Building Empathy: Compassion & Power

Before you are a great leader, you are a great human being.  That means you have no fear of compassion.  You have no fear that empathy will put you at risk of losing your power.

Many people, many leaders and managers do fear compassion. They fear it as a sign of weakness. If they show compassion, maybe they will be weakened, be seen as a pushover, as incapable.

Maybe others will take advantage of them.  They may be seen as vulnerable.

And odds are, that they are pretty harsh in relation to themselves with punishing standards, expectations and material criteria for success.

To be empathetic, we must be aware of our own frailty and accept it.  It means we know that we can have days when we don’t bring our Best Self.

I can have ugly moments.  I can fall down. I can make mistakes. I can have bad things happen and be hurt, afraid, angry, grieved.  I can respond in unhelpful ways.

But it’s ok.  We can recover.  We can be accountable, we can make up and we can work through things. We can grow from mistakes and painful experience.  We do not have to be defined by trauma.

There can be room for grace.  There can be room for a new thing to happen.

Appreciating the vulnerability and experience of others, being different to mine and still valid, opens up a new way of considering what is possible. These factors are foundations for working empathy.

Protecting Self Erodes Empathy

When feeling unsafe we all have different strategies for fixing that situation.  Some people want to go and buy a weapon.  Others want to go and build goodwill.

Each strategy is valid and each comes with risks and consequences.

Appreciating difference, diversity, the frailty, messiness and pain of being human leads to much stronger appreciation of the potential capacity of people.  It can make space for new thinking and for more sustainable decisions.  It draws on the wider resources we have available because we see them.

It does not mean abandoning boundaries or standards.  It does not mean avoiding accountability or going easy where responsibility lies.  It means using power differently.

Appreciating the equality of persons otherwise disdained, excluded or not recognised – appreciating their capacity to contribute (and be accountable) creates many new possibilities.

When our focus is on protecting Self, protecting my power, I can fear listening, fear real feedback, fear inclusion that upsets the balance I know.

I may fear challenge. I may not want to hear. I may worry there will be less. I may take it personally.

Including thinking about new possibilities and realities may change the way things are for me.  Yes.  This is very true.

But here’s a given:  change is going to happen – you cannot keep things the same. Instead of resisting change, what will make the best of the changing situation?

Given that things will shift – how can we appreciate and harness what the excluded or unseen bring to the table, to the family, the community, the company.

Power Over

Power is always a factor in relationships – the tussle to find a balance between connection and control is always at play.  And unbalanced, it can impede empathy.

When we hold on to fear and keep up resistance to the ideas of others – their way of doing things, of making choices and their suggestions for a different way of doing things – that resistance diminishes our status, our identity and ultimately raises questions of leadership capacity.

Why? Because embracing opportunities means being willing to step into a new space, learn new things, be open to being challenged and collaborate.

These qualities are greatly enhanced by empathy – by being willing to hear and understand the input of someone from the outside, on the basis of their experience.

It requires an open mind, an open heart and willingness to set aside discomfort and loss of ease in experiencing a perspective that is not your own.  Being challenged can trigger fear.

Fear can lead to oppressive behaviour.

Fearful leaders draw on the power of hierarchy, culture and social standing to enforce an obedience culture: This is the way things are done around here.  I set the rules and you follow them.  I make the decisions that affect you and you wear them.  I am not open to discussion or engagement – it is a threat. 

In these organisations and places culture is cut-throat and threatening, based on oppression not empowerment. The way to get ahead is to be in the Correct Group with the Correct Script.  If you stay there, by whatever means, you might be safe.

Do as directed. Do not ask questions. Do not take initiative without approval, authority from the right places or having the right allegiances with the right people.  There is no empathy here – it’s about survival.

Some corporate organisations, some community groups, some government agencies and some families are excellent case studies of this horrible culture.  They are miserable places to be if you are not in the power group.

Sometimes the Power is in the structures – the hierarchy, the title, the role description that attaches to priority access or authority for resources, rights and choices.  

Power is attached to a title and expectations of respect that go with that title.

This attachment to Power as a function of Position, is shallow and therefore always at risk. And it needs to be regularly enforced and subject to reminders – who has the power to hurt, to oppress, to instil fear? Yeah, I do. Just remember that. I am the Boss.  

Those who have these as-of-right-benefits often do not see them.  They therefore do not appreciate what it is like to not have them.

Those with status have an assistant or partner to do the routine necessary tasks of the day, to organise, to prepare, to smooth.  They get the best parking spot and never take public transport.  They sit at the head of the table. They have choices.

This makes empathy difficult – they have no understanding of what life or work or existence is like without the ready comfort and privilege that they can take for granted.  Privilege is a part of the wallpaper of life.

Sometimes the Power is in the Culture – the norms of behaviour, the inbuilt and unquestioned patterns of behaviour, the way choice-making occurs. 

This is often not noticed because it is just “the way things are done.”  It is an expression of power.

