80% of leaders want to improve this skill but don't know how

Compassion not only makes leaders more effective, but also helps them inspire their teams to be more collaborative and creative.

Although most leaders recognize that compassion is a critical leadership skill, few know how to build it, write Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter, and Jason Beck, for Harvard Business Review.

The authors, each executives at Potential Project, a global leadership development firm, surveyed more than 1,000 leaders from 800 organizations. Nine in 10 respondents said compassion is an important leadership skill and 80% want to be more compassionate—but don't know how.

Leaders may struggle to practice compassion because they confuse it with empathy. Empathy is "feeling the feelings of other people," says Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale University. "And that's different from compassion. Compassion means I give your concern weight, I value it, I care about you, but I don't necessarily pick up your feelings."

At its core, compassion is the intent to help others, Hougaard and his colleagues write. Here's how leaders can practice more compassion at work.

Step 1: Build strong relationships

Compassionate leaders approach every professional and personal interaction they have with one question in mind: "How can I be of benefit to this person?" write Hougaard and his team. But leaders shouldn't reserve compassion for those they know well or want to impress. A compassionate leader values and respects every employee, regardless of their level in the organization, they add.

As the chief executive of Cisco, John Chambers personally wrote a letter to express his support to any employee who experienced a severe loss or illness. And at Google, the most effective managers show an interest in employees' personal lives.

3 things employees want most from their bosses

Step 2: Deliver honest feedback

Compassionate leaders don't shy away from tough conversations or honest feedback, write Hougaard and his team. Unfortunately, more than a third of managers say they feel uncomfortable giving direct feedback to their employees if they believe their employees would respond negatively, according to one survey from Interact.

Leaders who avoid delivering feedback do more harm than good. "The dark side of sugarcoating and avoiding honest feedback is dysfunction and disconnection, which leads to an unproductive team," warns Lou Solomon, a chief executive, in the Harvard Business Review.  

Step 3: Meditate for four minutes

Research has found that meditation can rewire your brain to be more compassionate, mindful, and happier, write Hougaard and his colleagues. To meditate, set a timer for four minutes, sit down, and relax. Think about another person's challenges, imagine their experience, and visualize removing their pain each time you exhale.

Just a few minutes of meditation can decrease stress and enhance focus, says Christopher Barnes, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington. Even if you don't have time to meditate, a few "deep belly breaths give us a lot more oxygen, which will give you a boost," he adds (Hougaard et al., Harvard Business Review, 5/24; Hougaard et al., Harvard Business Review, 5/24).

Related: 7 ways to show emotional intelligence every day

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