LinkedIn Compassion Conference: Is Compassion Practical for Everyday Work Challenges?

Wisdom is knowing that we are all one. Love is what it feels like, and compassion is what it acts like. Ethan Walker III

When a compassionate glance across the table says, “I see what’s going on and together we’ll make this better,” the tough stuff seems solvable. Yet, does compassion belong in business? Is it practical for everyday work challenges?

Compassion can be thought of as a soft term. It sounds wishy-washy, mushy, hard to pin down; yet each of us knows compassion when we experience it, and when we don’t. 

Compassion is contagious, spreading from the personal or business arena into the other parts of our lives, and so is the lack of it. When compassion is absent, insensitivity fills the vacuum. Indifference shuts down conversations and diminishes trust. It’s easy to feel insignificant, unappreciated. Suffering spreads as we disconnect from one another. Finding compassion in our hearts for others becomes more difficult until, in self-protection mode, our actions contribute less value to our families and to the companies and communities where we belong. 

My experience is that compassion matters at personal, relational, and organizational levels. Research on compassion at work by Jane Dutton, et al. shows how organizations greatly impact the unfolding of compassion in the workplace and demonstrates the benefits of treating individuals as whole people who carry emotions into work. When leaders facilitate high-quality relationships and implement practices that support compassion—for example, employee support systems and managerial practices that encourage noticing, feeling, and acting in ways that foster compassion—the organization thrives.

To learn more I attended the Wisdom 2.0 LinkedIn Compassion in Leadership Summit in Silicon Valley.

Is compassion a business success strategy? Scott Shute, Head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn, began the presentations with Lori Schwanbeck, a mindfulness-based emotional intelligence leadership coach who works at LinkedIn. They spoke about operationalizing compassion and explored the practical side of how to bring it into the organization, at all levels, every day.

Citing research from Google’s Project Aristotle, Adam Grant’s book Give and Take, and Firms of Endearment, by Raj Sisodia, et al., they explored compassion—what it really means and how it can inform a framework for individual and team success.

Shute and Schwanbeck framed compassion as the capacity to have

  • An awareness of others,

  • A mindset of wishing the best for others, and

  • The courage to take action.

They outlined specific, trainable skills and examined the ways overwhelm, apathy, self-promotion, and time pressure limit our capacity to courageously take action. I appreciated the way they made compassion accessible, with specific suggestions I could embrace, teach, and coach in developing leaders and teams.

What happens when we develop the skills for compassionate leadership? What difference does it make? Throughout the conference day I reflected on my own experience.

I facilitated a series of meetings designed to clean up a polluted site caught in litigation for decades for a Bay Area law firm. A partner in the firm brought me in as part of his commitment to apply mindfulness and compassion to contentious unresolved legal battles. Strengthened by his daily meditation practice, his leadership shifted the divisive tenor of the negotiations towards common interests and positive outcomes. 

As the many points of tension started to resolve, opponents turned towards one another and began to address the biggest issues. Skirmishes turned into thoughtful discussions. Slowly, the areas of agreement began to outweigh the remaining disagreements. Previously, maintaining the fight seemed to be the priority. Over time, the goal shifted. Bob’s relentless compassion guided them to remove obstacles to cleaning up the site, ending years of community pain and suffering. Ultimately, the group generated a viable plan. 

Bob’s commitment to compassion, the way he placed it again and again as the top priority out of which all else would come, transformed my understanding of the relationship between compassion and action. 

If compassion is empathy + action, how do leaders take action and encourage actions based in compassion? What does it mean to be a compassionate leader?

I first heard Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn speak about the importance of leaders harnessing wisdom and compassion at an earlier Wisdom 2.0 conference. This year Jeff connected compassion with humility; he showed how being humble is an important part of effective leadership. He said, “We never want to lose that energy! By recognizing we are all human beings, we act as if we are all in this together. Yes, we operate within a hierarchical organization, but when we treat people with respect, it’s powerful. Seeing people as people in a frame of interdependence is compassion.”

“Compassion is a force behind many of the greatest leaders we have.” Ebony Beckwith, Chief Philanthropy Officer at Salesforce, said that in her experience, empathy and compassion are tools for being a better leader. She noted that compassion isn’t soft and squishy, but that it does take time to feel comfortable practicing it.

Mohak Shroff, SVP of Engineering at LinkedIn talked about his own awakening when, after years of pushing productivity, numbers were trending in the right direction but people were complaining. He had assumed that productivity was a vehicle for achieving happiness and instead discovered that people don’t come to work just to be productive. When pushing productivity other metrics don’t necessarily go up. Gathering data internally, he discovered what people really cared about and kicked off a happiness initiative. Productivity metrics went up. Working from compassion toward happiness, productivity improved, hiring became easier, and complaining and stress declined.

This kind of leadership addresses seemingly intractable problems with care, concern, and sensitivity to the suffering of others. Intelligently engaging a wide range of stakeholders, wise and compassionate leaders gather input on new directions as well as feedback on failed initiatives. Their discovery of what isn’t yet known drives innovative approaches that help everyone thrive. Compassion is at the core of wise leadership.

We are all ambassadors for compassion. We closed the conference by filling out a commitment card, our personal course of action. I hope each of us is an ambassador for compassion. How will you put compassion into practice? How will it manifest in the way you act, think, speak, relate, and structure your teams and organization? How will you practice self-compassion?

David Seamus, CEO, Obama Foundation, spoke on the meaning and mission of compassion in creating systemic political change. Compassion is key to the Foundation’s priority of building the largest network in the world of change makers unified by core values.

As David Seamus concluded, he challenged us to step up: “Believe that you have a voice and you have power. And your responsibility is to use it bring people together, not apart. Wherever you go or whoever you meet, be in the WE. We have much more in common than we don’t.”