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

After going through the first habit of Awareness and Mindfulness, in this article, 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).

The best way to find yourself is to lost yourself in the service of others
Reproduced from Random Acts Of Kindness 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

See - Appreciate - Understand - Communicate
Reproduced from Michael Sahota and Olaf Lewitz (Agile Alliance’s Agile2014)

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

1. 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.

Standing in someone's shoes
Reproduced from Michael Sahota and Olaf Lewitz (Agile Alliance’s Agile2014)

2. 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.

Appreciate people as human beings without judgement
Reproduced from Michael Sahota and Olaf Lewitz (Agile Alliance’s Agile2014)

3. 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.

4. 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

Learn to love yourself despite your flaws

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.

Empathic Distress and Empathic Concern (Compassion)

Empathic distress and empathic concern compassion
Reproduced from Arthur Ciaramicoli (2017)

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).

They can do so because when understanding someone else’s suffering, they’re not overwhelmed by their peer’s suffering as experienced by the empathically-distressed fellows. Therefore, it makes it easier for them to engage in compassionate acts that relieve the other’s suffering. This is the very reason that makes Empathic Concern different from Empathic Distress.

Compassion in practice

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 becoming a “doormat”.

The truth is, Compassion’s amazing psychological effects can only be found in those who own strong senses of self-confidence and selflessness at the same time. And 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.

compassion traps

Benefits of Empathy and Compassion

Benefit 1: Creating highly-effective leaders

As important elements of RE-TRAINED Scrum Masters, Empathy and Compassion transforms Scrum Masters’ effectiveness as coaches, facilitators, and agile servant-leaders on a professional level.

Chade-Meng Tan, a Google pioneer, award-winning software engineer, international bestselling author of Search Inside Yourself book, and co-chair of Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute nominated 8 times for the Nobel Peace Prize, wrote for the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine as follows:

“The most compelling benefit of compassion in the context of work is that compassion creates highly effective leaders. To become a highly effective leader, you need to go through [this shift of perspective] from “I” to “We.” It is the most important process leaders go through in becoming authentic. How else can they unleash the power of their organizations unless they motivate people to reach their full potential? If our supporters are merely following our lead, then their efforts are limited to our vision and our directions… Only when leaders stop focusing on their personal ego needs are they able to develop other leaders.”

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

Benefit 2: Adding meaning to the job and the workplace

Empathy and Compassion brings transformation on personal and interpersonal levels to the relationships and interactions with those Scrum Masters are serving.

“As global competition and heightened uncertainty has driven organizations to outsource, flatten and cut back (often quite mindlessly and heartlessly – the two tend to go hand in hand), people have become increasingly hungry for a deeper sense of meaning in their work and a closer connection between what they do and how it serves a greater good.” (Margie Warrell 2017)


“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).

In an article on Forbes, it is found the application of compassion in leadership like in servant leadership “has emerged from the growing field of mindfulness . When mindfulness is practiced right, it increases one’s capability to:

  • diffuse conflicts”

  • build collaboration”

  • perform under pressure”

  • engender compassion for themselves and others

Therefore, Empathy and Compassion cultivated through mindfulness makes both the work and the workplace much more meaningful and motivational (Neal E. Chalofsky 2010).

Go back to the first habit of the series, Awareness and Mindfulness, if you’ve missed that one out.

Benefit 3: Establish and support a strong organizational culture

Rasmus Hougaard, The Mind of The Leader book author and also the Managing Director of Potential Project, and Professor Shimul Melvani from the University of North Carolina’s Fliegler School of Business found “leaders who dare to show compassion are rewarded with team members’ loyalty”, including:

Great scrum masters are retrained

  • increased levels of engagement”

  • having “more people willing to follow them”

  • “stronger connections between people”

  • “better collaboration”

  • “more trust”

  • “stronger commitment to the organization”

  • “lower turnover”

“When we as leaders value the happiness of our people, they feel appreciated. They feel respected. And this makes them feel truly connected and engaged.”

Still afraid being compassionate and respectful to others will make you become less leader-like? See for yourself the different studies that all prove to you otherwise in Habit 4 (Part 2) Respect.

Ways 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.

Habits of an agile servant leader – Habit 1: Awareness and Mindfulness.
Reproduced from Rasmus Hougaard’s Audible profile and Optimality LLC

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, the 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:

  • 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 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

  • enhance communication and openness

  • help your team transcend fear to move into the space of pure, unconstrained business creativity and agility

Bonus points to broaden your horizon

1. We Are Built To Be Kind by Professor of Psychology Dacher Keltner at the University of California shows it’s the human nature to be kind to one another.

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

Are you happy at work thanks to a great sense of Empathy and Compassion? It’s quiz time!

All credit goes to the University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.

For individuals

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

1. Check out the Empathy Quiz below.

2. Another quiz worth checking out is the Happiness At Work Quiz.

Happiness At Work Quiz
Reproduced from Management 3.0

For organizations

Please follow this link to take the Compassionate Organizations Quiz.

“This quiz measures the level of compassion in an organization. It is based on more than 10 years of research on compassion and organizations by the research collaborative CompassionLab and the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business.“

Hope you have great fun with these quizzes!

In this article, now we know that Empathy and Compassion is a tremendously beneficial habit for the upcoming generations of agile servant leaders from both Agile and original Servant Leadership’s perspectives. However, the second habit of Empathy and Compassion – alongside with the first habit Awareness and Mindfulness, will not be sufficient to turn Scrum Masters into truly agile servant leaders, unless they also own two other important habits that will be covered in the following blogposts.

Let’s head for the next article on Habit 3: Deep Listening and Observing to have a deep-dive on the third habit.



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