The brilliant phrase “idiot compassion” comes from Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist who helped establish the international headquarters of Shambala here in Nova Scotia, Canada.
She describes in her book, The Places that Scare You, that idiot compassion avoids conflict and protects our good image by being kind when we should say a definite no. Compassion here doesn’t imply only trying to be good. It is said that in order to be compassionate, we have to learn when to stop aggression and draw the line. Compassion counteracts cruelty.
Reading those words from her reminded me of an incident in my workplace. As a newbie supervisor on the front lines of one of the toughest union environments in Canada, I observed a long-term union-type socializing way more than he was working. Getting up my new-in-my-role courage, I approached him and requested that he return to his workstation.
His response to me was, “And, you’re a psychologist.” I wasn’t a psychologist, but the insinuation was clear. I was supposed to ignore his behavior, be nice, be compassionate, and look the other way.
This compassion thing can be challenging to leaders as they struggle to hold employees responsible for actions without being perceived as heavy-handed bullies.
Is it possible to avoid the trap of becoming a compassionate idiot?
Here are three suggestions to avoid idiot compassion:
1. Understand Dispassionate Compassion.
To be dispassionate means not being influenced by strong emotion, resulting in being able to be rational and impartial. I learned from coaching hundreds of middle and senior managers that many, many people avoid having difficult conversations and other tough stuff, even when they want to.
A lot of it has to do with how to deal with emotions—not just other people’s but our own. When I began to understand the fear that was feeding my resistance to tackling tough issues, I was able to loosen its grip. I could then take the hand of dispassionate compassion.
2. Avoid Being Overly N.I.C.E.
I teach clients that there’s a kind of nice that’s Needy, Insecure, Cautious, and Exploited. In other words, a doormat. Whether or not you agree with his politics, as retired military leader Colin Powell said, “Sometimes you gotta p*ss people off.” Even compassionate leaders know that it’s not always possible to be popular.
3. Embrace N.C.R.W.
The Co-Active Training Institute teaches that everyone, everyone, everyone is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. I’ve found it to be the magic bullet for compassionate leadership because it takes away the fear of destroying another person. Of course, this must be tempered by an awareness of mental health fragilities. However, even then, compassion can build a bridge to heartfelt honesty.
For me, when dealing with tough issues, it became easy to say things like: “I don’t want to go down a path that may lead to disciplinary action being taken. However, if things don’t change, I will do what needs to be done. I’ll do whatever I can to help you. What would be helpful for you?”