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What Does it Mean to Embrace Compassionate Leadership?

Elise Jones Mar 18, 2021 6:11:25 AM

Imagine you could increase employee engagement while reducing stress and preventing burnout. What if you could do that while also improving their productivity, leveling up 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 having real concern for others and a desire to alleviate that hardship or struggle. The word compassion literally means “to suffer together."As it translates to business, compassionate leaders are aware of the feelings and experiences of each individual on their team and understand how those experiences can drive them toward results. 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 their best work, resulting in a better outcome. 

A compassionate leader can, and should, also have an empathetic leadership quality, but they are not the same. Empathetic leadership recognizes and acknowledges an employee’s emotions, motivations, and challenges, whereas compassionate leadership is taking that awareness and turning it into action. 

A large part of becoming a compassionate leader 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.

Compassionate Leadership Examples

Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher said part of his leadership philosophy was grounding the organization in, not just systems, but in the soul. “Effective leadership finds its source in understanding,” Kelleher said about his philosophy behind growing Southwest into the world’s largest low-cost airline. Compassion is rooted in understanding each individual’s experiences and nurturing them as individuals. Kelleher also said, “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.” 

Kelleher’s statements 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. 

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 core component of compassionate leadership is motivation. A compassionate leader is not solely interested in the development and growth of their employees to improve measurable business outcomes for the organization. Instead, this type of leader is aware of business needs but also in fostering the personal and professional growth of the employees themselves. Compassionate, forward-thinking, leaders know that investing in and developing their team members’ skills and talents, both in and out of the workplace, will ultimately result in even better outcomes in the long run.

Be a partner

One of the most effective components of a compassionate leadership style 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.

Motivate through influence

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 leader who shows compassion 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.

Set the standard

Another critical aspect of this leadership style 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?

What is stopping some leaders from showing compassion?

One reason there is a lack of compassionate leaders 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 compassion 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 goes back to the confusion between compassion and empathy. 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 and 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, the benefits of compassionate leadership are for 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.

Create compassion in your organization

Compassion is just another skill, meaning it can be taught, trained, and coached. Schedule a demo to see how Valor can provide your leaders with the coaching they need to become successful, compassionate leaders.

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