THE BLOG
03/20/2013 06:12 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

Compassion and Business?

By Scott Kriens

When first asked to speak at the upcoming Compassion and Business conference, I was struck by how seldom we hear those two words in the same sentence. Why? I think it's because we think of compassion too abstractly, and we're probably equally guilty in thinking of "business" too clinically.

Even if we can't count it, we all know compassion is real. We've all felt its power and influence. We also know there is more to achieving business success than market strategy and financial objectives. Where do these paths cross? People.

In my business experiences I have been tasked, as have we all in one setting or another, with getting the most productivity, creativity, and excellence with a team of people. Most often in the business world, success is measured by external shareholders with target metrics like profit margins, market share, and revenue generation.

Within such a frame, it would seem like the hard-driving, competitive, results-oriented business environment has little room for such concepts as compassion. While this seems like an easy conclusion to draw, many leaders believe that it narrows our understanding and leads to less-effective business leadership.

Peter Drucker used to say that all employees are volunteers, that business success was becoming more about the ability to attract top talent and then motivating that talent to do their absolute best work. Nowhere is that more true in my experience than in Silicon Valley, where the next possibly more attractive job offer and more exciting project is only a few miles down the road on any given day.

So what really holds people and teams together? Relationships.

The quality and depth of our relationships, and the trust that is cultivated between people, is the glue in life, private or public, business or personal. We all have been held by a powerful relationship in our lives at one time or another, and those of us fortunate enough to experience that relational power in a business setting have usually seen the results that were delivered to be beyond what would have otherwise been possible.

This focus on relationships became an explicit goal at Juniper Networks, where I spent 12 years as CEO and saw the company grow from a handful of enthusiastic engineers when we started to a company of 7,500 people and $4 billion in sales worldwide. The growth we enjoyed was possible for primarily two reasons. One was the timing and good fortune to be delivering the right products, conceived at a time when the market needed them. Everyone benefits from being in the right place at the right time.

The other element that was central to our growth was the ability for teams of people across the company to work together to achieve results that individually would not have been possible.

At first, we just dug in to the work, tried our best to understand the problem that needed to be solved and went after solving it. Everybody cared, deeply, about the success of Juniper. That caring built powerful commitments between people to support each other. This worked for several years informally but, as we grew, it became necessary to be more thoughtful and systematic about this so that we could instill a scalable and repeatable formula across the company and the many teams of people that Juniper was building around the world.

We found that there were three elements most important to remember and to practice: build high-quality relationships that enable high-quality agreements and lead to high quality results.

Most often, people start with the agreements needed and then launch the project in pursuit of results. However, we found it more important to start with the relationships between people. Did we understand each other? Had we really explored what was important to the people on the team? What constituted their success, individually, not just the success of the project or the company? Were we candid in sharing what we were afraid of, and where the difficulties we could foresee would be found?

Ultimately, had we built the trust between one another to be open and to rely on each other to support the individual and team needs that would inevitably arise as we worked closely together?

If so, then we had built high-quality relationships and the foundation of trust with which to make agreements that didn't need to be as complex and that could focus us clearly on our goals. That made the degree of difficulty lower and the realization of high-quality results possible, and that was an empowering cycle. The more success we had, the more trust we built, the easier it became to repeat our success, and even to exceed our own expectations the next time around.

When we build trusting relationships, we also begin to offer the benefit of the doubt during tense situations, and we begin to listen for understanding instead of disagreements. We came to understand the power of dialogue. Not debate, where we argued for our own point of view, or even discussion, where we waited for our turn to explain ourselves, but instead to enter into relationships intent on listening and understanding the other person's point of view. Actively listening without an agenda, suspending our judgment, investigating assumptions, and reflecting on what had been said by others.

Ultimately, though we didn't describe it this way at the time, what we built with our trust was compassion. For each other, for Juniper, for how we were seen by our friends and our customers. When we became intentional about caring, something that naturally emerged in the early days, we transferred our culture to new people and grew our ranks in over 100 countries.

This is not to say that this was perfectly understood by everyone at Juniper. It was not. But what we found was that the more we talked about it and became intentional, the more we saw positive impact and the more trust we built, one experience, one connection, one relationship at a time.

Advances in neuroscience have produced numerous studies suggesting individuals and groups who have a low trust, low respect relationship with their company and with each other perform much more poorly in solving problems. The working memory and pre-fontal cortex structures of our brain shut down to a remarkable degree when we feel stressed, at risk, or demoralized. We all know this is true from our own personal experience at work, but science is now compelling about just how significant this shutdown really is.

Said positively, when we can access our executive brain function, we see more clearly, we connect and simplify complexity in a better way, and we chart a course more effectively. Elite athletes will say that "the game slows down," that they seem to have more time than the others on the field and as a result make better decisions. Author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book Flow, describes this condition in great detail.

In today's fast-paced, change-laden world, in teams of all types and for all purposes, we need our brains and our teams to be at their best to compete effectively. We cannot afford to lose those people talented enough to look elsewhere for a more human-centered work culture. It's a truism in business that people don't really leave companies, they leave bosses. People decide to stay or go because of the teammates who surround them on a day-to-day basis. The quality of those teams and those teammates is determined by the trust, the connection, the compassion they extend to each other.

I believe that the best way to develop a high-performance business for the long haul is to develop a caring, high-trust, relationship-centric culture. These cultures nurture a sense of purpose, of connection, and of compassion, where the business results we can measure are not the first priority of the enterprise, but rather a consequence enjoyed when leaders and teams practice the primary goal of building a caring community every day.

Click here for more information about the upcoming Compassion and Business Conference

For more by Project Compassion Stanford, click here.

For more on emotional wellness, click here.

Subscribe to the Lifestyle email.
Life hacks and juicy stories to get you through the week.