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In Practice

Is There a Compassionate Way to Fire Someone?

An employee at their desk and deep in thought.

The traditional qualities of a CEO are toughness and ruthlessness. But increasingly, CEOs need other qualities, notably compassion. In their recently published book Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard argue that compassion can give a company a competitive advantage.

BRINK: Do you think there is a trade-off of any kind between being compassionate and being an effective leader in a large organization?

CARTER: Many leaders believe that it’s a trade off. They think it’s an either/or; I can either be everyone’s best friend, or I have to run the business and make hard decisions. 

We’re not saying that it’s easy to bring both compassion and wisdom to the table, but when leaders do hard things in a human way, it generates better results. Not only short term in terms of how people feel, but long term in terms of key elements of performance. Specifically, our research showed that when leaders combine compassion and wisdom, their people have two and a half times higher job satisfaction and job engagement; and two times better organizational commitment and job performance.

Furthermore, today’s employees are expecting it. 

Based on our research, employees today are looking for leaders and organizations that create a caring, compassionate, healthy, safe environment. In our view, bringing compassion into your leadership, into your organization and into your culture isn’t a choice. It’s essential in order to attract and retain top talent. 

And the other side to that is that there are costs of not being a compassionate leader. leaders not stepping up and creating the conditions where people feel safe and cared for is certainly one of the many factors why employees are looking elsewhere and choosing to find other places to work.

The Difference Between Compassion and Empathy Is Important

BRINK: You make an interesting distinction between compassion and empathy. Could you expand on that?

CARTER: In partnership with a number of leading neuroscientists, we defined empathy as our ability to connect with another person’s feelings. From a neurological perspective, empathy is an emotion that enables us to connect with other people and feel what they are feeling.  

Although empathy is critically important, it has downsides. For example, we empathize with people that look like us more than we empathize with people that don’t look like us. We also have difficulty empathizing with a group. Empathy can also lead us to make fleeting decisions based on emotions. 

Compassion, on the other hand, is an intention. We define it as the intention to be of benefit. Compassion activates our prefrontal cortex, our executive functioning part of the brain, where we’re able to look at things from a more rational perspective. With compassion, we are able to step back from the emotional experience and ask, “How can I be a benefit?” 

Compassion enables us to look at things from a more long-term perspective. We can step back from our emotional response and make decisions based on the greater good. It also enables us to broaden our perspective from a diversity and equity perspective.

Busyness Kills the Heart

BRINK: You have this interesting phrase, “Busyness kills the heart.” People expect to be busy as a CEO, so why should that kill the heart?

CARTER: Many of us have a mindset that if I’m doing things, I must be productive. But in reality, activity does not equal productivity. We tend to associate high performance with busyness. In our view, that is a falsehood. The real cost of busyness is that it makes it more difficult for us to be able to be fully present and connect with other human beings. 

A lot of what we need to do is unlearn old-school management and relearn being human, which is challenging for many leaders.

When we have a busy mind, we limit our ability to be fully present with people. In our over 14 years working with senior leaders in global companies, we have observed that busyness is one of the main barriers to compassion. You’re not paying attention to the things that are important to you and are core to your values, and therefore, you don’t show up as the best version of yourself.

BRINK: Do you think that an MBA education is to blame to some degree for fostering an image of a tough, ego-driven CEO?

CARTER: One of the things that we’ve seen in our work is that a lot of leaders have an image of a strong, tough, decisive, “always-have-all-the-answers” leader as being the definition of success. This is how they were educated in their MBA, and what they saw as being glorified historically in the media. 

In today’s business reality, research shows that leaders are seen as being better and stronger when they’re able to say, “I don’t know,” and show vulnerability. This is really challenging for a lot of leaders today, but it’s also an opportunity. Any leader that says they have all the answers and that they know everything that they need to know is fooling themselves. It’s a gift to know that not having to have all the answers and being authentic will be seen as a strength not a weakness.

A lot of what we need to do is unlearn old-school management and relearn being human, which is challenging for many leaders, but it’s awesome. It’s awesome, because being more human is something we all can do. That’s really what we see today.

BRINK: Let’s take a situation in which the CEO has to lay off a number of employees. How would a compassionate CEO go about that versus a conventional CEO?

CARTER: In situations where you need to lay off a number of employees, it is critical to remember these are human beings not names on a list. To bring more compassion into our actions, it is important to consider that these are people that will need to go home at the end of the day and have to tell their families that they’ve just lost their jobs. 

As leaders, we should never underestimate the weight of the responsibility you have when you have to let people go. 

It’s human nature that when we have to let someone go, we want to do it quickly, because, “Oh, this is going to be messy.” And, “Oh, I don’t want to stick around.” But you’ve got to remember that you’re the one who’s going to still have a job at the end of the day. It’s them who are going to have to carry that impact. And so, being fully present and opening up your heart to the challenges for those people is really key.


Jacqueline Carter

Leadership and Organization Development Expert and Author

Jacqueline Carter is a leadership and organization development expert. Her clients include Cisco, Disney, IKEA, Accenture and Royal Bank of Canada. She is the author with Rasmus Hougaard of Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way

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