Lead With Ruthless Compassion Instead Of Anger

“When being a Prince, a Leader, being loved depends on your subjects. Being feared depends on you.” As Niccolo Machiavelli in The Prince states, “a wise Prince should build on what is his own, and not on what rests with others.” Being feared is then a better strategy. Or is it?

What do you do when someone on your team makes a mistake? Will you criticize them? Will you provide feedback? Will you get angry? Will you punish them? Most managers would go with some combination of these. The idea is to make sure that the employee knows they made a mistake and teach them a lesson, so they don’t repeat the mistake in the future.

“Managing by fear leads to a disengaged workforce without a hint of creativity, innovation, and initiative.”

When your anger and the need to punish those who messed up win over you, you start leading by fear. You are creating an environment where employees are careful because they are worried about the consequences of making a mistake. They learn to play it safe, even hiding their mistakes. They will never take risks, never try to innovate, and suppress their creativity. They will never learn from their mistakes, as that would be admitting a failure in the first place. Fear, anxiety, and distrust will never lead to anything positive. Managing by fear leads to a disengaged workforce without a hint of creativity, innovation, and initiative.

Lead with compassion

Emma Seppala suggests an alternative. Lead by compassion and curiosity. Research indicates that leading with warmth and positive relationships has a bigger impact on employee loyalty and trust than their paycheck. Showing compassion towards others makes it more likely that they will be loyal to you and that others who witnessed this act will also be loyal.

“Leading with warmth and compassion establishes trust faster than relying on your competence.”

They will then have the need to reciprocate and make sure they won’t disappoint you in the future. There is a much higher chance that their productivity and quality of work will be at the expected level. Leading with warmth and compassion establishes trust faster than relying on your competence. Competence is essential, but it doesn’t create loyalty. If I see you are competent, I may do what you ask me to do as I will believe you that you know what you are doing, but I won’t really follow you and may not give it everything I’ve got. I will always look first at what is in it for me, and I won’t be too eager to help you and others.

On the other hand, anger destroys loyalty. It can even create an environment where people will want to punish you for your outburst by being disloyal. Displaying negative emotions not only makes the employees less loyal but also makes you look less effective.

Acting as a tough boss is not going to increase performance. It will only increase stress. And increased stress invariably leads to lower performance, health issues, absenteeism, disengagement, and ultimately higher turnover.

“Acting as a tough boss is not going to increase performance. It will only increase stress.”

Leading with compassion is a much better strategy as paying it forward and showing altruism lowers stress, increases loyalty, and increases your status within the group. This leads to a counterintuitive conclusion. It pays off to act generously, even for selfish reasons, to increase your own status.

As Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger show, if you are competent but don’t project warmth, people may be envious or provide reluctant passive support. If you are not competent, people will approach you with contempt and even actively work against you. On the other hand, when projecting warmth, even when incompetent, people may pity you but won’t try to harm you. To achieve engagement and followership from the team, you need to show both competence and warmth.

Ruthless compassion

A Canadian psychiatrist Marcia Sirota coined the term Ruthless Compassion. It came out of her work treating addiction and trauma. However, it can also be used as a leadership philosophy. Ruthless compassion marries two concepts: fierceness and kindness. Those who lead with this philosophy are fierce in their interactions with others yet kind and loving.

When you practice this philosophy, you are kind to yourself. You don’t beat yourself up for things not in your control. You are not too hard on yourself when you make mistakes. You acknowledge them, learn from them, and move forward. And you use the same approach also with others.

“Those who lead with ruthless compassion are fierce in their interactions with others yet kind and loving.”

By being kind and loving when faced with failure and accepting that mistakes are part of life, you give yourself and others permission to fail. And then deal with the failure head-on. That is where the fierceness comes in. You are assertive and clear about what you need or what needs to be done. But you are also respectful. You are kind without trying to be nice. The distinction is that when being kind, you are caring and considerate, but you still say what needs to be said to improve and move forward. When you are nice, you want others to like you, so you compromise and won’t say anything that would endanger being liked. So you don’t say what needs to be said.

This is a similar concept to Radical Candor, as promoted by Kim Scott. You can be very direct with people when they know that you deeply care about them. You use empathy and knowledge of the person to share even unpleasant news. This allows you to be clear, to expect accountability, yet to make people feel they belong and are respected.

Start with yourself

The Dalai Lama points to the Buddhist tradition that describes three types of compassionate leaders. The trailblazer who takes risks, sets an example, and leads from the forefront. The ferryman accompanies those in his or her care. The shepherd ensures that every one of their flock is in safety before themselves. These are three different approaches, but they have in common a mindful, selfless and compassionate leadership concerned with the well-being of those in care.

“People will first consider what they think of you before deciding what they think of the words you are saying.”

Messenger is always at least as important as the message. People will first consider what they think of you before deciding what they think of the words you are saying. During times of crisis, leaders who get the best action are those who can project calm, clarity of direction, and courage. You may be troubled by what’s going on, but your emotions are under control. You show encouragement and compassion, and people follow.

Putting it all together

When leading with compassion, you do what is right regardless of what people may think of you. You stand up for the truth rather than trying to please everyone. You are compassionate and kind, yet you maintain high expectations. You support others rather than punish them. You do what is necessary rather than what is easy.


What is your take on the topic? Do you lead with compassion? Are you more motivated when you boss shows you compassion or yells at you? What makes you work harder? What makes you more loyal? What is the major source of stress for you in the workplace?

Photo: pixel2013 / Pixabay.com

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Categories: Leadership

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