Being a Compassionate Boss

World's Best Bossby Pamela Johnston

Compassion is a funny word for those of us who love what we do and feel strongly about doing it well. See, the “passion” part is easy. We are passionate about results, passionate about our business, and passionate about everyone who works for us being as committed and, well, passionate as we are.

What doesn’t work so well for the rest of us is when we stick that “com” before it. As in, we should be not only passionate but compassionate bosses. For many of us passionate business leaders, there is a sort of cognitive dissonance between demanding excellence from our employees on the one hand and feeling real concern for them as human beings.

I know, I used to be one of them. But experience has taught me that a successful firm is built on a foundation of compassionate leadership and that it is possible to take the “b,” out of “itch,” and still scratch that burning need to succeed. Because the truth, is compassion pays.

Being kind is better for the bottom line in part because it lifts not only your employees mood, but your own. Countless studies – and common sense – have shown that happier workers are more productive. The same goes for bosses, whether we admit to ourselves or not. On the flip side, make your staff miserable and what could have been profit will be spent instead training new staff.

That’s not to say that poor performers should be coddled or that you shouldn’t set the highest expectations. But the most successful bosses eventually learn that without a little compassion, all the passion in the world is not going to end in success.  Here are few tips for those of us for whom the “com” part of compassion doesn’t necessarily come naturally.

  • Stop comparing everyone to you. Compassion is about shifting the focus from the “I’ to the “we” from the self to others. In other words: Before you tell your employee that a sick kitten is not an excuse to leave an hour early, think about whether that hour is really going to make a difference in the work or, perhaps, are you just irked because you would never have asked for the hour off when you were not the boss?
  • Reality check your ego. Sometimes it’s hard to see clearly from up high. This can play out as a kind of extreme inflexibility – a refusal to change policies, plans or procedures because we put them there, and by god that means they are right! Well, times change, companies change and what worked once may not work so well now. Bend accordingly.
  • Focus on the next mistake, not the last one. When something goes wrong it’s natural to try to hone in on whom to blame. The compassionate response, which is also the smart one, is to shift from “who” to “how.” Exploring and understanding what went wrong can keep it from happening again. Yelling, cursing and plotting someone’s demise, not so much.
  • Don’t overestimate and push people and then be upset they didn’t “rise to the challenge.” By its very definition, a challenge is something not everyone is going to succeed at. Use it as a chance to see who will, not punish who won’t. And don’t give up on those who don’t make it on the first go around. Every failure is a chance to learn and to teach.
  • Broadcast your mistakes. It’s a lot easier to learn from mistakes than from success so when I screw up, I tell everyone who will listen. That way I’m not the only one learning from what I did wrong. I tell my employees to do the same. Please share your mistakes and what you think you could have done in retrospect to avoid them. That’s what a team is for, to learn from each other.
  • Play doctor – the psychological kind. Try to understand what motivates your staff to come to work every day beyond the pay check. Ask them what they most want to learn and where they want to be in 10 years. Then use that information when you are deciding how to divvy up the work and responsibilities in a way that gets the best out of all your people. You’ll all feel good about it, and sometimes success is the best medicine of all.
  • Know when to show emotion – and when not to. Bosses are human and we have bad days like everyone else. But if you come in fuming about something that happened on the way to work your mood will be magnified to your employees. If you can’t lock yourself in your office until the storm passes, at least let your staff know that they are not the problem. On the flip side, don’t be afraid to show some emotion and vulnerability. Your staff is human and they appreciate knowing that you are too.
  • Learn to really, truly listen, set aside regular times to go all Zen on your staff.  Focus. Make eye contact. Turn off that constant internal tape loop of judgment that’s always playing in the back of your mind. Now you are ready to listen. When you do, you’ll hear what you can do to make your staff succeed and you just may learn something new and useful about yourself in the process.


Pamela Johnston is an image and reputation expert, media expert, entrepreneur and author who routinely takes on and triumphs over herculean challenges.  Her landmark work in image management and market strategy spans numerous sectors where she has been ‘of record’ for governments, blue chip companies, consulting firms, technology entrants and incumbents, personal branding and image agencies, dating services and astrologers.  She’s precipitated great moments of business innovation and is a sought after speaker on innovation, authenticity and problem solving.  It is her lifetime quest to help people and organizations realize their potential and navigate change.

photo by: Kumar Appaiah