There is always pain in organisations. Some of it comes from organisational issues, such as leaders pushing boundaries and driving their teams hard or overwork or job insecurity.
Other sources of pain come from outside of the organisation and when people bring their emotions to work. This pain can come from personal issues (e.g. relationships; finances; health) or external social and physical issues (e.g. social disruption; violence; natural disasters).
Whether it has origins inside or outside the organisation, in any group of people at work, you can expect that there is at least one person in pain.
Astute leaders recognise pain in their team members and ask themselves: should I try to deal with this pain or not? Some leaders say no, justifying it on the basis that fighting for survival over scarce resources with winners and losers is part of the natural process of human evolution. Pain, so the argument goes, is a natural by-product of the evolutionary process playing out in organisations and so should be left alone.
Is this view correct?
New research shows that animals survive not by eliminating each other, or by keeping everything for themselves, but rather by cooperating and sharing. When groups of animals do compete, they do it in a cohesive, cooperative and in an internally altruistic way that enables them to be successful. Groups of animals survive by cooperating and sharing rather than keeping everything for themselves.
So the idea that pain is a necessary by-product of human evolution occurring in organisations is simply not true.
In contrast, empathy and compassion seem to be the key for development and survival, as much for animals as it is for humans.
Darwin said as much 130 years ago, when he stated that compassion is our strongest instinct, and it’s the social glue that holds human society together.
Compassion is what leaders need to deal with pain in their teams.
Simply put, compassion is concern for the suffering for others and doing something about it. It has three parts:
- Cognitive: “I understand you”
- Feelings: “I feel for you” (empathy)
- Action: “I want to help you”
As a leader, you very often won’t be able to eliminate pain your people are feeling, but you can help their healing process by expressing compassion.
Try these four tips to express compassion when your people are in pain:
1. Be there
The greater the pain, the greater their deep human need to be listened to and to feel that they have been heard. Your team members need your presence.
What to do: acknowledge their pain, for example by simply saying that you can see they are suffering. Ask them to tell you about it. Listen to them.
2. Give certainty
Deep or on-going pain leads people to question fundamental assumptions they have about their life, such as their relationships, values and faith. This questioning and uncertainty compounds the already difficult situation.
What to do: as appropriate, give whatever certainty you can. Be truthful. Talk about what will not change by reaffirming the values that underpin the organisation, team or the individual themselves. This is not the time to be judgemental or critical — if appropriate, you could tell positive and inspiring stories of how others have coped with similar situations.
3. Take small steps
Where you can, do something to assist the people in pain. Even small actions often have a disproportionately positive impact.
What to do: do small things to help. If your ability to take action is limited by organisational constraints, it’s often useful to ask them what they would like you to do. As appropriate, also invite other people to get involved and to contribute.
4. Be authentic
It’s often a relief to leaders to understand that being compassionate doesn’t call upon them to be something that they are not. What it does require is for them to get in touch with their humanness and express it.
What to do: ask yourself: “How would I like to be treated in this situation?” Then act on that.
In summary, these tips will help you be compassionate in addressing pain in your team. The outcome will assist in the healing process and develop your teams’ general ability to recover well from adversity. In addition it will boost your credibility and authenticity as a leader.
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