Is it Okay to Lack Compassion?

240In my June newsletter I wrote about compassion as an essential quality of a great leader. Since the newsletter hit inboxes, I’ve receive quite a bit of feedback from my readers. Compassion seems to be a term almost universally admired yet suspiciously absent in the business world.

Last week, I had a lively discussion with a senior executive. He asked me a provocative question: “Can one have too much compassion at work? Can unfettered compassion be at odds with being a successful business leader?”

The reality of business success means that decisions need to be made that protect resources and grow revenue. When a compassionate decision undermines business goals and objectives, ultimately the business fails, hurting many more than the individual in need.

Case in point: supporting an employee through a difficult personal challenge such as prolonged illness, divorce, custody battles, bereavement, or any other life event that may require extensive time off from work. Leave gets exhausted and worse yet peers get exhausted taking up the additional workload the affected employee is unable to complete. Before long compassion for an individual’s plight begins to negatively affect others ability to achieve goals and get the job done. At that point, unfettered compassion needs to be balanced against prudent business decisions.

If you are like me, your brain is probably working on various solutions like FMLA, leave pooling, even working out some form of flexible work arrangement. The reality is, there can be end of the road situations where all options are exhausted and the business leader needs to have that tough, seemingly compassionate-less conversation to counsel the employee into a different job or even company that can support their personal needs. As heartless as this may feel, it can be viewed as compassion of a different sort: caring and protecting the needs of the organization so that the business thrives and the rest of the workforce stays employed. Trade off like these never are easy but they are part of the challenge of running a successful business.