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E208 | How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way with Rasmus Hougaard

If you struggle to have difficult conversations, then you aren’t alone. According to Rasmus Hougaard, founder and CEO of global research, leadership development and consulting firm Potential Project, only one in 100 of us are naturally wired to be able to give difficult feedback the right way, instinctively. 

You really have to step up if you want to lead people and learn how to do the hard things because it’s the most compassionate and kind thing you can do. Everything else is indecent, period.”

Rasmus and the team at Potential Project have spent the last three years undertaking a huge research project to find out just how CEOs and leaders do hard stuff with humanity. 

In this episode, Rasmus shares why he learned the art of mindfulness in Buddhist monasteries not just as a way of driving employee wellness, but actually driving leadership behaviours. He also explains why, if we care deeply about people, it’s on us to be direct and to give them the feedback they need to grow to be the best version of themselves that they can be. 

To find out more about the four behaviours Rasmus and the team uncovered, to create more trust, psychological safety, and improve performance in your individual employees, your teams, and the culture, download and listen to this episode. 

On today’s podcast:

  • Why mindfulness is your secret business weapon
  • The distinction between empathy and compassion
  • Why women are better leaders
  • The four behaviours that help do hard things humanely 


How to Do Hard Things Humanely with Rasmus Hougaard

Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and CEO of global research, leadership development and consulting firm, Potential Project. Potential Project is on a mission to create a more human world of work. They help leaders and teams to understand and manage their minds and unlock the potential for new behaviours and different outcomes.

Over the past decade, they have helped more than 350,000 individuals at 500+ organisations to adopt new ways of working and leading.

They’ve partnered with global clients including Unilever, IKEA, Cisco, Deloitte and Accenture to enhance performance, resilience and creativity and develop leaders who are more open, wise, compassionate and courageous.

And it all starts with mindfulness, says Rasmus.

“I’m a researcher by background and spent a good chunk of my life in monasteries around the world, training my mind and training my heart to be a better person.”

Everything starts with the mind

“Everything that we experience starts in our mind. And everything that happens in the world, except for natural stuff, comes from a mind or collective minds.”

In the west, says Rasmus, we aren’t trained to train our mind. When we’re kids we’re taught how to do maths, or speak languages, but we aren’t taught how our minds work, and how we can be more deliberate about how we show up in life. 

“When I started to realise that by a few simple training techniques I could become more focused, I could become more kind, I could basically develop a much greater understanding of myself, I thought, wow, everybody should have this.”

The research project

They interviewed around 350 either CEOs or CHROs to figure out, from their experience, how do you do hard things in a human way. Because, says Rasmus, the CEOs are the ones that have to make the really difficult decisions, and the CHROs are the ones who have to execute them. 

So what did they find out?

“I think the first one, which is a really important one, is to make a distinction between empathy and compassion. Where most of us think that they’re more or less the same, they’re absolutely not. And in leadership, it is very important to be educated about the difference and how to lead with compassion rather than with empathy.”

Why not empathy? Because, says Rasmus, if we stay in empathy, which is what most human beings do, it just doesn’t help other people if we sit down and say ‘yeah, this sucks, this is tough, I feel it too’. 

What we need to learn is to connect with empathy, but to lead with compassion – to want to be of service for others’ well being.

“Compassion is about taking a step back from the emotion, ask yourself the question, What can I do? Or what does this person need right now? and then move into action.”

In short, says Rasmus, compassion is empathy + action.  

How to move beyond empathy

So, what do you have to do to stop getting hijacked by empathy?

First of all, says Rasmus, never let go of empathy. Empathy is incredibly important. We need to connect with empathy, but once we’ve connected, we need to move into a rational space, contemplate what is needed, and take action. 

When we move into action mode, when we decide we’re not going to be engaged in emotions right now, the emotions dissipate. 

“Because we can only be focused on one thing at a time, either we are emotionally engaged, or we start to think about what we can do about it. Hence the shift.”

As humans we’re hardwired for altruism. We are wired to want to do good things for others, therefore when we see someone suffering we feel it too. And it feels like we’re doing the right thing. But it’s very addictive. Empathy is basically an addictive state, warns Rasmus.

Why women make better leaders

“Another personal surprise was on the spectrum from empathy to compassion, specifically men and women in leadership. I think most people would say that women would be stronger to the empathy and men stronger to the compassion, but it was the exact opposite.”

The research revealed that women are more compassionate leaders – they are more willing to go in and help and solve problems for others, whereas men, according to the research, are more likely to just sit and listen and feel it, but do nothing about it. 

So basically, says Rasmus, men are more empathetic and women more compassionate. They dug even further into the data and the bottom line is women are better leaders, period. 

“Sorry, all of you blokes out there, [but] it’s very clear out of the four possible constellations: a female to female, female to a male, male to a female, and male to male as a leader and to a follower, the best attribute best constellation is a female to female.”

Translating research into solutions

Rasmus and his team don’t just do research, they translate the results into helping their clients solve their problems. 

One key thing the data revealed was that females need to have stronger confidence through self awareness of their strengths. And this, advises Rasmus, comes from practising mindfulness and then applying that in day to day work.

For men on the other hand, they need to practise compassion and perspective taking. They need to focus more on care in their leadership, and learn how to do the hard work in a human way. 

The four behaviours

Following on from the research, the team have created a framework of four behaviours, that when you apply these four behaviours, step by step, you create more trust, psychological safety, and thereby increased performance in your teams, in your individual employees, and in the culture.

These are:

  1. Caring presence. This is having the ability to show up to a difficult conversation, performance conversation, a feedback conversation, a firing conversation, every conversation that is not easy. But you show up with a caring presence, which means you are fully present with the person that is in front of you. 
  2. Caring courage. This means courage over comfort, because going into difficult conversations, by definition, needs to take you out of your comfort zone. Growth and comfort cannot coexist, you need to get out of being comfortable and have the courage to move into difficult, confrontational issue situations with others. 
  3. Caring candour. This is not beating about the bush, but saying what needs to be said, even if the person does not appreciate it or likes it. Regardless, there’s always care in it.
  4. Caring transparency. This where the mantra caring is kindness. It’s about treating people as adults by sharing what needs to be shared. Not holding stuff back. Also, don’t have a difficult conversation about somebody if they’re not in the room.

“Have at least one uncomfortable situation every day. And ideally at the beginning of the day, because it’s all about creating habits… And so if we have one small uncomfortable conversation every day, it just makes us more habituated to repeating it.”

These four behaviours, says Rasmus, they’re about bringing together the hard – the courage, candour, transparency etc, with care and compassion. It’s about doing the hard things humanely. Because that is what is needed from leaders. It’s inevitable they will have to do hard things, this is simply giving them a framework to do hard things, but in a humane way.

“You really have to step up if you want to lead people and learn how to do the hard things. Because it’s the most compassionate and kind thing you can do. Everything else is indecent, period.”

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