Habits of an agile servant leader – Habit 2: Empathy & Compassion


Last time, we’ve gone through the first habit of Awareness and Mindfulness. This time, we will shed light on the second habit – Empathy and Compassion, among agile servant-leaders. Because of their aspiration to serve from the heart, a servant-leader endeavors to act with Empathy and Compassion. In fact, “the servant leader strives to understand and empathize with others”, and “does not reject them as people” (Larry C. Spears 2010).



agile servant leader

Mahatma Gandhi is an outstanding example of servant leadership. (Reproduced from All Strategy n.d.)

Empathy – Definition and Elements

According to the University of California Berkeley (UC Berkeley), Empathy refers to “our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person”. In their talk at a 2014 Agile Alliance conference on how Empathy and Compassion transforms Scrum Masters’ effectiveness, Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Coaches Michael Sahota and Olaf Lewitz cover 4 main elements of Empathy.

  • See their world
  • Appreciate them as human beings
  • Understand feelings
  • Communicate understanding


Reproduced from Michael Sahota and Olaf Lewitz (Agile Alliance’s Agile2014)

From our perspective, these four elements can be explained as follows:

First element: See their world

Standing in someone’s shoes, seeing that person’s history and background, and observing how their personality coming into play with all these factors decide the way they are in the present.


Reproduced from Michael Sahota and Olaf Lewitz (Agile Alliance’s Agile2014)

Second element: Appreciate them as human beings without judgment

Workforce nowadays is demanded to work consistently hard and productive like machines in order to drive forth the wealth-valued economy. As an agile servant leader, Scrum Masters should learn to pause and look deeply at their teams – each member with their own strengths and weaknesses, as a human being.

authentic connection

Reproduced from Michael Sahota and Olaf Lewitz (Agile Alliance’s Agile2014)

Third element: Understand feelings

Understanding someone’s feelings asks for one understanding of the other person’s verbal and non-verbal “messages”, as well as one sharing similar background and experience. As mentioned earlier, non-verbal communication makes up 93% of communication effectiveness, leaving 7% left for people to actually rely on the effectiveness of verbal communication. This is commonly where most misunderstandings in team interactions are hidden. However, Awareness and Mindfulness of oneself and others (Habit 1), supported by another habit called Deep Listening and Observing (Habit 3), will allow Scrum Masters to have a deeper understanding and improve verbal and non-verbal communication with others.

see and understand yourself and others

Reproduced from Michael Sahota and Olaf Lewitz (Agile Alliance’s Agile2014)

Fourth element: Communicate understanding

After understanding someone’s feelings, Empathy naturally arises and one can speak from the heart. Yet, people oftentimes find it difficult to do so because it’s counter-intuitive and implying vulnerability and weakness. In other words, it’s a specially forbidden behavior in today’s over-celebrated face-values of being strong and independent. Nevertheless, when Scrum Masters learn to communicate their understanding about others with an open heart and an open mind, Scrum teams will observe more openness about “the challenges with performing the work” and a shared, mutual understanding among team members.

In the Scrum Guides 2017 by Jeff Sutherland & Ken Schwaber, we all know that openness is an important Scrum value. In a nutshell, openness:

  • creates harmony and happiness among team members
  • builds a solid foundation of trust
  • engenders win-win relationships
  • builds a positive team spirit that sticks through the twists and turns of a Scrum work process

Self-empathy for Scrum Masters

agile servant leader empathy and compassion

In Robert K. Greenleaf’s term, it is as important for Scrum Masters to cultivate Empathy for themselves as to others. In fact, “you can only give what you have”. Having self-empathy allows Scrum Masters to learn much more about themselves and behave authentically and empathically in front of their Scrum Teams. These acts of self-awareness, self-empathy and self-compassion allow Scrum Masters to truly grow as a person and as an agile servant-leader.

Reproduced from Michael Sahota and Olaf Lewitz (Agile Alliance’s Agile2014)

Empathic Distress, Empathic Concern, and Compassion

When one has Empathy for someone else, the empathic response can go either way: Empathic Distress or Empathic Concern.

  • Empathic Distress is when one gets overwhelmed by others’ suffering, causing them poor health, burnout, and withdrawal.

When Empathic Distress kicks in, Scrum Masters are advised to tend to themselves first. For instance, learning to regularly pause, reflect, and name difficult feelings verbally and in a non-violent way with trusted friends is one of the several scientifically-proven methods that effectively relieves distressful feelings (learn more about other methods from the 2017 UC Berkeley study).

  • Empathic Concern leads someone to Compassion ⁠— the desire to help with concrete actions motivated by the intention to relieve suffering and lighten sorrows (Thich Nhat Hanh 2002).

What makes Empathic Concern different from Empathic Distress is: although Empathy means understanding someone’s feelings, one is aware that they’re separate from the suffering person. Despite of their understanding of how it feels, they’re not overwhelmed by their peer’s suffering as experienced by empathically-distressed fellows. Therefore, it makes it easier for them to engage in compassionate acts able to relieve the other’s suffering.

