Could you care more? Avoiding the Guaranteed Formula for Failure

Leading with compassion makes you a better leader

How many times have you said “I couldn’t care less what they think” in relation to a work or personal matter?

It feels good doesn’t it? You can stand alone, proud of your own position and invincible point of view?

Unfortunately, it’s also the most corrosive attitude you can take in the modern workplace.

Here’s why: I call it the Guaranteed Formula for Failure (GaFF, if you prefer).

We’ve spent years reinventing the way that organisations are structured: streamlined and automated to deliver better, faster and/or cheaper than the competition. We’ve got smarter and smarter people working in these organisations: we hire the best we can get and get them to perform to help make us even better, faster or cheaper. Those who don’t perform don’t rise to the top and may be encouraged, gently or otherwise, to work elsewhere. A bit of constructive stress keeps everyone on their toes and striving to be better and what they do, every day.

A guaranteed formula for success, right?


The formula I outline above is an idealised one if your workforce consists of machines and, since that day’s a long way off, organisations need to realise that they are made up of human beings who, whatever you may like to think, turn up each day with their own set of quirks, grievances, stresses and strains. Managing that diversity constructively is the hallmark of truly effective leadership. And that requires one quality that’s not often talked about: compassion.

Café society

These thoughts came to mind after a highly stimulating “Knowledge Café”, organised by knowledge management expert David Gurteen. David’s been running these for last 16 years after realising that at the typical PowerPoint-slide-and-speaker-based conference, the most interesting parts were the conversations that occurred in the coffee breaks – often between strangers. He designed the cafés to stimulate active and engaging conversation amongst attendees.

At a recent event, Mark Coles, from the NHS London Leadership Academy introduced the topic of “Paying Attention to Attentiveness” – essentially how we can care more for each other in the business environment, or perhaps whether that was asking too much in an increasingly pressured workplace.

Through Mark Coles’ introductory talk and the ensuing discussion groups taking the topic as a start point, I found a few themes starting to emerge:

  • Pressures on organisations particularly when running at full capacity (a problem the NHS is experiencing in spades right now) mitigates against what might be called “compassionate leadership” – leaders are challenged to find the time and space for their teams to share what’s bothering them. But if you’re not listening to conversations, how can you be aware of the challenges your people face?
  • Leaders and managers may not recognise that they have a “duty of care” to their teams, although this is the basis of genuine employee engagement.
  • “Listening cleanly” or authentic listening (listening without layering on your own prejudices and opinions) is a skill that leaders may need to practice.
  • Line managers are growers of talent and the much-maligned middle manager has a key role as motivator of change. This is true even in “holacratic” organisations such as Zappo’s that still have middle managers even if they may not be referred to as such.

Against therapy

The above list might suggest that businesses need to turn themselves into massive therapy groups but that’s a massive misconception: therapy has its place but only for those who genuinely need it. However, what the discussions in the Knowledge Café recognised is that the effective leaders created space to manage the conflicting opinions, stresses and strains that are an inevitable by-product of any workplace.

Some structures and techniques were suggested that people had found to work: I was particularly struck by one software team leader who used an “escalation unicorn” as a means for her team members to raise issues. The unicorn (a toy one, obviously) was held by the member dealing with a critical issue that threatened the team’s progress, as a means of signalling that they were working on it. The team leader had created an environment where working on the hard stuff – and having hold of the unicorn – was seen as a motivator: dealing with difficult issues was therefore positively encouraged.

Another technique that was cited was originated by KM doyen Dave Snowden and is known as “ritual dissent”. This involves teams or groups offering criticism or support to members while the recipient’s back is turned. This both depersonalises and legitimises constructive criticism and is particularly effective in validating new ideas.

I’m not advocating either of these as magic bullet solutions to the challenge of managing diverse groups of individuals, but it is important leaders create “psychological safety” to allow dissent. As I pointed out in relation to the recent – indeed ongoingdebacle with TSB’s IT systems, it’s those dissenting voices that may point out the truth of the situation.

Passion and compassion

Compassion is a word that crops up mostly in relation to situations outside of the workplace: it’s what we feel when something awful happens to someone – whether that’s someone we know, or someone affected by a disaster on the other side of the world. It stirs us to action, helping us to do something, even if that’s donating to a relief effort or lending an ear to a friend who’s going through a hard time.

There’s no reason why such a basic human quality should be excluded from the workplace. In fact, it makes workplaces much more effective: it means that leaders and managers, far from losing their focus on the hard performance criteria their teams have to deliver, recognise that these are not simple diktats that have to be obeyed, but negotiated to allow each team member to deliver according to their skills and development needs.

It’s a quality that underpins NextTen’s approach to customer success, using the F.A.S.T. principles originated by Gordon Tredgold. As customer experience makes the evolution from “nice-to-have” to business essential, there will be many tough conversations to be had.

Those firms that hold them in a compassionate and caring environment will be the ones that achieve real success.

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