Do you wish you could increase your employees’ engagement while reducing their stress and preventing them from burning out? What if you could do that while also improving their productivity, upleveling skills, and growing team trust and cohesion? One of the best ways to achieve all this for your organization is to be a compassionate leader.
Studies have shown that compassionate leaders receive higher evaluations from their employees, are more popular with customers and clients, and do a better job giving honest feedback. Employers favor leaders who show compassion as well, as they are seen as valuable resources for the development and success of the organization.
What is compassionate leadership?
Compassion is defined as “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” The word literally means “to suffer together.” When a team knows that their leader is in it with them, they feel more supported and engaged in their work, connected to the mission, and are more likely to give the team their best work, resulting in a better outcome.
Among leaders known for their outstanding compassion was Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher. “Leading an organization is as much about soul as it is about systems. Effective leadership finds its source in understanding,” Kelleher said about his philosophy behind growing Southwest into the world’s largest low-cost airline. “If you create an environment where the people truly participate, you don’t need control. They know what needs to be done, and they do it.” This mindset and approach reflect that willingness to see employees and team members as people, investing in those relationships with the knowledge that engaged, empowered employees are invested in producing great work for a leader who cares.
A large part of compassionate leadership is creating a sense of belonging within a team. We use the word “team” to describe a group of people who work together in the same functional business unit, but without the connection, understanding, empathy, and willingness to help out–the compassion–they are just co-workers, not teammates. A compassionate leader reminds and reinforces the trust, support, and cohesiveness of the group to truly turn it into a team striving for the same goals and doing what they can to help each other along the way.
How can I be a more compassionate leader?
Like many of the most effective skills that great leaders possess, compassion isn’t something you either have or don’t have but is one that can be learned and developed. A compassionate leader is not solely interested in the development and growth of their employees only to improve measurable business outcomes for the organization but also in fostering the personal and professional growth of the employees themselves. Forward-thinking, compassionate leaders know that investing in and developing their team members’ skills and talents will ultimately result in even better outcomes in the long run.
One of the most effective components of compassionate leadership is the trust and culture of cooperation developed through employees seeing their leadership team in the trenches alongside them. Looking to leadership as thought partners to help break down barriers, comrades in the daily grind, and striving together toward the same goals creates a level of trust and a sense of psychological safety that allows individuals to do their best work.
A hallmark of compassionate leadership is using influence not authority to lead, guide, and motivate their employees. By investing time and energy into their team as individuals and as a group, compassionate leaders leverage their own power to empower others to grow and develop as leaders in their own right. The collective influence and impact of a team led by a compassionate leader is far greater than that of teams that are run by managers who focus more on wielding their authority and lean more heavily on directive leadership approaches.
Another critical aspect of compassionate leadership is to set high standards for yourself and the rest of the team. If it is clear to all that the bar is set high, and that everyone on the team is invested in meeting those standards, leaders won’t have to worry that they are sacrificing accountability for compassion. When a standard of excellence is the norm, and the leadership shows care and concern for making sure everyone meets that threshold, the entire team’s efforts rise to meet those expectations.
If the results of practicing compassion are all positive outcomes, it would make sense that compassion would be something that all leaders are practicing. So why isn’t showing compassion more common in the workplace?
Why do some leaders shy away from showing compassion?
One reason why there is a lack of compassionate leadership in many workplaces is that there may be an unhealthy amount of pressure to perform, deliver, and produce and do so efficiently. When there is a pervasive culture of high-performance without equal emphasis on making sure that systems are in place to ensure there is sustainable performance, teams run a high risk of feeling overwhelmed, becoming disengaged, and burning out. It’s challenging to feel compassion and empathy for team members when individuals are overloaded and at maximum capacity with no end in sight.
Another theme seen in organizations that don’t embrace compassionate leadership is the belief that a workplace is a place for work, not for feelings. An “old-school” view of organizational culture is that considering the “soft” parts of people management is seen as weak leadership and will negatively impact the bottom line and performance results. There is a misconception that having this “soft touch” as a leader will cause employees to take advantage of their manager’s compassion and use that empathy to shirk their responsibilities, despite much evidence to the contrary.
A lot of this aversion to a compassionate approach to leadership is the confusion between compassion and empathy. Empathy is about understanding your team’s struggles, being nice when you know someone had a setback, or creating a “passive moment of receiving and feeling for others.” On the other hand, compassion is about figuring out ways to help others identify solutions to their problems. The compassionate approach is “how can I make this better for my team?” Empathy is important but can result in the leader running himself into the ground coming up with solutions to the team’s struggles. Compassion is a more sustainable approach to problem-solving because it’s a proactive stance.
In the end, compassionate leadership benefits the team as a whole as well as the employees as individuals. Including compassion as a key part of the culture will have a trickle-down effect from leadership throughout the organization, increasing the sense of belonging, fostering an ownership mentality, and cultivating meaningful relationships amongst team members, all of which lead to greater productivity and higher-performance, but with the support required to ensure that it’s sustainable.