The importance of compassionate leadership and how to foster it
If you tune into most office-themed television shows or settle in to watch a film based on a workplace, the leadership is often portrayed the same way. The C-suite is filled with tyrants, be it the bossy CEO or the ballpoint pen-busting finance manager. The bottom line is the bottom line, and deadlines and quotas must be met at all costs.
It makes for easy screenwriting, of course, because almost everyone can relate to a bad boss. The boss who wouldn’t give you time off. The boss who chewed you out in front of the whole team. The boss who instilled fear among employees; the one everyone was afraid to sit down in a meeting with.
While this type of leadership certainly does exist, many organizations are moving in a different direction as part of their corporate commitment to improving culture and diversifying their teams.
Enter, compassionate leadership. Though this term seems buzzwordy or even trendy, make no mistake: compassionate leadership is one of the smartest commitments today’s companies can make to improve employee satisfaction, increase productivity, and reduce voluntary turnover all while supporting innovation and growing the business.
What is compassionate leadership?
Compassionate leadership has a lot of definitions. Most importantly, it recognizes that every individual member of a team is not only an important individual but also an integral part of the organization as a whole.
If you consider compassion by definition, it is the quality of having positive intentions and genuine concern for others. By its very nature, compassionate leadership is about bringing out the best in individuals to allow them to meet their potential and grow.
Leadership, of course, is the act of leading others and in business, this often refers to creating and supporting strategy, establishing and reaching goals or milestones, and guiding a team of individual contributors.
While leadership is often used as a blanket term to describe the senior group within an organization, leadership is less about seniority and more about social influence. This means that any employee within an organization can have leadership potential and be a leader, regardless of title.
When you take the two elements and combine them, compassionate leadership is about leading with good intentions and with people’s best interests at heart.
Compassionate leadership isn’t all kumbaya and friendship bracelets, though.
While compassionate leadership certainly doesn’t adhere to rigidity and fear-based leading, it’s also not so soft that it loses its boundaries. The same basic pillars and expectations in business remain in a compassionate leadership equation, but the handling of issues or the communication of those pillars and expectations is conducted in a manner that puts people first and seeks to build trust and confidence.
What are the pillars of compassionate leadership in business?
Depending on the source, you can find any number of pillars of compassionate leadership. Some sources claim that compassionate leadership is three pillars whilst others focus on four or as many as seven. Well-respected scholar and the Dalai Lama’s longtime English translator, Thupten Jinpa, says there are three core pillars to compassionate leadership.
You must be able to conceptually understand the problems, situations, and decisions being made or faced by employees to be an effective leader.
Cognitive understanding is a learning theory that focuses on thought. In leadership, cognitive understanding refers to a deep consideration of the facts as presented by employees, peers, or the business itself.
Employees and peers want to know that you “get” the challenges they’re facing and that you know and have considered all of the facts. Without a solid cognitive understanding of what’s what, you’ll be unable to connect with your employees or peers on projects and problems.
This may be the most critical element in compassionate leadership. The people you lead and work with need to know that you feel what they feel and understand them on an emotional level. Beyond simply understanding that they feel stressed out or excited about projects, it is important to have empathy.
Connecting with employees and colleagues at an emotional level allows you to build relationships, to commiserate, or to celebrate more authentically.
A leader who doesn’t motivate or inspire is a poor leader. According to Jinpa, motivational connection refers to a team’s need to believe that their leader has their back and genuinely wants them to succeed. This includes considering and prioritizing the individual’s personal and professional development as well as the growth and learning of the team as a whole.
The idea here is that when teams believe they are supported by their leader, they’re motivated to reach goals.
What traits should I look for when recruiting or hiring leadership?
When hiring or recruiting for leadership positions, considering your organization’s commitment to compassionate leadership is important. Traditionally, leadership roles were filled by authoritative individuals who focused more on the job at hand than the people doing those jobs.
As the world changes and employees demand more collaborative and compassionate work environments, the need to hire leaders who exemplify the characteristics of compassionate leadership has never been more clear.
When hiring for compassionate leadership, look for an individual who:
Holds self-awareness and self-compassion
LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner said, “be a spectator to your own thoughts”. A compassionate leader is one who is aware of his or her own strengths and weaknesses and willingly invites feedback on them. They are also keenly aware of how they are perceived by others and take care to present themselves intentionally. This self-awareness is important.
Compassionate leaders also have compassion for themselves. According to Kristen Neff, one of the leading researchers on the subject of compassion, there are three core elements to self-compassion. These are:
- Common humanity
Can put themselves into the shoes of others
Empathy is an important element of compassionate leadership. When leaders are able to empathize with employees, putting themselves in their shoes, they can better understand the impact of their own actions and behaviors on the team to alleviate issues and work towards solutions.
Compassionate leaders know the best way to get the best results from team members if they understand what drives their individual team members to achieve, rather than ruling with fear or even incentivizing financially.
Compassionate leaders are also able to understand, appreciate, and support unique and personal barriers that their teams are facing, to help them overcome defeatist thoughts.
Sees themselves as “the conductor of the orchestra”
Compassionate leaders do not lead with a “my way or the highway” attitude. In fact, compassionate leaders are more likely to see themselves as a facilitator of success – not the person who wrote the rulebook on getting there.
Compassionate leaders know that different people do things in different ways and support individuality, innovation, and creativity. Sherrie Campbell says, “When leaders operate as if they know everything, they harden themselves to new ideas by stubbornly assuming they have nothing more to learn to be effective in their role.”
