How Can I Make My Boss a Compassionate Leader?

So, your boss is overly demanding, and unrealistic in their expectations?

The first thing to remember is that your boss has job pressures, just like you. Your boss wants to succeed at their job, just like you. And your boss may have other stressors in their life that you don’t know about – just like all of us. When you work for a challenging boss, especially one who does not treat those who work for them in a humane manner, it can be particularly hard to view that harsh boss as a fellow human. Starting from a place of shared humanity is the single most important step you can take to help your boss grow into a more compassionate leader.

If you want to strengthen your skills in recognizing our shared humanity with others (including your boss), try the “Just Like Me” practice from our Compassionate Leadership Practice Series.

Once you have gotten yourself to a place where you can view your boss with compassion, you can approach them to share the challenges you are feeling with their leadership. The best way to do this is to find a quiet time removed from conversations about stressful details at work. Figure out when that time might be, and ask your boss if the two of you could schedule some time then to go over work.

Begin your conversation with an affirmation of your shared values and goals, for example timely work product, or high quality reporting for use by others. Affirm the goals that you have heard your boss express to you previously.

Share with your boss any behavior of theirs that have been upsetting to you. As with any feedback, it is important to be specific about the behavior, e.g., “When you called me at 4:45 on Friday afternoon to give me a new work assignment that was needed ASAP…” and to stay focused on the behavior, not the intention or the character of your boss. Do not say, for example, “Because you are so disorganized, you never seem to be able to give me my work assignments earlier in the week.”

Express the impact the behavior had on you in terms of your thoughts, feelings, or emotions, e.g., “I was completely disappointed that I had to cancel my weekend plans that I had been anticipating since making them two weeks ago.”

Finally, offer an alternative path that could lead to a better outcome for you while still allowing your boss’s objectives to be met. “I know you have a manager’s meeting every Thursday afternoon that often leads to new work for me. Could we meet first thing Friday to plan out how I can get you what you need in a timely manner?”

At this point in the conversation, you want to be focused on future outcomes, and shared ideas of what those outcomes should be (your boss’s assignments getting done without you losing your weekend) and how you will reach them. When you have done the (often difficult) work to humanize your boss as mentioned in the early part of the article, this final, crucial step becomes easier. It is very natural to want to punish someone who has treated you poorly. Revenge is rarely productive, and is even less likely to be productive when aimed at your boss. Recognizing your boss’s humanity allows you to push the desire for revenge just far enough out of reach to find a mutually satisfying solution.

If you are tempted at this point to ask, “Why am I having to teach my boss this? I’m not the one in charge,” simply realize that you are displaying the traits of a strong leader. Remember that leadership does not only come from above. Your compassionate leadership skills will be recognized, and the ability to lead like this will grow in importance when you are, in fact, in charge, which will probably be soon.