The Perils of ‘Idiot Compassion’

Early in my career, I managed a law firm. One of our administrative assistants – we’ll call her Liz – was consistently late to work. I knew that Liz had a very difficult home life; she lived in poverty with her mother, and was relied upon to help care for the younger children. Feeling for Liz’ challenges, I often forgave her tardiness. Compassionate, right? In the moment, maybe. In the long run, not so much. Within a couple of months, the entire administrative staff was playing fast and loose with their own start-times. Because of my leniency toward Liz, I had no credibility when I asked others to get to work on time. I discovered that my failure to skillfully hold standards for one person did direct damage to the productivity and morale of the whole. And all of it was done in the name of compassion.

I was talking recently to a senior leader, who described one of her subordinate  managers as a ‘teddy bear’ (we’ll call him Teddy). Teddy’s direct reports were completely demoralized because he was so gentle with them that they didn’t feel challenged. His most talented and ambitious folks were dying on the vine, withering under Teddy’s soft touch. His so-called kindness was creating personal misery and organizational sub-optimization.

Judy was a leader who thought of herself as a real people-person. Her style was collaborative and she influenced through the power of connection. The problem was that she was being undermined by her peers, who were fiercely loyal to her predecessor. Her only strategy for dealing with them was to amp up her level of collaboration, softening her own boundaries to accommodate their attacks. The result? Her staff suffered tremendously from her lack of advocacy for them. Their reputation suffered and their visibility and resources shriveled up. Judy’s staff did not experience her leadership as compassionate; they experienced it as neglectful.

When leaders take kindness to an extreme, when they fail to establish standards and hold boundaries, they can do real damage. This is what the Buddhists call “idiot compassion:” a kind of collapsed kindness that actually results in harm to self or others. In my own case, my idiot compassion was rooted in a lack of courage to confront something difficult. Maybe we’re avoiding a challenging external situation (as in Judy’s case).  Maybe we don’t want to threaten our self-image as being a ‘good person’ (as in Teddy’s and my case). But idiot compassion is almost always a real disservice.

I’m not advocating the abandonment of compassion. I still believe that it has a vital role in a leader’s efficacy. But ‘idiot compassion’ illustrates one of the key concepts at the heart of Leading With Grit & Grace: that leaning on one strength to the neglect of its opposite can create a stylistic imbalance that can torpedo a leader’s effectiveness, impact and ability to truly serve.

What about you?

Have you ever acted with ‘idiot compassion’ as a leader?

What was your core intention?  Did the result match the intention?

What form(s) of grit would have strengthened your actions, so that your core intention might have been been fulfilled?

How can you use this insight to fortify your effectiveness in a situation you’re currently facing?

The Power of Vulnerability

As an advocate for the underserved in her community, Gloria is recognized as a true leader. She’s smart, resourceful and has a commanding presence. She is unafraid to challenge injustice wherever she sees it, standing up to any person or process that she feels is harming others. Because of her courage, others have come to rely on her to take the difficult stands that they themselves are afraid to take. Tough and courageous, Gloria is a shining example of the grit-based leadership style at its best.

And yet…

Gloria was starting to experience the limitations of her style. When she was forceful, the world often responded to her with force, which took its toll on her. The more others relied on her courage, the more she enabled them to avoid their own. After years of experiencing the gifts of grit, Gloria started to experience the perils of over investing that style.  She came to me for coaching, and we worked to help her integrate more grace into her native grit style.

Now, it is often when she calls upon her ‘grace’ side that Gloria is most powerful as a leader. I recently observed her in a community forum, where the discussion was heating up, yet going nowhere. I could see people giving her ‘the look,’ their silent visual request for her to challenge what was happening. And, as she so often does, she stepped up. But this time, her challenge came in the form of vulnerability. Rather than calling people out, Gloria just stood up and quietly told her own truth. “As the conversation is going on,” she said, “I am finding myself more and more exhausted.” In that instant of speaking from the heart, Gloria changed the room. Simply by describing her own personal experience, she seemed to give voice to that of the whole group, and people visibly relaxed in recognition.  Soon thereafter, someone spoke up and said, “That’s how I feel, too. I don’t think this is getting us where we want to go. Let’s change the focus and the structure of the conversation.” From that moment on, the group adjusted into a much more productive mode.

For Gloria, it was a much greater risk to be vulnerable than to challenge others; it was a much more personal move. And yet, from where I sat, it was the most potent and effective action she could have taken. Had she stood up and done her normal ‘grit thing,’ she probably would have just amped up the unproductive intensity in the room. But by honestly reporting on her own internal experience, she caused a profoundly effective shift.

When we think about leadership, we tend to think about its more assertive and forceful aspects. But vulnerability has every bit as much power as force to transform. Maybe more.

What about you?

How do you related to the concept of vulnerability as a form of power?  Do you embrace it?  Resist it?  Both?
How do you think others relate to your vulnerability?  What impact does that have on your willingness to make yourself vulnerable to others – especially when you are leading or influencing others?
Can you think of a recent or important situation in which being forceful worked against your effectiveness?
What might a more vulnerable response have looked like in that situation?
Where might you want to be more vulnerable in your work life or personal life?  What steps can you take to do that?

 

Do you ‘claim your space’ as a leader?

Here’s a test.  Recall the last time you were in a crowded elevator, plane, bus or sidewalk. When other people pushed up against you, how did you respond physically? Did you crunch yourself up to make room for others, or did you stand your ground and cause others to adjust to you? The body is not just a metaphor here – it is one mirror of how adaptable or assertive you are to others. This quick reflection may give you some important insight into how you lead.

A core function of leadership is to shape the environment – to affect the activities, priorities, and energies of those around you.   This requires you to “claim your space:” to exert a strong enough presence to cause a shift in others.  But before you can do that externally, you must do it within.

