What Will It Take To Build A Team Of Compassionate People?

Karen Armstrong was frustrated. Having joined a convent at the age of 17 and committing to a life of poverty and service, she wasn’t succeeding in the ways she thought she would. A nun is only as good as the quality of her prayers, she stated, and hers were lacking.

So after 7 years, she left and enrolled in Oxford University.

What was interesting about her transition to secular life was her demeanor to friends and classmates. She had always considered herself a pleasant person, but the reality was far different. As Armstrong stated in her TED talk, “Because I was so unhappy in my early years after leaving the convent, I used to be really quite an unkind person. I learned a very sharp tongue.” In effect, living a life of service to others had the opposite effect in the short term.

As Armstrong dove into her studies, she looked further into herself. She learned while she was taught compassion in her previous career, it didn’t come naturally. In this interview with NPR, she mentioned, “people would say to me ‘do you realize you never say anything nice about anybody?'”

Reflection and her studies of the world’s religions fueled Armstrong to write the best-selling novel 12 Steps to a Compassionate Life, which borrows from traditional 12-step programs and encourages the reader to take each of them towards being more compassionate. As I read through each of them I couldn’t help but think of a few we should all be taking every day with our teams:

Learn there’s more to leadership than being right. Truth is hard to use wisely, because we can all agree the value of being truthful. If it’s on your side, chances are you will handle most work situations well. Many a time have I walked into a meeting armed with emails and notes on my side, only to learn that it got me nowhere.

I had plenty of truth, but yet didn’t use it properly.

Compassion is to be used in conjunction with truth, not after the fact. Author Marina Smerling references the need for standing in both at the same time instead of just one. “Many of us “speak our minds” in ways that lead to hurt and disconnect,” she says, “While others of us keep a tight lid on it, because we don’t want to rock the boat, make waves, and get thrown out of the tribe.”

Many people, including myself at times, see the truth as a hammer to wield; when in fact it should be more like a pillow. If we walk around looking for nails to hit over the head, you may be in the right to do so. Of course, the aftermath will show that you will have a bunch of team members with sore heads. If people experience more truth than compassion from interactions with you, they walk around constantly leery.

You may even notice a few wear hard hats to stand ups. We can’t let this happen.

Ask yourself, and others, who you need to be the most compassionate toward. At home, this is a no brainer. If I take an attitude of compassion towards my wife, it trickles down towards all others. I’m less frustrated with my kids, more eager to help around the house, more polite when my mother calls at the wrong time. She is the touch stone for how I treat others.

So maybe, just maybe, if I focus more on being understanding when she has had a long day or is understandably upset with my actions there is the greater likelihood I will have that attitude towards others.

The same concept applies to our teams. There is usually one or two people you work with every day that are harder to show compassion than others. There are a variety of reasons why we have issues showing compassion. Usually, it has to do with you and your attitude towards that person, further emphasizing why they are the most important in this effort. Even better, you can ask others who fits this description.

Go out of your way for them, and you will notice a change that resonates to the entire group.

Come clean when you aren’t compassionate. Armstrong commented in the NPR interview just how hard it is to take her own advice. “We’re selfish beings,” she said in referencing her short comings. “I’m supposed to be Miss Nice all the time.” Armstrong goes on to even list them for all to hear: impatience, quick-tempered, and filled with dark thoughts. Not the makings of someone who would go on to found an organization called the Charter for Compassion.

And yet, she is open about her short comings and still fights against her nature to cross religions and cultural boundaries to reach across the aisle.

“Wean ourselves away from our addictions,” she said. “But it’s a project for a lifetime. Those addictions she mentions are the selfishness we all live with. The NPR interview, which was a part of a larger series on compassion, included scientists speaking to how humans are wired for selfishness.

To fight against it, leaders such as ourselves must stand up and acknowledge where we fall short and live transparently with others. It speaks to the nature of Agile retrospectives, and helps set a trend for others to speak up when they struggle. Just think of what we can accomplish with teams of people openly struggling together and striving towards compassion.


2 thoughts on “What Will It Take To Build A Team Of Compassionate People?

  1. Chris, this is a great post. I think this would need a compassionate organizational culture. Many teams want to be transparent but hold back to avoid backlash. If the corporate culture embraces transparency and practices what they ask teams to do, it would set the trend for teams.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! Often it is difficult to foster healthy teams without organizational support, but I can’t always count on that. I just focus on me and my team and hopefully let our results speak for themselves.


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