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?

5 replies
  1. Lorrie
    Lorrie says:

    A new way to look at old boundary issues, self image issues, and the vital importance of mindfulness practice. Thanks, Leslie.

  2. Cathy Shraga
    Cathy Shraga says:

    This could equally be applied to parenting. My husband’s son lost his job and seemed to be depressed, or something. My husband allowed him to use the family’s old summer home in NJ which he loves. What happened? He drank a lot of beer in the back yard, he has not found a job for a year, he is not providing ANY support for his kids, and now that his father has finally told him he can’t use the house any more, he has responded by saying that his father never helped or supported him. Go figure!

    • leslie.williams
      leslie.williams says:

      Cathy, great to hear from you! I agree that idiot compassion shows up in parenting. I think we’re looking at the results now of an upsurge in ‘idiot compassionate’ parents… parents who have befriended their kids more than they’ve equipped them for life. I think parenting is definitely an act of leadership and the discernment between healthy compassion and abdication applies just as much at home. Thank you so much for bringing this important additional perspective into the conversation.

  3. Stacy Huber
    Stacy Huber says:

    Wow Lorrie. I haven’t thought of this stuff since I left the corporate world for the virtual one. I think I had more idiot compassion for non-friend colleagues. If I was working with a friend, I probably held them to a higher standard.

    I have a couple of male friends that actually sabotaged their own careers by denying promotions that would have put them in a leadership position over people they had worked with for years. I suspect in both cases, they wanted to retain the “good person” persona.

    How do you know where the line is between compassion and idiot compassion?

    • leslie.williams
      leslie.williams says:

      Stacy, I think you pose a great question about where the line is between healthy compassion and idiot compassion. I’m sure everyone gauges that in their own way. I have two measures. First, over time, is the person to whom I am showing compassion getting stronger and more capable, or weaker and more dependent? The second measure is an internal one – am I feeling resentment underneath my compassion? If so, the resentment may be trying to tell my that something about my compassion is off. I’d love to hear how you gauge that for yourself!

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