Harvard Business Online

Five Ways to Lead With More Compassion


Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 11, 2010 4:25 PM

Question: When working with IT, how can you tell the difference between an introvert and an extrovert?

Answer: The extrovert looks at your shoes.

We label people. Everyone does it.

Labels are convenient. And they are dangerous.

Labeling people puts them into little boxes and constrains the possibilities that might arise from the relationship.

As a case in point, consider our smallest boxes— those each of us squeeze into when we are with our parents and siblings. For a moment, imagine that our father is "fun," our mother "selfish," our sister "talkative," and we are "smart." No matter what age, when with our family, we settle into our assigned roles. Consequently, unless we work to consciously redefine the relationships, we will never understand what is behind our father's laugh, why our mother is constantly looking for what she doesn't have, and why our sister needs more attention.

Seeing others for who they really are, in their splendor as well as their shortcomings, requires conscious effort. And it is work that is well worth doing— from a personal and professional perspective. As you renew your leadership agenda, be sure you renew the working relationships necessary to make it happen. To do so, put the following in action:

• Assume the best in others. Everyone comes to work to do the very best job they can. Beyond what you see at work, they are someone's son, daughter, sister, brother, mom and dad. They pay taxes, coach their kid's soccer team, and cook meals for neighbors in need. If someone wants to turn right when you want to turn left, it isn't that they "don't see the big picture," "are unmotivated," or "disorganized." Most likely, they have goals, pressures, and experiences that differ from yours.

• Understand what makes them tick. It constantly amazes how we live in the world of "me" and try to collaborate and influence people we hardly know. If you want to develop strong working relationships, you need to humanize others by understanding their background, dreams, job objectives and obstacles (email me to get a copy of a stakeholder analysis worksheet that I use with my clients).

• Serve their needs. You have to help others before you can ever expect that they will help you. Go the extra mile and do the unexpected extras. Help them, praise them, share with them, and introduce them. Make sure they see their reflection in your leadership agenda by incorporating "what makes them tick" in shaping the "how" and "what" of your plans and approaches.

• Accept responsibility. When problems arise, look in the mirror rather than out the window. Since this self-examination threatens even the most secure egos, make it easier by soliciting feedback early and often. This will allow you to make small, relatively private adjustments rather than large, public apologies.

• Assume the best intentions. Reinforce this behavior (for yourself and your team) by describing the behavior and motives of others in the most positive way possible. For example, replace, "The IT folks are ignoring our needs!" with, "The IT folks are obviously busy, so we need to help them by making sure our initiative delivers value." Complaining about others reduces your power and turns you into a victim. Positive framing focuses on what can be done rather than who is to blame.

Labeling people puts them into ugly little boxes and constrains the possibilities that might arise from the relationship. At the end of the day, casting negative attributions on the behavior and character of others only serve to limit you.

Break through labels by shifting your mindset. Substitute humility for hubris. Replace conviction with curiosity.

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