The Compassionate Leader

How do you, as an entrepreneur, create space for change? Jan Vermeire shares in his new book, "The Compassionate Leader", practical insights.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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How do you, as an entrepreneur, create space for change? Jan Vermeire shares in his new book, "The Compassionate Leader", practical insights.

Hi Jan, welcome to our studio. You wrote a new book: "The Compassionate Leader". It's out now. Why this book?

Well, the most important reason...

There are many. The most important one is that a study of McKinsey showed that 70% of the change projects don't reach their goal.

That's huge.

That's a huge number.

And despite many initiatives like new ways of working together, processes, software tools. Still 70%. So, I thought: okay, what is happening here? And I dove into the topics that are most of the time overlooked. And I brought them together in the book.

Okay, but maybe first, before we dive into it, we need to set the scene.

If you're talking about changes and change projects, what kind of things do we need to have in mind then?

Well, all kind of changes, but if they talk about change projects, usually it's digitization of a company. Or more, let's say the change from shops to e-commerce. Most of the times a larger event.

But the reason I found why they are not succeeding, applied to any change. Even the small changes in a team. Let's say moving from one office to another.

Okay, even that. Okay, you mentioned 70% of those projects fails.


Yes, the three reasons I discovered...

The first one is the vibe. That we don't take the vibe of an individual or a team into account.

What's that about?

There are four vibes. Negative, neutral, positive and inspiring.

That's how somebody looks at the change then?

Yes, so that's my model. To keep it simple. There are many scientific models behind it. But I wanted to keep it simple, so people can do something with it. And what we see is that we need people in the positive or an inspiring vibe, to be able to say: okay, we want to go...

We want to take the next step. We want to go into the future. We want to work together on this project. Forward.

When people are in the negative or the neutral vibe, they don't feel safe enough, psychologically safe and not supported enough. And as a reaction to that, they're going to do all kind of actions to protect themselves.

So, what you see, is common human behaviour. That they rather stay in a bad situation now, than to change to a positive one. Because they say: okay, this is what I know and this is to protect myself.

And if we can change our view on that, if we don't consider them as people that are bad or negative people, but if we just look at it as protective behaviour, we also can deal with them in another way.


And can you change how people look at a change?

Yes, for instance how you describe it and maybe the more rational things.

The package. How you bring it.

Yes, that's one thing. That's an important part. But for me, it's like: okay, that's other people's jobs.

But for me it's more: okay, how can you raise a vibe? How can we make sure that people feel more safe and supported? And there are also, kind of, more rational actions to do that. Just to tell them what the project is going to be about. Many feel also not secure, because they don't know if they are going to have a job or not. So, the more information they get, the better.

But also, it's about - and then, that's the second topic - it's about solving tensions. People, they don't like tensions. So, they avoid it. And a change project, it brings new tensions. And they would say: oh, I don't want this. And it feels like they're attacked. By the potential new tensions. So, I also created a model to solve that.

We have the vibes. We have tensions as a reason to fail. But there's even a third one.

Yes, the third one is the bonding cycle. That's what George Kohlrieser created. It's four steps that we always go through. The whole time. Small changes, big changes.

And for example, when someone has a new job, he needs to change a lot of things. Like new colleagues, new building, new car, maybe new computer, new way of working.

And the first step in that model of George Kohlrieser, the bonding cycle, is attach. So, this person attaches to the building, to the colleagues, to customer supplies.

Then the second step is bonding. So, that's where the engagement, the commitment comes in. And how I look at it is that we put positive emotions in the relationship with the colleagues, with the building, with the computer. And that's where we like people to be. Because when they're engaged, they go the extra mile. And it's great to work together. But then, since the world is changing the whole time, something changes. For example: a team member leaves the team. Maybe it's for a promotion, maybe he's fired. Doesn't really matter. So, something changes.

So, the third step is separate. We separate from the old situation. So, the team, the old team is not there anymore. So, we have to transition to the new team. And that's what we do in the Western world: okay, we stop there, separate. And then we go back to attach. And then we want people to go to the bonding. But you see more and more that that's not happening. And then you hear CEOs of large multinationals: our employees are not engaged anymore.

