Why Compassion Is Key to Your Career Success

Business professionals at a networking event
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What predicts career success? Well, it depends on how you define success.

In the 1970s through the '90s the Type A, driven, aggressive personality was all the rage because these people had what it took to climb the corporate ladder and beat the odds. Then health scientists discovered that Type A people were more prone to heart disease, mostly because of their high levels of expressed hostility towards others. A large study of over 20,000 employees across Europe showed that having a bad boss increases an employee’s risk of heart disease. It seems as though being heartless will damage your heart.

The Downside of Grit

Previous generations would have us believe that if you work hard enough, anyone can accomplish anything. More recently, Angela Duckworth has popularized the research showing that grit, that magical mix of perseverance and passion, is the key to career success as defined by income, job satisfaction, and promotions. Well, these days are gone as millennials care less about titles and paychecks and more about balance and social responsibility.

Grit may predict career success but also has some significant downsides. If you define success as “getting ahead in the business world,” then promotions and top positions certainly favor the gritty. Daniel Goleman, a best-selling author who has popularized the concept of emotional intelligence, cites compelling research showing that gritty people also tend to be fairly self-focused, hard to get along with, and so driven that they drive others away. They aren’t the most well-balanced team players and leaders.

In fact, most employers look for other qualities besides grit when hiring. Grit is important, and by no means the only predictor of success. Taken in isolation, grit may be a liability in today’s workplace climate.

Success Is All About Connection and Relationship Skills

So what is the secret to career success today? The research points to one clear winner: connection and relationship skills.

Seth Godin, leadership and business guru, says we are now living in a connection economy, where the ability to connect with others and to connect people with each other is paramount.

The European Journal of Personality published a comprehensive study of career success, finding that the ability to make and nurture a broad network of connections predicts career success throughout life.

What hasn’t changed over the last 100 years is that who you know still matters more than what you know. Diverse relationships open up possibilities and opportunities. People help people they know and trust.

In 2015, Forbes reported on findings from multiple peer-reviewed studies, showing that simply being in an open network instead of a closed one is the best predictor of career success. Staying open to new ideas, learning new things, and meeting new people is critical in a connection economy.

Our experience working with leaders around communication and conflict skills reveals a similar pattern. We assess and coach three core leadership competencies:

  • Openness
  • Resourcefulness
  • Persistence

Each one is necessary but not sufficient for great leadership. Together, these constitute what we believe is a pure definition of compassion, to struggle with others instead of against them.

Research shows that leaders who have difficulty leading effectively consistently score lowest in Openness. And their peers and followers agree that this is a liability. In a connection economy, we simply can't afford to waste energy struggling against others in adversarial ways to get ahead.

3 Tips to Help You Get Ahead With Compassion

So how do you develop compassion, get connected, and nurture an open network? Here are a few tips that will help you achieve success in a connection economy.

  1. Diversify your exposure: Follow and interact with people whose views are different from yours. One study of top leaders’ social media habits showed a significantly more diverse network of connections than their less successful peers. Avoid pushing your own beliefs, instead, learning all you can about why others think, feel, and act the way they do.
  2. Be a connector:  Seek out ways to bring people together. Look for people you know who could add value around needs you know. Then make the introductions.
  1. Develop your openness: Cultivate your empathy by seeking first to understand another’s point of view before pushing your own. Affirm and validate people by noticing what they are doing well instead of what they are doing wrong. Disclose your own feelings, motives, and agendas so people know you aren’t hiding anything and they are getting your authentic self.

The Bottom Line

Old measures of career success were mostly drama-based, suggesting that struggling against others to get ahead was OK. Not anymore. In a connection economy, struggling with others to build and nurture connections is the secret sauce for success. Compassion is the key.

Dr. Nate Regier is the co-founding owner and chief executive officer of Next Element, a global advisory firm specializing in building cultures of compassionate accountability. A former practicing psychologist, Regier is an expert in social-emotional intelligence and leadership, positive conflict, mind-body-spirit health, neuropsychology, group dynamics, interpersonal and leadership communication, executive assessment and coaching, organizational development, team building and change management. An international adviser, he is a certified Leading Out of Drama master trainer, Process Communication Model® certifying master trainer and co-developer of Next Element’s Leading Out of Drama® training and coaching. Nate has published two books: Beyond Drama and his latest work, Conflict Without Casualties.