A Force for Good

This post by Daniel Goleman originally appeared on his website Daniel Goleman.

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“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

Say one of your direct reports “blows it” in some way – maybe does something dumb that loses a sale, or alienates a client or colleague – and you get upset.

How you handle that moment makes a huge difference for you, your employee – and your very ability to manage.

You can either come down hard, reprimanding or punishing the person. Or you can use the mistake as a learning opportunity. This doesn’t mean you accept or condone the screw-up. You can say what was wrong and why it matters for the business, and add how that might have been handled differently.

If you do this without losing it yourself, it boosts an employee’s loyalty to you enormously — and he or she just might learn something about doing better next time around. It’s even better if you can deliver your reaction with a supportive tone, not a judgmental one.

Bonus: any other employees who see you react with understanding rather than out of anger or frustration also become more loyal to you. A feeling of positivity toward your boss turns out to be a bigger factor in loyalty than the size of a paycheck.

Call it managing with compassion. And despite its soft ring, research finds that compassion has better results than a tough-guy stance. For starters, people like and trust bosses who show kindness – and that in turn boosts their performance.

This may not come easily. After all, there’s a certain self-satisfaction that comes from venting your anger, plus the hope that a reprimand will teach that employee not to repeat the mistake. And maybe it will keep everyone on their toes.

But that is not what the data tells us. Research on how employees feel about bosses who are often angry reveals that they see that manager as less effective.

Besides, being able to suspend your negative judgments and show how to better handle the situation creates a more positive atmosphere, one where employees feel safe to take smart risks. If employees are fearful it kills creative thinking and the innovations that can keep a company competitive.

But frustration naturally moves us to react with anger. How can we change that knee-jerk response?

  • Pause before you react. Taking a mindful moment – or a longer pause to cool down – when you notice you’re getting angry can give you the window you need to calm down before you respond. And a calmer state makes you more clear, so you can be more reasonable. Better self-awareness gives you more emotional self-control.
  • Take the bigger view, beyond this particular moment. Remember everyone has the potential to improve. If you simply dismiss a person as faulty because they screwed up, you destroy a chance for them to learn and grow more effective.
  • Empathize. Try to see the situation from your employee’s perspective. You might see reasons he or she acted as they did – things you would not notice if you just had your knee-jerk reaction. This allows you to nod to their viewpoint, even as you offer your own alternative.
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