Building Your Compassion Muscle

In the last post I discussed how having self-compassion as a leader helps create a supportive environment in which you can thrive and build your resilience.   Now we turn to the value of having compassion for others while still holding them accountable as you lead


In this article you will learn:

  • –  How being compassionate with others can increase your impact as a leader
  • –  How compassion can act as a neutralizer to “reactive” emotions that get in the way of effective leadership
  • –  How to build the skill of compassion


Understanding Neurobiology

Think about a time when you were frustrated by the results of your team, a direct report or peer.   What type of energy showed up in that interaction?   Was it a raised voice, heightened emotions, a strong demand for different results, a sigh, or perhaps even no response?   Or, did you create a safe space for honest discussion about the matter at hand providing support and helping to calmly clarify the situation and next steps?

Let’s take a look at neurobiology to understand how we show up in these moments can impact others.   The amygdala is the reptilian part of the brain which was designed for our survival.   It operates on autopilot in our subconscious and is on hyper-alert to keep us safe from danger.  When we sense a threat, it releases high levels of adrenaline and cortisol to help us protect ourselves.   For instance, if we were to meet a bear in the woods, it would cause us to flee, fight or freeze.

The challenge with this mechanism is that it also perceives risks to emotional safety in the same fashion.   This can lead to the same flight, fight and freeze responses in the workplace.    And when that happens, we are operating out of a fear response driven from the amygdala rather than the pre-frontal cortex area of the brain which is critical for clear logical thinking and operating at our best.   Some people may become quiet, others aggressive or defensive and others may find themselves not being able to optimally participate because they want to flee the situation.   And some may just tell you what they think you want to hear as a method of protecting themselves rather than being open and honest.   When the amygdala is running the show, you are not getting the best mental resources at the table.

While we may not regularly meet a bear in the woods, we often encounter challenges, missed targets and conflict in the workplace.   How leaders create a safe space for understanding and resolving these circumstances can make a significant difference in the resourcefulness of those involved and the end result.


Here are a few steps you can follow to create a more compassionate and supportive response:

1.   Notice your own internal reaction to the situation and pause before responding

2.   Use the exercise of slowing breathing in for a count of 4, holding at the top and breathing out for a count of 7. Creating a calm presence in the body enables greater clarity and objectivity in the mind, and helps you regulate your emotions.  If you feel it would be well received, you may even want to invite others to do the same.

3.   Become curious as to what is happening for others. Inquire, listen and acknowledge what you are noticing.

a)  Initiate the conversation sharing that you would like to understand more of what is going on for them. Ensure your tone and body language are aligned with genuine interest and concern.

b)  Acknowledge the challenges you are hearing, how people are feeling, the impact and revisit the goal.

c)  Ask what they think are the best steps forward? Inquire around any other opinions and viewpoints yet to be considered.   Share your honest feedback.

d)  Facilitate the discussion to gain agreement on an action plan, ensuring you are aligned on expectations.

e)  And most importantly, at any relevant point in the discussion, ask what support do you need from me in order for this to happen?

f)  To drive accountability while still remaining compassionate, ask them what their commitment level to the plan is on a scale of 1 to 10.   If less than a 10, ask what would make it a 10?   Take some time to coach and stretch their thinking to increase the likelihood of achieving the desired outcome.

Being compassionate helps us to acknowledge what is happening for others and for them to feel heard, seen and supported.    It also means keeping our own emotions in check.   The nature of this social bond downregulates cortisol and adrenaline and creates a more trusting, open interaction.    Trust is really the foundation of relationships and helps us all work well together.

Practicing Compassion

Given we all operate at such a fast pace these days it is important to consciously build the muscle of compassion.  You can do this by intentionally starting to notice the challenges and struggles of others around you.   For instance, the next time someone is late for one of your meetings consider what might be going on for them.   Most people are operating as best they can.   As I mentioned earlier, compassion can be the great “neutralizer”.   Rather than hanging on to a level of frustration for lateness through the meeting, being compassionate releases that feeling and enables you to focus on making the most out of the time you have.    Note that being compassionate doesn’t mean that you don’t ask for a different future behaviour, especially if it is happening often.   It just means you address the situation in a caring, thoughtful way.   If lateness is a recurring behavior, after the meeting take some time to speak with the individual and walk through the steps outlined above.

Each day we experience a wide range of interactions with others.   As leaders, how we show up in these moments can impact how others feel and their performance.   The more we build trusting relationships based on mutual respect, understanding and support, the more we empower our people to achieve superior results.   Take a few moments to think about how you want to be known as a leader.