“Leaders don’t know what they don’t know about their colleagues’ lives. Their personal lives could be impacting how they show up for work,” observed Chief Carter (not his real name at his request). A police chief in the St. Louis metro area, Chief Carter kindly reviewed my online self-study course, Awkward to Awesome. The course teaches leaders how to genuinely acknowledge and support cultural differences and see them as an asset for the organization. The following conversation followed his review.

Amy: “What did the course either teach or confirm for you?”

Chief Carter: “We need to have compassion for the human factor at work. I regularly suggest to my command leaders that they take a look at the different sides to an issue. That way they can get more of the story before acting. When a leader takes the time to get more of the employee’s story, the dialogue really opens up. That’s when a leader learns what the employee needs to be their best selves at work,” he told me.

“Compassion is covered well in your course. Particularly helpful is the case study of Director Collette. She couldn’t understand why her nurses were transferring to other locations within the hospital group or quitting altogether. It’s a good example of what not to do – attempt to build a team without compassion or considering the human factor – which we know doesn’t work.”

Amy: “You’re right, in that case study, Collette did not hold her team accountable with compassion. As a leader, can you give me an example of when compassion was needed under your command?”

Chief Carter: “I remember talking to one of my senior command administrators, who told me how he didn’t want to listen to a subordinate’s personal domestic problem. He thought it wasn’t his job, and he didn’t have time for these ‘non-work-related matters.’ I asked the commander if he thought that the personal domestic issues were affecting the officer’s job. He said they were, which were causing issues with scheduling, professionalism and attendance.

“I told him, ‘I understand your perspective. It can be exhausting dealing with other people’s problems.’ Then I suggested that by listening to understand his circumstances and showing compassion early on could resolve issues prior to them becoming an even bigger problem later and then seeping into job performance. But I wasn’t sure if he heard me.”

What’s compassion?

Compassion is a tangible expression of care for those who are suffering. Compassion for a person within their circumstances in a particular moment is cultural intelligence in action. Showing culturally intelligent compassion involves three elements:

  1. Notice
  2. Feel
  3. Respond

Notice – Slow down and check to ensure you’re safe. Notice your assumptions, your feelings and the other person’s reaction.

Feel – Feel your feelings and acknowledge them to yourself. Listen for the other person’s particular circumstances and imagine their pain.

Respond – Focus on them. Respond by labeling the person’s emotion aloud. Labeling begins with: “It sounds like…” Or “It seems like…” This language focuses the conversation on the other person. For example, you might say…

  • It seems like you’re hurt.
  • It sounds like you’re angry.

Note, it’s important that you say, “It sounds like…” not “I’m hearing that…” The word “I” gets people’s guard up and suggests you’re more interested in yourself than in them.

If the person disagrees with the emotion label you named and corrects you, that’s good. It’s good because they feel heard and want you to understand even better. Well done! You’ve created a connection. It can be helpful to respond is by gently saying, “Thank you for helping me understand.”

It’s also helpful for leaders to know: You can’t genuinely express compassion for another until you’ve first cared for you. By acknowledging your own humanity – all the broken and beautiful parts in there, you tend to have the bandwidth you need to care for another. The benefit of acknowledging your own and the other person’s feelings, each in your own unique context, communicates genuine understanding and solidarity. That feeling of being in solidarity is what creates a sense of belonging, commitment to the job and greater productivity in the organization.

Back to the story

Chief Carter said, “At first, when I suggested the commander consider listening to an employee tell him what was going on at home, it seemed like he wasn’t able to hear me. But after a few more incidents with this employee, he started listening, showing some compassion and brainstorming steps he could take. The commander told me that almost immediately the employee started performing better.

“What was interesting,” he continued, “is that it taught both the commander and me that compassion for a colleague’s circumstances is a concept that future command staff and leaders need to learn and apply. Even though this isn’t technically in our job description, it’s in our and our organization’s best interests, as well as just being the right thing to do.”

Amy: “That’s intriguing to consider—to accomplish your mission as a leader, it’s in your own and the organization’s best interest to incorporate compassion for people in their particular circumstances into your command. I appreciate you sharing your insight on how compassion benefits all the stakeholders in police work.”

Chief Carter kindly added, “I want to offer my sincere appreciation for your endeavor to unite diverse groups by prompting needed discussions on sensitive topics. Your compassion and motivation to bring people together is a testament to your good core values and is evident throughout your course.”

Amy: “Thank you, Chief Carter. Coming from someone in your position of influence, your words mean so much. I appreciate how you’re using compassion and cultural intelligence in the vital work you do to keep the public safe.” –Amy Narishkin, PhD

Dr. Amy is a speaker, author and coach. She and her team work with organizations and their leaders who want to be confident communicators so that they can attract and retain diverse talent. Click here to learn more about Empowering Partners’ online course and executive coaching.