How CIOs Can Become Both Tough And Compassionate

Even when you are being compassionate, you still need to stick up for what's right
Even when you are being compassionate, you still need to stick up for what’s right Image Credit: Tom Rolfe

Being the person with the CIO job means that we have to wear a lot of different hats. We are in charge of an IT department and this means that it is our responsibility to make sure that the things that need to get done get done – and get done correctly. However, we also have to understand that we have people working for us and those people have feelings. What this means for us is that we need to find ways to be tough to get things done, while at the same time being compassionate so that we don’t drive our people away. Sounds like a tough job!

Having It Both Ways

Imagine A CIO who is extremely compassionate and you’ll probably picture a saint, a monk, or a wellness influencer meditating on a beach somewhere. What do all these types of CIOs have in common? They are all admirable (more or less), but they’re also removed from the hustle, bustle, and sharp elbows of day-to-day life. We view compassion as being incompatible with toughness. That may be a mistake. It turns out that it’s entirely possible to be both a scrappy fighter who stands up for yourself and others in a rough-and-tumble world and a truly compassionate CIO.

We need to understand that true compassion isn’t all agreement and good vibes. In the deeper traditions of compassion, like a lot of the Buddhist traditions, they have an idea of tough compassion. They view it as being to step in and, in a good way, guide the person to a different form of behavior. The challenge that CIOs are facing is that our culture presents a clear picture of what compassion is supposed to look like. It turn out that giving someone else an honest piece of our minds isn’t it. Perhaps it might be time to paint a new picture of compassion. An uncompromising approach to compassion often trumps a pastel-hued one. This is the kind of approach you can try when other attempts to engage with difficult people fail.

Do You Need Tough Compassion

For CIOs, tough compassion is gaining traction because the rose-quartz version is proving so unequal to the present moment. The reason that the traditional view of compassion has started to go away is because it has been defined by human failures to meet challenges posed by things like the pandemic, widespread inequality, and climate change. The person with the CIO job needs to understand that of course there will always be a “soft” side to compassion. We know that it’s always crucial to learn how to be a calm sounding board or to comfort grieving loved ones. However, warm and fuzzy compassion has little power to sway relatives who spout conspiracies, stop close friends from radicalizing online, or embarrass leaders who tout equality while doing the opposite.

CIOs need to understand that in the Buddhist contemplative tradition, the goal of true compassion is to find ways to promote the least suffering for everyone. In this broader framing, if we nod along with someone’s bigotry, bullying, or falsehoods for the sake of preserving that relationship then we are showing the opposite of compassion. Actions like this interfere with peace-building on a societal level, even though it might seem on the surface like a nonviolent act. In committing to tough compassion, a person in the CIO position buys into a certain type of risk-benefit calculus. They accept the discomfort involved in hopes that the other person will consider a different way of engaging, one that will carry over into their interactions with others, and perhaps even their interactions with those close to them.

CIOs realize that it’s one thing to endorse the tough-compassion approach and quite another to try to make it work. What does it actually look like for us to show uncompromising compassion in the moment? And when someone in your life does something that’s actively harmful, what’s the best way for you to guide them without outright coercing or controlling? Tough compassion involves conveying that you value someone as a person while disagreeing openly with what they are doing. A powerful way to for CIOs to convey this emotional impact is through storytelling. If you want to hold someone accountable for homophobic remarks, for instance, you can describe the effects of that kind of behavior on people close to you: “My friend is gay, and he hears insults like that all the time. He’s also been attacked in public. Because of that, it’s hard for him to trust that people are going to respect him as a human being.” With storytelling, you can take a tough stance and show the other person the results of their actions without launching a direct attack.

What All Of This Means For You

There are many challenges associated with being a CIO. One of them is trying to balance how you interact with others. On one hand you need to make sure that things get done. On the other hand, you need to connect with the people that you have working for you. This means that a CIO has to find a way to be both tough and compassionate at the same time. Just exactly how are we supposed to go about doing this?

All too often CIOs view being compassionate as being incompatible with being tough. It turns out that if we think this, we are probably wrong. There is another way of looking at compassion. In Buddhist traditions compassion is all about getting someone to do the right thing. Although there will always be a soft side to compassion, CIOs are starting to realize that they need to embrace the tough side of compassion. When you are being compassionate, you are trying to reduce suffering for everyone. When we are being compassionate, we need to show that we care for the person while letting them know that we disagree with them.

It is possible to be both a tough and a compassionate CIO. However, this is not an easy thing to do. We need to take the time to truly come to grips with what it means to be compassionate. Once we understand that, we can show the people that we work with that we need them to do their jobs, but that we really do care for them. If we can master this, then will have solved one of the toughest challenges that a CIO faces.

– Dr. Jim Anderson Blue Elephant Consulting –
Your Source For Real World IT Department Leadership Skills™

Question For You: What’s the best way to get feedback on how compassionate you are being?

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What We’ll Be Talking About Next Time

Let’s all agree that our lives have completely changed over the past few years. What used to be a normal job where we went into the office and did our work supporting importance of information technology has become a much more diverse thing where we find ourselves working from many different locations. One of those locations is probably your home. Although actually firing up the laptop and working from home is a simple thing to do, doing it correctly so that you maximize your productivity is a bit more difficult. CIOs need to step back and take a look at just exactly what working from home means. How do we have to adjust how we do our work to get the most out of it?