The staff self censor the way that information is presented in order to not rock the boat or cause manager unhappiness.  Bad news is not given, or is dressed up or minimised.  We employ or select people like us – not those who are different.  There are matters that are not discussable.

Sometimes the Power is in the Social connections of the place – who’s connected to whom, what levers of relationship and obligation exist, who likes and feels comfortable together.

These are often unseen until you are functioning inside the system.

Cliques.  In and out groups.  Rivalries, loyalties.  Those who are bitched about, harassed, left out, disdained, ignored.  Those who are the heroes, the apple-of-the-eye, the golden child, the rising star.

Any who grow Personal Power, those individuals who gain personal standing beyond their title, beyond the culture and by virtue of performance or personality or relational connections – they are a Threat.

They receive special attention; not in a good way.

These factors of Power impact capacity and willingness to treat those without power, with empathy.

They cut out and reduce the full capacity and resourcefulness of the collective – within companies, communities and families.

Those with Power can find it hard to see the less powerful as having equal-but-different value.

Work to our Strengths

In organisations, community groups and families, strength based approaches provide the levers to cope with complexity and messiness of humans collaborating together.  You can’t escape it, so work with it.

It also provides the means for dealing with the pace of change, the massive inter-relatedness of things and the overwhelming quantity of information available – that one person cannot manage.

This style and type of culture requires and depends upon and builds emotional maturity, personal awareness and compassion.

These are the foundations for excellence in communication. They allow space for all players to bring their Best Self to the table, to the work that needs to be done.

When there is a safe place for frank exchange of observations, implications, possibilities, discrepancies – we can feel for meaning. This empowers a leader greatly.  It expands the pool of resources available.  All sorts of creative options open up.

But to get there – a great leader and a great person, needs to be able to Let Go ego and expectations of how.  Not necessarily expectations of what.

They must let go their idea that they know best how to achieve a goal because of, well…any reasons at all.  Instead, be willing to be open to appreciate the unique experience, insight and intelligence of Others alongside your own knowledge and values.

I was managing a team facing a particular problem.  I had a goal.  I thought I had the answer – but being the communicating type of manager, I thought I would put the problem to the team. Let them have a chop at it. Then introduce my solution and implement it. In other words, I would go through the motions.

So I did this. To my surprise and consternation they came up with a really different idea as a solution. Possibly a really good one for meeting the goal in a way I had not considered. It took a completely different approach.

I found this confronting. I struggled to let go my own idea. The staff got worried by my body language and started to back off their idea as they saw me struggle to let go my power. They immediately started to support my idea, to protect my Ego.

I knew this was not good. It was not consistent with my values. I just sat there a moment – give me a moment I said to them, just give me a moment… I was letting go my idea of how to solve the problem and accepting theirs was better. It was hard to do!

I said – ok let’s try this other thing. How will we measure it? How will we manage it? How will we resource it?  I did not let go of the goal.  Only of the path to it.

It took a few minutes to convince them to test their idea and then they flew with it. It ended up being an absolutely outstanding success – and a lot less expensive than my solution. And the team then knew that if they saw an opportunity – there was space to talk it out. This was more valuable than almost any other outcome in that problem solving.

Managers who have emotional maturity are capable of better communication because they listen first. They are able to bring that personal awareness and humility to empowering their team not oppressing their team.

They use compassion to coach and support, to make people accountable and to give responsibility.

They can deliver bad news with empathy and care.  They can expand the possibilities for win:win solutions.

And this is not just for managers and leaders – we all are players in creating the world we inhabit. Whether that is at home, at work, in our community, in our society – we are all co-creating the kind of human experience we want and expect.

Build Your Empathy

Well, I keep coming back to this basic skill but it is the most important: listen.

Be willing, be courageous in pausing your own picture of the world, life experience and practiced solutions and hold open your thinking. Make space to appreciate something different and new from the experience or insight of another.

Empathy opens space for respect and inclusion, and to share the creative responsibility for solutions.You have the power to do this and be safe.  You have the power to share the power.

Model safety for those who are a bit clumsy in their communication – focus on their intention. Focus on the issue, the problem.

Deliver bad news with consistency, certainty, honesty and compassion.

These skills are transferable. What serves you at work, will serve you everywhere.

Be aware of the power imbalances in structure, culture and social networks.

And of course – if you are a team member with a fear-based aggressive manager, remember there are ways and ways to bring a new culture and the most powerful is to start to model the behaviours you would prefer, in the sphere where you work.

This can be tough in aggressive environments where you feel on your own.  Build your personal power by being professional, by focussing on the problem not the person.  Exercise your own excellent communication skills to the best of your ability and introduce an empathetic attitude that includes and respects.

Empathy is a personal strength, a leadership asset, it shapes the world you inhabit, it comes back to you and it grows when exercised.  It makes you stronger.


PS – if your team needs help building better communication and collaboration skill, I am here to be of service.