Compassion in practice

no ego leadership in another view

A Scrum Breakfast Vietnam event hosted by agile software development company Axon Active on egoless leadership from a different perspective.

A study by neuroscientists from state-of-the-art Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin shows that when Compassion is practiced on regular basis, it enables human brain to produce off-the-chart gamma waves in the prefrontal cortex area, which represents “a massive capacity for happiness”. What’s more, increases in happiness metric always predict increases in Scrum Team productivity (Jeff Sutherland 2014).

However, it’s noteworthy that Compassion doesn’t mean abandoning one’s own needs, being everything to everyone, and being a “doormat”. The truth is, Compassion’s amazing psychological effects can only be found in those who own strong self-confidence AND sense of selflessness at the same time. Lacking one or another leads an agile servant leader to one of the 3 compassionate traps shown below. It is clear that only with strong confidence and selflessness ⁠— towards oneself and others, can agile servant-leaders truly serve.
compassionate traps

great scrum master

scrum dinner special

Agile coaching workshops at Scrum Breakfast Vietnam like Great Scrum Master Way and Agile Leadership provided by Axon Active is a golden opportunity for agile servant leaders to learn the ways of driving their performance and effectiveness.

Benefits of Empathy and Compassion to agile servant-leaders

As two important elements of RE-TRAINED Scrum Masters, Empathy and Compassion transforms Scrum Masters’ effectiveness as coaches, facilitators, and agile servant-leaders on a professional levelEmpathy and Compassion also brings transformation on personal and interpersonal levels to their relationships and interactions with those they are serving.

“One of the great strengths of servant leadership is the potential for healing one’s self and one’s relationship to others” (Larry C. Spears 2010). It makes both the work and the workplace much more meaningful and motivational (Neal E. Chalofsky 2010).
how could you be more empathic

Ways for agile servant-leaders to cultivate more Empathy and Compassion at work

Use guided practices of compassion

Practice 1

According to Rasmus Hougaard & Jacqueline Carter in a 2018 interview with Harvard Business Review, agile servant leaders can be more compassionate, insightful, and kind with 2-2-2 strategy — which we’ve already presented in the Habits of an agile servant leader – Habit 1: Awareness and Mindfulness.

Practice 2

Use another guided practice of compassion by Rasmus Hougaard & Jacqueline Carter to cultivate Empathy and Compassion:

  • If you’re sitting, just stay seated.
  • Close your eyes for a moment, and just tune into your breath.
  • Just sit and feel the experience of your breath now. Let go of any thoughts of what you have just listened to. Just sit and come to peace.
  • Now, ask yourself, who is the next person that you’ll be meeting. Remember who this person is and specifically, does this person has any challenges or anything where you can support this person.
  • Whatever that is, make a commitment for yourself that you will try to give this person something that will make him or her day better, that he or she will be slightly happier by means of your interaction with him or her.

Practice 3

Lyssa Adkins, author of 2010 book Coaching Agile Teams, also gives interesting guided practice to cultivate more Empathy and Compassion for Scrum Masters when it comes to coaching their team members:
coaching agile teams

  • As you prepare to coach someone, check yourself. If you view the coachee as a problem to solve, you are in a barren place for coaching. All the coaching skills and agile experience in the world will fall flat if you coach from this perspective.
  • This becomes even more challenging when you dislike someone or maybe just dislike the impact of their actions on themselves or others. Even in this situation, your job as agile coach calls you to create a positive regard for them. Do this by changing your view about them. Regard the person as a human being with hopes, dreams, and desires (like your own) so that you can approach them with love and compassion, two essential ingredients for good coaching.
  • Following this lead, feel genuine compassion for where this person is in life and work. Feel genuine compassion for the impact they have on themselves and others through their actions. Then reaffirm your belief that no one would knowingly negatively impact themselves, and believe, again, that everyone is doing the best they can.
  • Now with love and compassion on board, you are ready to be uncompromising in your knowledge of what it means to be a good agile team member and to help the person move toward that vision, as they are willing and able.

Practice 4

Apply the loving-kindness practice by Claire Rumore & Moses Ma in Mindfulness and The Agile Process (2016)

  • Proceed from the easiest person for you to love to the more difficult.
  • For instance, start by focusing love on the aspiration for your own well-being ⁠—> gradually expand to those working on the entire floor ⁠—> in the entire building ⁠—> in the entire city, etc.
  • Also, try expanding your feelings of compassion to those who are harder be kind to… [the people who make you feel difficult]

You will find that [the daily practice] will unfold and expand in your life and in the lives of your co-workers and beyond. They will break down barriers, they will enhance communication and openness, and help your team transcend fear to move into the space of pure, unconstrained business creativity and agility.

Bonus point to broaden your horizon

Watch The power of vulnerability TED Talk by Brene Brown. It gives you much more insights about Empathy based on her decades of research. Brene Brown studies human connection — our ability to empathize, belong, love.

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