Struggle Leads to Success: Compassion Is Much More Than Alleviating Suffering

Posted on August 31, 2022 by Nate Regier / 1 comments
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How do you help when you can’t fix the problem?

How do you prevent burnout when faced with pain and suffering every day?

Have you ever helped in a way that wasn’t helpful?

Beware of falling for the myth that compassion means your job is to alleviate suffering. While noble, this mindset can undermine a leader’s efforts, create dependence, and send them down a path to burnout. Yes, struggle leads to success, but when you struggle alone, nobody wins. When leaders remember that compassion means to struggle with others, this new mindset can transform their leadership impact.

Here’s the prevailing definition of compassion:

Compassion is that feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and are motivated to relieve that suffering. 

Suffering is everywhere. Poverty, injustice, natural disasters, war, and the list goes on. When people are hurting, it’s a natural human instinct to help alleviate that suffering. That’s a good thing. Think of all the positive changes that have happened in our world because people stepped up and took action to alleviate suffering. Struggle leads to success when working together to alleviate suffering.

The problem is, leading with the goal of alleviating suffering is one-sided and can drive leadership behaviors that create dependence and lead to burnout. 

One-Sided Compassion and Dependence

The Latin root of the word compassion means “to suffer with.” Stated another way, compassion is about suffering alongside another person. It doesn’t necessarily require you to take away the suffering.

For many leaders, the desire to alleviate suffering often motivates short-term solutions with unintended consequences.

In most corporate workplaces, leaders are set up to become rescuers via the dynamic called The Peter Principle. Named after Lawrence J Peter, a management researcher in the 1960s, The Peter Principle describes a phenomena where employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, since current job skills don’t necessarily translate into new job skills. They are fixing heros, alleviating suffering everywhere they go. In this scenario, one person’s struggle leads to success, but without help, this quickly becomes a self destructive road.

Very often, the person who is best at alleviating suffering is the one who gets promoted. We promote people who are great problem-solvers and take initiative with their solutions. Without awareness or training in how to actually lead people they do more of what they are good at:

  • make a living off of fixing everybody else’s problems.
  • have an attitude of superiority, as if they know what’s best for others.
  • thrive on being the one with all the answers.
  • adopt the belief that “I’m worthwhile, you’re worthwhile only if you let me fix your problems.”

This type of leadership creates dependence and resentment, squashes innovation and lowers engagement. Employees don’t want leaders who take away the suffering. They want leaders who come alongside them to understand the struggle, and support dignity, capability and purpose. When employees feel seen and validated by their leaders, they’re more likely to share the load of struggle, which leads to a more positive work environment for everyone.

One-Sided Compassion and Burnout

When leaders expect themselves to have all the answers, solve all the problems, and alleviate all the suffering, it can be overwhelming. At least once a week a leader discloses to me the expectations they put on themselves and how stressing it is. They believe they are supposed to have it all figured out, come to the rescue with solutions that make everything better. They believe that not doing so would be perceived as weak and a sign of incompetence. This is particularly true for newly promoted leaders, and leadership in turbulent times. So they take on the burden of suffering, often taking over responsibility from those who are most closely impacted and should be involved in the solution. They understand that struggle leads to success, but lack the vulnerability to reach out and ask others to take responsibility for their part.

As my friend and leadership guru, Ken Blanchard often says, “Those who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” As a leader, if you position yourself to plan (and fight) all the battles, you will also spend a lot of time in power struggles with those who could be allies instead of adversaries.

If compassionate leadership means to alleviate suffering, leaders can’t survive for long. It’s a recipe for burnout. There’s got to be a better way.

The best way to ensure your struggle leads to success, is to struggle with people toward better solutions rather than trying to take away the pain. This is the essence of Compassionate Accountability®.

Struggling With Instead of Taking Away the Struggle

One of the biggest complaints we hear from employees is that their leaders don’t understand or appreciate what they are dealing with. They don’t feel heard. This, even while leaders are doing everything in their power to remove barriers, increase pay, and otherwise alleviate the suffering.

Whether you are a nurse, a parent, a teacher or a manager, I’m guessing you desperately wish you could fix it all, make the pain go away, and make everyone’s lives easier. For leaders it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that they haven’t done enough to fix the problems. Especially, if you fixate on the idea that your struggle leads to success, you may never fix the problem. For employees it’s easy to make unrealistic demands based on the assumption that, “you aren’t paying me enough to put up with this.” Neither of these attitudes lead to meaningful and lasting change. 

That doesn’t mean you can’t practice compassion. If compassion means struggling with others through tough times, this gives us new hope for how we can be compassionate even when alleviating suffering isn’t in the cards. At times like this maybe the best starting point is to meet people where they are, take the time to understand their struggles, show empathy, and just be with them through it. The immediate goal may not be for struggle to lead to success, it may be, just to get a better understanding of each other’s struggle.

How To Show Compassion Even When You Can’t Alleviate Suffering

  • Lend a listening ear. The transformational power isn’t in the dialogue, but in the listening. When people feel seen and heard, they are instantly more resilient and hopeful.
  • Empathize if you can relate. The worst thing is going through tough times alone.
  • Connect to purpose, including the mission of the organization. Suffering often has to do with how we interpret what’s happening. When we can connect our efforts to something bigger than ourselves, it gives meaning, which helps us endure.
  • Permissions can change everything. Here’s a list of permissions anyone can give to themselves and others to stay resilient during crisis. Which one do you need today? Which one might a struggling employee need today?
  • Be an ally. Be an advocate.

If you jump too quickly to solutions, you miss the connection, learning, and transformation that happens in the struggle. Truly being with someone in their struggle can change everything. Remember, when done as a team, struggle leads to success.

Copyright Next Element Consulting, LLC 2022

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Photo of Françoise
Posted on September 2, 2022

Thank you for this article Nate.
There is a lot in it. And you are bringing up the question of what suffering can even be resolved “for” others without their contribution.

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