Compassion as a Business Booster

Practical Stella is more how-to than woo-woo, and “feelings” and squishiness at work make her squeamish. As a respected SVP of Technology, she believes that her logical, rational approach to business is what drives her achievements. 

When HR’s Learning & Development team requested Stella’s attendance at a workshop on self-compassion (part of the company’s strategy to boost innovation by boosting soft skills), she reacted with grimaces and raised eyebrows. Self-flagellation melded with a try-harder mentality tended to be Stella’s self-management style. But being someone who doesn’t shy away from challenge, she was willing to lean in and learn. Besides, her team was reaping the benefits of her newly acquired “curiosity thinking” that she learned in last month’s workshop. 

What’s Compassion Got to Do with It? 

The workshop leader opened with this question: If we were to be kind to ourselves and others at work when we make mistakes, what’s the worst that could happen? Stella’s mind immediately raced to “Chaos, crying, blame-shifting, too much talking, and not enough doing…”

Stella’s fears are pretty common for business leaders, yet the scientific literature tells a very different story. Innovative thinking requires a person to occupy a growth mindset that focuses on learning and curiosity rather than achievement. Innovative minds are willing to risk, make errors, and even fail. They understand that failure is a natural to being human. And this growth mindset is fostered by self-compassion. 

Self-compassion at its essence means treating yourself as kindly as you would treat someone that you care about – with understanding and encouragement in the face of mistakes, errors, and failures. If you try something new and it fails, you offer yourself compassion rather than beating yourself up. The self-talk after an innovation-failure includes the words, “Well that didn’t work, and that’s okay!” in lieu of “I’m an idiot, a fool, a failure!”  

Self-compassion fuels innovation. Innovative minds are willing to risk, make errors, and fail – again and again.
— Lisa Bourdon

Self-compassion also helps us maintain perspective and stay balanced and carry on in the face of tough times and difficult emotions. People who practice self-compassion note the failure cognitively so as to not repeat it, but let the difficult feelings go. This frees them up to experiment some more, learn, grow, repeat, and ultimately innovate.  

During the workshop, Stella doodled this formula in the margin of the page: 

Growth mindset > experimentation > failure/success > self-compassion > innovation

Self-Compassion on Trial

After the workshop, Stella decided to put more of these “soft skills” she was learning on trial. 

At a staff meeting, Joe, a Systems Design Project Manager recommended a new project tracking program. Joe works with the over-taxed R&D Application Engineers, and he’s always looking for ways to lighten their load. Stella – with hesitation – said a quick, “Yes” to his enthusiasm. She decided not to ask for reams of research, and let him leap. Joe purchased the costly program and installed it over the weekend, but within a few days the weaknesses in Joe’s new program began to stir up trouble in the department. Everyone was working longer hours to overcome the inefficiencies in the system, and the Engineers were still falling further and further behind schedule. 

One morning, Joe slinks into Stella’s office, embarrassed and a little nervous. He doesn’t make excuses. He owns that the new software is causing trouble and he starts beating up himself over it: “I am such as idiot. This was really dumb of me. I should’ve done my homework… or at least beta tested it. I should’ve just left well enough alone.…” 

Stella takes a deep breath: she could step in and just fix it (which was tempting), but then she thought about the compassion workshop and an old memory of her former boss came to mind. 

She interrupted Joe’s self-berating, “Joe, have I ever told you about the first big project I managed early in my career? I was in charge of updating an ancient telecom system. After doing some quick fact finding, I found a state-of-art system that looked great. On paper it was sleek, multi-operational, and intuitive to new users. The sales person promised a seamless transition and the references they offered were stellar. Without skipping a beat, I confidently recommended the system along with a budget and production time table that wowed the stakeholders. We acted fast, and worked hard. And, it was a first-rate mess: the equipment was shoddy, the training material was useless, and the company had no telecom service for 24 hours! I had screwed up big time.

I went into my boss’ office and gave myself a thorough scolding: I am so stupid! How could I have been so naïve and impulsive? Why didn’t I do better research? But my boss was very calm and gently asked me, What’s the kindest and most truthful thing you can say to yourself in this moment? I was so taken aback by his question that I asked him to repeat it. Well, I stammered, I took a risk on something that I thought would improve communication for the entire company. I really did think it would work out. But it didn’t. Sometimes things just don’t work out. They just don’t. Joe, I invite you to ask yourself the same question.” 

Joe was dumbstruck and grateful. “You are right,” he said thoughtfully. “I did take a risk, and it didn’t work out as I expected. But I want to fix this and I think I know how. I’ll get back to work.”

When Joe left her office, and closed the door behind him, Stella began reminiscing about her former boss whom she considered the nicest man she’d ever worked for. But as she recounted their exchanges, she realized that he wasn’t just a “nice guy”. When he had modeled self-compassion to her, he was sharing an effectual risk-taking management skill, crucial to innovation, and driving people and business, forward. With a soft smile on her face, she recognized that she had paid it forward to Joe, and that they all would live to risk, again and again. Compassion for the win!

Allie Rice