But the reason why that's not happening is they forget the fourth phase. And the fourth phase is grieving. Grieving. And what we do in the grieving phase is: we kind of take out the emotions that we put in in the second step. In the bonding step. We take out. So, it's available again for the new situation. But, since that taking out most of the times is related to negative emotions, like sadness, anger, frustration, we don't allow people to do that. We don't allow ourselves to do that. Because we're: oh, it's not professional. But we get stuck there. And we don't have the energy or the emotions ready. Or we don't have access anymore to go to the next step.


But how could you translate that into a business environment? Should we have a grieve-moment? I just can't imagine how that should go.

Yes, exactly. And it's kind of with a funeral. People, when there is a funeral...

When somebody passes over, there's a funeral. And what most of the times is happening, is that memories are shared. Both the positive and the negative ones. And people can share their own experiences. And that's the start of, kind of, in a personal situation, the healing process. And that's what we need more in a professional world as well. And it doesn't have to be as, how do you say that, heavy as in a funeral or a real funeral. But we need the time, space and attention for this to happen. And it doesn't...

The good thing is it doesn't cost any money. But what we usually not do is give the time and attention to them, and space. And I think that's one of the things that...

For the hospitality industry, I think that's one of the things to come. Special kinds of events. Or for the internal event planners, advise the project managers that it's an important step in a project. At the end or when the project is stopped. That this also needs to happen. Normally we only have kick-off events. Or celebrations. But we also need, more and more, these kinds of events.

Okay, a new kind of event on the horizon.

Yes, corporate funerals.

Corporate funerals. Okay, great.

We now have the three reasons why it's not working. Is there also a solution in your book?

Yes, there's a solution and there are two ingredients.

The first ingredient is what I call the D.U.E.T. process. It's a process to transform the tensions. And as a consequence, the vibe goes up. The four steps are...

The D stands for Detect and face the tension. So, the elephant in the room. You say: okay, it's here. Let's face it. Not pushing it away anymore. It only takes one second, this step, but we need to take it.

The second step is: Understand and solve the tension. So, what kind of tension is it? Is it a practical tension, a personal tension or an interpersonal tension? And then apply the right techniques. And they're also in the book. And then, sometimes, that's enough. But sometimes we need to go to the third step.

And the E stands for: Embrace and transform the root of the tension. So, sometimes there's a root or a cause...

Being a bit deeper.

Yes, deeper. And the tensions are just the symptoms. So, sometimes we need to go deeper. And also, sometimes, we need to take the fourth step.

The T stands for: Take action. Sometimes we need to...

When we have experienced interpersonal tension and that's kind of relaxed a little bit. We want to talk again to each other, but in a different way. That we don't create any extra tensions. Or the old ones, again. So, that's also one of the things. What I call compassionate communication is one of the techniques in the book.


Okay, great. But there's also a second way of solving it?

Yes, so, the second ingredient is compassionate leadership. And for me it's the way I describe how to facilitate going through that D.U.E.T. process. How to facilitate as a leader or a coach or anyone else.

Yes, I just wanted to ask: is that only the responsibility of the hierarchical leader? Or is it everybody's responsibility?

Well, everybody could take action and start this process. But what you see in most environments is that people look at the leader. Or the leader is kind of a dominant person.

And especially when we work in hierarchical organizations, something happens with people. They become more a dictator. Or they feel more like: oh, I need to take a lot of responsibility here. That's what I did with my team. And now it's too responsible. So, I was not helping or supporting them, but I was kind of rescuing them. And it also didn't feel nice to them. So, I was kind of treating them like a child. In a good way. From a good intention. While people who are more dominant, it's also a kind of a parent-child relationship. But a bit more...

It doesn't feel that nice, maybe. But the effect is the same. So, for me compassionate leadership is another way to do that. To really see each other as equal human beings. Not parent-child. With different roles and functions. And expertise. So, that' something else. We're not the same, as a person. But equal human beings, at the same level. And if we can do that, we can help to solve the tensions, instead of creating more.

Okay Jan. You made me curious and I think a lot of our viewers too. To read your book. We will put a link below the video.

Thank you very much for coming over.

You're welcome.

And you at home, thank you for watching our show, I hope to see you next week.