Weiner: Compassion creates competitive advantage

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LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner says a culture of compassion translates into business success. (Mambembe Arts & Crafts/CC BY 2.0)

Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner says it’s foundational to companies’ success.

“I can tell you with absolute conviction that managing compassionately is not just a better way to build a team, it’s a better way to build a company,” Weiner said in a speech at the graduation of students from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

He cautions against confusing it with empathy, or understanding someone’s feelings from their perspective.

“The Dalai Lama explains it this way: Picture yourself walking along a mountainous trail. You come across a person being crushed by a boulder on their chest. The empathetic response would be to feel the same sense of crushing suffocation, thus rendering you helpless. The compassionate response would be to recognize that that person is in pain and doing everything within your power to remove the boulder and alleviate their suffering. Put another way, compassion is empathy plus action,” Weiner said.

He offered this example of applying compassion at work: When LinkedIn launched a product that lets members apply for a job by asking someone in their network for a referral, the company’s head of social impact asked how it would affect the most underserved LinkedIn members—those who didn’t attend a four-year university and maybe lack the right relationships but have the right skills for the job.

Compassion leads to trust among team members, which leads to better decision-making, Weiner said. Where there’s no trust, employees will focus on corporate politics rather than tasks, he added.

“Create a culture where people take the time to understand the other person’s perspective, and not assume nefarious intention; build trust; and align around a shared mission,” he said. “After nearly 10 years, I still celebrate the fact we can make important decisions in minutes or hours that some companies debate for months. Create the right culture, and you create a competitive advantage.”

He wasn’t always compassion-focused. “If I saw something in a presentation that didn’t make sense, I could barrage the team with questions. I’d listen with the intent to reply, and not seek to understand,” Weiner said. “I expected other people to do things the way I did and grew frustrated when they didn’t. Over time, I realized how unproductive this approach was. Rather than inspire and lift people up, it was a good way to shut people down.”

Studies back up Weiner’s argument for compassion. A Harvard Business Review survey of 1,000 leaders found that 91% said compassion is very important for their leadership, and 80% said they want to show compassion but don’t know how.

Living compassionately is a learned skill and takes a conscious effort, but it’s one worth pursuing both at home and at work, Weiner said. To assess how compassionate you are, take this 28-question quiz.