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3 Ways to Avoid Idiot Compassion

The brilliant phrase "idiot compassion" came into my awareness just last week. It comes from Pema Chodron, a Buddhist who helped establish the international headquarters of Shambala here in Nova Scotia, Canada.

Pema describes idiot compassion as avoiding conflict and protecting our good image by being kind when we should say a definite ‘no.’ "Compassion 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 Pema reminded me of an incident in my workplace when I was 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 nerve, I approached him and requested that he return to his work station. His response was: "And you're a psychologist." I wasn't a psychologist, but the inference was clear: I was supposed to ignore his behavior. Be nice. Be compassionate. Look the other way.

This compassion thing can be challenging when employees want it and leaders struggle to hold them responsible without being perceived as heavy-handed bullies (or compassionate idiots).

Is it possible to avoid the trap of becoming a compassionate idiot?

I offer three suggestions:

  • Understand Dispassionate Compassion. To be dispassionate means not being influenced by strong emotion, which means being able to be rational and impartial. I learned from coaching hundreds of middle and senior managers that many, many 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 their own.

  • Avoid Being Overly NICE. 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, retired military leader Colin Powell said that, “Being responsible sometimes means p*ssing people off." The most compassionate leaders know that it's not about being popular.

  • Embrace NCRW. Knowing that everyone, everyone, everyone is Naturally Creative, Resourceful, and Whole is 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 tends to build a bridge for heartfelt honesty.

For me, when dealing with performance issues, it became easy to say things like: “I don’t want to go down a path with you that may lead to disciplinary action. However, if things don’t change, I will do what needs to be done. Let's work on having a positive outcome. What can I do to help you?”

What About You?

Have you learned to balance accountability with compassion? What works for you? What tips can you share?

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