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Brandon Bowman
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Brandon Bowman on
August 4, 2022

Leading With Practical Compassion

Key Takeaways from Compassionate Coding Founder April Wensel’s session at INS1GHTS 2022: Outsmarting Complexity

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What is Compassion?

In the tech world, there is an underlying belief that hard technical skills are more important and valuable than their soft skills counterparts. There is also a commonly held belief that the code is essential, and people’s feelings are ancillary to the code. Unfortunately, this attitude leads to burnout, creating products with a poor user experience, exclusionary working environments where people feel unwelcome, and creating socially harmful products. This drove April Wensel to found Compassionate Coding, with the mission to bring more compassion to the tech industry.

Then the pandemic upended life across all aspects of work. It introduced a series of new challenging issues like social isolation, the Great Resignation/Reshuffle, a reckoning with injustice, global conflicts, ever-increasing climate concerns, and community tragedies.

The last two years have been hard for everyone. Compassion is a great tool we can use to navigate uncertainty and pain. But how can we make that relevant to work?

“Employees who experience their leader as compassionate have 34% higher job satisfaction… are 54% happier with their leader, and feel 22% less burned out.”
Compassionate Leadership by Jacqueline Carter & Rasmus Hougaard

Those numbers matter. They bring value to the lives of the team members powering organizations. So what are some tips we can use to lead with practical compassion?

1. Slow Down

The tech world is well known for being lightning speed ahead, dazzling the world with innovative, life-changing products we depend on. There is always more to do and more to learn. But that fast pace results in much higher levels of burnout at work. And this affects their managers as well. Author Liz Fosslien coined the phrase ‘burnout burnout.’ This is where managers are burned out by the extra toll of providing emotional support while still having to maintain their team’s well-being.

Slowing down can increase productivity by allowing people to see areas where they can be more efficient. Burnout at work leads to stress hormones that make people unwell, resulting in behaviors that don’t foster a compassionate environment. If you can’t take the time to care for yourself, you won’t be able to care for anyone else. This can be done by introducing meditation, mindfulness, walking in nature, playing music, and journaling. When having interactions with others, limit multitasking. It brings negativity to the exchange and limits the connection.

‘You may work on a machine, but you're not a machine.’

2. Connect Authentically

Connection is key to building trust and creating a sense of belonging. Remote work can make this more challenging. Distractions happen often, simple misunderstandings can be blown out of proportion regarding how a Slack message or email is received, and it’s harder to gauge how someone is doing with less body language. Relying on Zoom meetings can lead to less eye contact too. By slowing down and being present, people can give their full attention.

In our day-to-day work lives, we believe that the only emotion we can show at work is positivity, enthusiasm, and happiness. Dark emotions aren’t seen as acceptable to show, but we all experience them, and holding them inside can be harmful. Leaders leading with compassion need to foster a space for people to build that trust, so they feel both seen, heard, and understood.

In return, this offers leaders the space to share their vulnerabilities - within reason. Leaders need to walk the line of sharing enough experience that their teams can trust them but not so much as to alienate them either. Sharing these experiences helps build connections. Ask questions and probe deeper beyond the basics. Be specific while still respecting boundaries.

Even when leaders are attentive, they need to recognize that there will be grief somewhere in the room. At work, people are going to experience difficulties, and that’s part of being human. Giving space to embrace that is part of how we stay connected. However, opening up that space virtually has its challenges, with the physicality of separation. Connecting in person when safe and possible can be a great way to offer comfort for the difficulties people are and have been experiencing. It helps to build an authentic connection.

3. Act With Intention

We must consciously consider our choices and take the time needed to connect with our core values. Keeping in touch with what matters can be a great help in decision-making. In a personal retrospective, we can use our values and ask the questions to put the focus on compassion to see what does and doesn’t align.

Compassion can be a great tool serving as a compass to get us through thorny issues. Your actions as a leader set an example. Dare to be complex and warm and real in an increasingly virtual world.

Thanks to April Wensel for leading this exciting keynote at INS1GHTS 2022: Outsmarting Complexity.

Catch her full talk here for more:

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