit to not only strengthening our outward compassion, but equally our compassion towards ourselves.
*Compassion Mind Training as developed by Paul Gilbert