Two decades before Daniel Goleman first wrote about emotional intelligence in the pages of HBR, he met his holiness the 14th Dalai Lama at Amherst College, who mentioned to the young science journalist for the New York Times that he was interested in meeting with scientists. Thus began a long, rich friendship as Goleman became involved over the years in arranging a series of what he calls “extended dialogues” between the Buddhist spiritual leader and researchers in fields ranging from ecology to neuroscience. Over the next 30 years, as Goleman has pursued his own work as a psychologist and business thinker, he has come to see the Dalai Lama as a highly uncommon leader. And so he was understandably delighted when, on the occasion of his friend’s 80th birthday, he was asked to write a book describing the Dalai Lama’s compassionate approach to addressing the world’s most intractable problems. Force for Good, which draws both on Goleman’s background in cognitive science and his long relationship with the Dalai Lama, is both an exploration of the science and the power of compassion and a call to action. Curious about the book and about how the Dalai Lama’s views on compassion informed Goleman’s thinking on emotional intelligence, I caught up with Goleman over the phone. What follows are edited excerpts from our conversation.
HBR. Let’s start with some definitions here. What is compassion, as you are describing it? It sounds a lot like empathy, one of the major components of emotional intelligence. Is there a difference?
Goleman: Yes, an important difference. As I’ve written about in HBR, three kinds of empathy are important to emotional intelligence: cognitive empathy – the ability to understand another person’s point of view; emotional empathy – the ability to feel what someone else feels; and empathic concern – the ability to sense what another person needs from you. Cultivating all three kinds of empathy, which originate in different parts of the brain, is important for building social relationships.
But compassion takes empathy a step further. When you feel compassion, you feel distress when you witness someone else in distress — and because of that you want to help that person.
Why draw this distinction?
Simply put, compassion makes the difference between understanding and caring. It’s the kind of love that a parent has for a child. Cultivating it more broadly means extending that to the other people in our lives and to people we encounter.
I think that in the workplace, that attitude has a hugely positive effect, whether it’s in how we relate to our peers or how we are as a leader, or how we relate to clients and customers. A positive disposition toward another person creates the kind of resonance that builds trust and loyalty and makes interactions harmonious. And the opposite of that — when you do nothing to show that you care — creates distrust, disharmony, and causes huge dysfunction at home and in business.
When you put it that way, it’s hard to disagree that if you treat people well things would go better than if don’t or that if you cared about them they would care a lot more about you. So why do you think that just doesn’t happen naturally? Is this a cultural thing? Or a misplaced confusion about when competition is appropriate?
I think too often there’s a muddle in people’s thinking that if I’m nice to another person or if I have their interests at heart it means that I don’t have my own interests at heart. The pathology of that is, “Well, I’ll just care about me and not the other person.” And that, of course, is the kind of attitude that leads to lots of problems in the business realm and in the personal realm. But compassion also includes yourself. If we see that if we protect ourselves and make sure we’re okay — and also be sure the other person is okay — that creates a different framework for working with other people and for cooperating with other people.
Could you give me an example of how that might work in the business world?
There’s research that was done on star salespeople and on client managers, which found that the lowest level of performance was a kind of “I’m going to get the best deal I can now, and I don’t care how this affects the other person” attitude, which means that you might make the sale but that you lose the relationship. But at the top end, the stars were typified by the attitude, “I am working for the client as well as myself. I’m going to be completely straight with them, and I’m going to act as their advisor. If the deal I have is not the best deal they can get I’m going to let them know because that’s going to strengthen the relationship, even though I might lose this specific sale.” And I think that captures the difference between the “me first” and the “let’s all do well” attitude that I’m getting at.
How would we cultivate compassion if we’re just not feeling it?
Neuroscientists have been studying compassion recently, and places like Stanford, Yale, Berkeley, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, among others, have been testing methodologies for increasing compassion. Right now there’s a kind of a trend toward incorporating mindfulness into the workplace, and it turns out there’s data from the Max Planck Institute showing that enhancing mindfulness does have an effect in brain function, but that the circuitry that’s affected is not the circuitry for concern or compassion. In other words, there’s no automatic boost in compassion from mindfulness alone.
Still, in the traditional methods of meditation that mindfulness in the workplace is based on, the two were always linked, so that you would practice mindfulness in a context in which you also cultivate compassion.
Stanford, for example, has developed a program incorporating secularized versions of methods that have originally come from religious practices. It involves a meditation in which you cultivate an attitude of loving kindness, or of concern, or of compassion, toward people. First you do this for yourself. Then for people you love. And then for people you just know. And finally for everyone. And this has the effect of priming the circuitry responsible for compassion within the brain, so that you are more inclined to act that way when the opportunity arises.
You’ve remarked that the Dalai Lama is a very distinctive kind of leader. Is there something we could learn from his unique form of leadership, as leaders ourselves?
Observing him over the years, and then doing this book for which I interviewed him extensively, and of course being immersed in leadership literature myself, three things struck me.
One is that he’s not beholden to any organization at all. He’s not in any business. He’s not a party leader. He’s a citizen of the world at large. And this has freed him to tackle the largest problems we face. I think that to the extent that a leader is beholden to a particular organization or outcome, that creates a kind of myopia of what’s possible and what matters; focus narrows to the next quarter’s results or the next election. He’s way beyond that. He thinks in terms of generations and of what’s best for humanity as a whole. Because his vision is so expansive, he can take on the largest challenges, rather than small, narrowly defined ones.
So I think there’s a lesson here for all of us, which is to ask ourselves if there is something that limits our vision — that limits our capacity to care? And is there a way to enlarge it?
The second is that he gathers information from everywhere. He meets with heads of state and he meets with beggars. He’s getting information from people at every level of society worldwide. This casting a large net lets him understand situations in a very deep way, and he can analyze them in many different ways and come up with solutions that aren’t confined by anyone. And I think that’s another lesson everyday leaders can take from him.
And the third would be the scope of his compassion, which I think is an ideal that we could strive for: it’s pretty unlimited— he seems to care about everybody, and the world at large.
You’ve called the book a call to action. What do you hope people will do after reading it?
The book is a call to action, but it is a very reasoned call to action. The Dalai Lama is a great believer in a deep analysis of problems and letting solutions come from that analysis. And then he is also passionate about people acting now. Not feeling passive, not feeling helpless, not feeling, “What’s the point; I won’t live to see the benefit” but rather to start changes now even if the change won’t come to fruition until future generations.
And so my hope, as is his, is to help people understand what they can do in the face of problems that are so vast— creating a more inclusive economy; making work meaningful; doing good and not just well; cleaning up injustice and unfairness, corruption and collusion in society, whether in business, politics or religion; helping the environment heal; the hope that one day conflict will be settled by dialogue rather than war.
These are very big issues. But everyone can do something to move things in the right direction, even if it’s just reaching across the divide and becoming friendly with someone who belongs to some other group. That actually has a very powerful end result: that is, if you have two groups somewhere in the world that have deep enmity toward each other, and yet a few people in each group like each other it turns out that’s because they’ve had personal contact — they have a friend in that other group. So something as simple as reaching out across a divide is actually a profound thing.
In each of these areas, with whatever leverage we have, the point is to use it, not just to stand back.
This article was originally written by Andrea Ovans, and full credit goes to the Harvard Business Review, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.
The biggest challenge to moving forward on anything is the transition to working on it. It almost always represents a shift from doing something comfortable to doing something uncomfortable.