Helps employees along the way
A key element in compassionate leadership is the offering of advice to help team members improve or overcome a challenge, even when it’s advice they don’t necessarily want to hear or that is difficult for the leader to deliver. For a compassionate leader, identifying the feedback that needs to be provided is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s important to deliver this feedback in a way that is constructive and impactful to help the recipient understand the changes they need to make in order to improve and be successful.
Additional traits to watch for include:
- assertive (not aggressive)
Can compassion be taught/fostered/grown?
Although compassion may be seen as a quality of personality, the truth is it can be strengthened in anyone. It starts with an individual’s self-compassion. This means treating yourself the way you would your friend and practicing kindness to self, first.
Often, when an individual is able to practice compassion towards one’s self, it’s easier to spread that compassion to others. According to the Harvard Business Review, leaders who practice self-compassion also have:
- higher levels of emotional intelligence
- greater resilience
- a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset)
- compassion for others
Compassion is a trainable skill, one that can be “exercised” like a muscle according to Dr. Richard J. Davidson of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Investigating Healthy Minds. Dr. Davidson’s research has demonstrated that “… compassion is a trainable skill and that practice can actually alter the way our brains perceive suffering and increase our actions to relieve that suffering.”
Benefits of compassionate leadership
The workplace is changing. The traditional leadership model is out and employees and job seekers are looking for more collaborative, supportive cultures that allow them to do meaningful work.
One of the greatest benefits tied to implementing compassionate leadership in your organization is improving corporate culture and eradicating fear-based leadership that hinders creativity and innovation.
American baseballer Eddie Murray said “You win as a team, you lose as a team, you also do so many things together.”
Not every project will be a success. This is a fact of both business and life. In compassionate leadership, failed projects are not seen as “failures” but rather learning opportunities. With Murray’s wisdom in mind, your organization can adopt this type of approach to help build both individual and team resilience in the face of adversity in business.
Collective compassion, from the top down, facilitates psychological strengthening that allows teams and individuals to quickly bounce back from failure or weather difficult times.
Fosters a team-spirit
We can again turn to Murray’s wise words. When compassionate leadership is in play, compassion is shared across teams. Because compassion builds trust, mutual connections, and reciprocation, compassionate leadership fosters a spirit of “all for one and one for all” within the workplace.
Generally speaking, employee engagement is a hot topic for many employers and is seen as a strategic business objective. According to Gallup data, low engagement at work can be caused by several factors including a lack of recognition, poor company communication, and not being aligned with the mission of the company.
One of the main principles of compassionate leadership is recognition and acknowledgement of individual and team achievements; a simple action that can increase employee engagement and boost satisfaction as well.
Contributes to lower levels of staff turnover
Want to see fewer resignation letters? Compassionate leadership can reduce company turnover by creating a more compassionate and welcoming workplace environment for all.
It also removes barriers, creates confidence in place of fear and compassionate leadership cultivates a work environment where employees feel a greater sense of commitment to their organization.
How to implement compassionate leadership in your organization
Having compassionate people is a good start, but implementing compassionate leadership is a conscious effort on the part of an organization. The good news is it’s not rocket science! To implement compassionate leadership in your organization, you must commit to actively seeking to inject compassion and empathy into the work each day.
Here are a few ways to get started today:
Focus on acknowledging team’s and individual’s achievements
When teams or individuals reach or surpass milestones, it is important to acknowledge and celebrate those achievements. This can even include “extracurricular” achievements or important personal milestones, like marriages, finishing an MBA, or completing a marathon.
Ask for feedback
Feedback should be a two-way street in any organization. Conduct surveys across your organization to gather feedback from employees. These “engagement surveys” can help gauge whether or not your team believes that compassionate leadership is at play and help you uncover gaps or weaknesses to focus on.
Commit to transparency
Being transparent in the workplace means sharing information freely to benefit the organization and its people. This can mean sharing company information with the whole team from the top down, or it can involve individual teammates sharing information and feedback.
Put the human back in your day-to-day processes and HR functions
It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, becoming so focused on metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) that you lose sight of the most important part of your business: your people.
Simple gestures, like thanking people, help bring a human connection back to the office and can have enormous impacts.
Give everyone a chance to have their voice and opinion heard
Compassionate leadership is collaborative by nature, meaning that every person has an opportunity to share their thoughts and contribute to projects in a meaningful way.
This goes back to the traits to look for in compassionate leadership – someone who sees him or herself as a conductor of an orchestra, not the soloist. By opening the floor to anyone to share their thoughts and ideas, you acknowledge the contributions of every team member and create opportunities for more collaboration, more innovation, and more growth.
Receive people unconditionally, withhold judgment, and welcome diversity of self-expression
You could hardly call an organization that isn’t committed to diversity a compassionate one. In fact, many experts believe that you cannot have compassionate leadership without diversity and inclusion.
By receiving people unconditionally and committing to a diverse, inclusive, and equitable work environment, you will help breed compassion well beyond your leadership team.
Prioritize company culture
Company culture is important to employees and it should be a priority for the organization as a whole. By prioritizing company culture and creating a healthy team environment, you’ll boost employee engagement and satisfaction.
Wrapping up – Fostering compassionate leadership is an investment with plenty of ROI
When combined with wisdom and business acumen, compassion in leadership can be transformative to an organization’s workplace culture and its bottom line. By implementing and committing to compassionate leadership in your organization, you show employees that their satisfaction is a priority to you.
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