Compassionate leadership

content boat parrot leadership

There are four components of compassion at work: attending, understanding, connecting and courage. Attending is about becoming aware of a problem, understanding is wanting to know more about it, connecting is acknowledging the discomfort, and courage is taking action together.

I’m aware that this all sounds rather ‘soft’, and you may well be thinking the following:

  • If I focus on people and not the targets, we won’t be productive.
  • I’m too busy to talk about how you feel!
  • Being compassionate sounds like allowing poor performance.
  • Emotional expression is weak and unprofessional.

Business case

So before you dismiss compassion at work as wholly unnecessary, consider what the data reveals. It shows that the benefits to the organisation include improved employee engagement, teamworking, innovation, employee retention, productivity and customer service. And leaders who self-report as compassionate also feel less stress, enhanced health and wellbeing, and higher levels of commitment to the organisation.

If you’ve read any of my AB articles on helping (see, for example, ‘The how of helping’ and ‘How to have courageous conversations’), you’ll know it reduces your own stress levels, energises you, boosts your self-worth and helps you feel connected to others.

Change is the only constant, but change is also uncomfortable. Even when it’s our own choice (moving home, getting married), it is never stress-free. Your organisation may be navigating ongoing challenges such as remote working or responding to market volatility, you may be having to make tough decisions, and it may be increasingly more difficult to maintain employee trust and engagement – all of which impact productivity.

Empathy says: ‘I feel your pain.’ Compassion says: ‘What can I do to relieve it?’

The big four

Consider the following brief description of the four components of compassionate leadership, which draws on research findings from a variety of sources:

  • Attending is about being present, listening, and letting go of assumptions and unconscious bias.
  • Understanding is about being curious, acknowledging what’s been said, and asking questions to get a shared understanding of the problem.
  • Connecting is about approaching this situation with an open heart, and withholding blame or criticism.
  • Courage is about facing the issue rather than ignoring it, and finding new solutions together.

What about you?

Are you a compassionate leader? Consider the questions below and your answers to them. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), to what extent do you and your leadership:

  • empathise with others, attending to how they feel, parking excuses such as ‘I don’t have time for this’?
  • take a curious interest in others, to understand the full extent of the problem?
  • connect authentically with others, helping them to feel valued?
  • face challenges and take shared responsibility for solving problems?

In a recent ACCA webinar I gave on how to be a compassionate leader, some common themes cropped up in the questions from participants, and these are covered below.

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Remote location

Even if a colleague is in a different location, you can still be a compassionate leader. Here’s how.

Practise the first three components listed above (attending, understanding, connecting). Build trust by becoming authentically interested in the other person’s experience. Try to understand their perspective, holding an open mind and an open heart. Respond with curiosity and interest. Acknowledge your (un)conscious biases and challenge your own perspective to avoid making unhelpful judgments.

Adopt what I call the compassionate perspective: when you find yourself judging others harshly, think up alternative, less critical explanations for other people’s behaviour.

Initiate regular communication with colleagues in different time zones. You’re seeking authentic connection, so try to be alert, physically comfortable and undistracted.

Too compassionate

For most people, there is probably little risk in being too compassionate. But to people who ask whether there is a risk in being too compassionate, I’d say, yes, there is! Beware the compulsion to jump in before finding out what’s really going on.

If you find it easy to take on responsibility for solving others’ problems, try asking more questions about what they think they need, and what form of help they want from you (supportive, expert, information or resources?). Include them in finding the solutions.

If you tend to avoid conflict or difficult conversations to prevent hurting people’s feelings, remember that avoidance is usually costly to everyone and the organisation. Being a compassionate leader is to have the courage to call out what needs to be said.

Staff retention

In a cost of living crisis, being people-focused is enough to improve staff retention when you can’t match pay elsewhere. Although workforce needs differ by generation, the research shows that people will stay with an organisation if they feel they belong, and are trusted and valued.

Behaviour choices

As rational beings we can choose how we behave. If you deliberately choose to cultivate compassionate leadership, try the following:

  • Attending. Notice how you’re feeling. Let go of the pressure to feel differently.
  • Understanding. Be curious about why you feel a particular way. Be aware of all of the challenges you face.
  • Connecting. Empathise with how someone feels. It’s human to suffer. There’s no need for additional self-criticism.
  • Courage. Don’t avoid taking steps to alleviate your suffering. Be prepared to act in your best interest, even if it’s a difficult choice or challenging course of action.

Author: Jess Baker is a business psychologist, author and coach

More information

Watch Jess Baker’s webinar on how to be a compassionate leader

This article was first published in AB magazine March 2023

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