Recently, a leader was lamenting to me that her assistant was not performing up to standard. The assistant was often absent on questionable bouts of sick leave and refused to take training because she ‘really wasn’t interested’ in learning about spreadsheets.   As a result, the assistant created tremendous inefficiencies and extra work for everyone around her.  The leader’s response?  “I feel bad for my assistant because she’s the underdog (because she’s at a lower grade level).”  My response to this leader?  “Actually, it sounds like you’re the underdog in this relationship.  Your assistant appears to be the one in charge.”

This is a well-intentioned, caring leader who has not been claiming her space.   She is, at some level, apologetic about her power.  She demonstrates what can happen when a leader overuses kindness and adaptability.   She has become largely impotent – to the detriment of herself, her team and bottom-line results.

Practices for claiming your space

Claiming your space is a ‘learnable’ skill.  Here are a few exercises that can get you started.

“Filling your skin.”  Three times a day, stop what you’re doing and breathe into every inch of your physical body.  Imagine infusing every cell, muscle, bone, organ and tissue with ‘yourself.’  Imagine your aspirations, values and commitments filling every inch of yourself, like water in a balloon.  Take note of how that affects your mood, confidence and sense of strength.

Interacting while ‘full.’  Do the ‘fill your skin’ practice just before you go into an important meeting or conversation.  Without trying to change your behavior, just see what happens in the interaction when you’re more fully inhabiting yourself.

Filling the space outside your skin.  This is great to try in meetings or in public places. ‘Fill your skin’ first, and then imagine radiating that power out into the space around your body.  Again – no need to try to ‘act’ bigger or change your behavior in any way. Just watch what happens when you simply allow your own fullness to move into the invisible field around you.  See if you can get people to physically adjust to you, such as on the bus or in the street.  You might be amazed at the external impact that this simple internal shift can make.

Experiment with these practices and let us know what you discover!

 

The Anatomy of Resentment

I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback from my previous blog, “Resentment is a Girl’s Best Friend.”  I’ve discovered that this is an issue that plagues a lot of women, whether or not we’re in positions of leadership.

The reason resentment is so erosive is that it operates largely beneath the surface.   We don’t generally see it in ourselves, much less actively admit it and work with it. But as long as it stays hidden from view, it is in charge – and it’s not pretty. Resentment WILL manifest in your actions, speech and mood, but will do so either by “leaking out your shoes” or exploding in a surprise attack.  So if we’re going to transmute resentment from an invisible saboteur into an active friend, we first have to be able to SEE it.

First, let’s distinguish resentment from anger.  Anger is a potentially mobilizing energy in response to a perceived transgression.  It works like this: something happens; you get mad; you do something about it; you move on.

Resentment is different.  It is the immobilizing combination of three elements: transgression, resignation and time.

  1. Transgression – some line (value, principle, boundary) has been crossed
  2. Resignation – you felt (probably unconsciously) that you didn’t have the power/authority to prevent the transgression or to correct it once it happened
  3. Time – there’s history here; either this particular line has gotten crossed many times before, or this person has crossed many lines with you over time.

What About You?

To disentangle yourself from resentment’s grip, you can start at any of these three places.   So that the resentments don’t pile up, I recommend a weekly inventory. Every Friday afternoon, for example, you could ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Transgression – Did anything happen this week that felt like it crossed a boundary or violated a value of yours?  If so, are you still carrying it emotionally?  Name it.  Get clear about what happened, what line got crossed, and what impact it had on you, your team, and/or results.  This can heighten your motivation/courage to confront the issue.
  2. Resignation – Are there things that bother you that feel powerless to change? If so, see if you can challenge your conclusions of powerlessness.  Take one step, however small.  Even if you don’t change the outer situation, taking action can strengthen your internal sense of authority.
  3. Time – Are there any resentments that you’ve been carrying for quite a while? The longer you carry them, the more intense and pervasive their stench becomes,  so there’s no benefit in waiting to address them.  Set yourself a time limit (24 or 48 hours) by which you’ll take some action to set things right.

Please feel free to post your reaction and thoughts.   Or experiment with these tips and comment on the results.

Thank You For Breathing

Okay, I’ve taken your gritty sisters to task (“Would it kill you to say thank you?”).  Now it’s your turn, grace-sters. It’s Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.  I love remembering all the things I’m grateful for.  It makes me happy and I find it very motivating to take stock of what’s positive in my life.

I know a lot of women leaders who lead by praise, by freely giving thanks to those around them.  They know the motivational power that helping someone feel worthy and valued can have.  Used judiciously, giving thanks can be an amazing tool for elevating performance and morale.  And it can be overdone.

I’m thinking of the leadership equivalent of a “Proud Parent of a Fairfield Kindergartner” bumper sticker.  As if the mere fact of a child’s attendance at school is cause for celebration.  Some leaders who like to give and get praise can manage like this. Praise for everything.  Praise every day.  They’ll find something – anything – to praise, even in the poorest work product.  It’s what I call the “Thank you for breathing” mode of management.  It’s well-meant. But what’s the actual result…on outcomes?  on relationships?  on morale?

Leaders on the grace side of the spectrum can tend to shy way from the tough stuff: the hard conversations, the unvarnished critiques.  But this has huge risks.  It can breed complacency, erode morale and stifle development.   The longer a problem goes unaddressed, the more it weighs down the team.  Confronting the problem is going to be uncomfortable whenever you do it, so why wait?

Often the kindest act is to address a problem swiftly and sharply. Balanced with your naturally appreciative nature, a well-delivered and direct critique can have a remarkably positive impact.   Between now and the end of the year, consider challenging yourself to confront things head-on, and to do so within a specified time limit.