Since lockdown began, I’ve been struck by how much I’ve heard the words ‘kindness’ and ‘compassion‘ being used, both in my professional life and in society more widely. The BBC were running stories on kindness during COVID, and this year, kindness was the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week. So how can this factor into future leadership development?
Discussions are taking place in the public arena about the type of society we want to be post-COVID, and how we can care for each other better. I’ve long been keen on the idea of compassionate leadership, so now that kindness and compassion are concepts coming into the mainstream, could now be the time for organizations to embrace compassionate leadership.
To examine what compassionate leadership really is, we first need to understand the concept of compassion. As I move towards a better understanding of this, I have come to see that it’s not a simple concept – it is made up of a number of factors, such as being motivated to care about others, being sympathetic, being able to understand and manage our own emotions, having empathy for others, and refraining from judgement. But as a concept, compassion is not enough – it needs to be put into action. And this is where compassionate leadership comes in.
Leadership development – putting compassion into action
Imagine a member of your team comes to you with a problem. Pause for a moment to consider how you would normally respond. Now imagine what would happen if you listened to them with your full attention, not listening to respond but listening to understand. Imagine if you asked as many questions as you needed in order to understand as far as you could, what it is really like to be that person in that situation, and how that feels. Imagine if you inhabited this experience without making judgements about the person or the situation, simply seeing it as it actually is. Imagine if you were able to put aside your own feelings and emotions so that you could see the problem clearly and the impact it is having. And imagine if you devoted 100% of your attention to this listening experience, not being distracted by thoughts of other priorities or what else you need to do.
How do you think that would affect your ability to move towards a solution? And how it would affect that person’s experience of you as a leader? This is what compassionate leadership is – being alive to the experience of others in your sphere of influence, understanding how they feel, and having a genuine desire to influence that positively where you can.
At this point you might be concerned that this isn’t really for you. Perhaps you don’t want to indulge your employees or be a soft touch. Work is work after all, and sometimes we have to face things we would rather were different or don’t want to do. I hear you on this. It took me a long time to understand that compassion is not about indulgence, or letting people have their own way all the time. It’s not about being the person who always says yes, or being “nice”. Most importantly, it’s not about letting people get away with substandard performance, or bad behavior.
True compassion is about understanding what is truly in the best interest of that person, and doing your best to help deliver that. That might seem tough in the moment, but this requires compassion requires grit, discipline and courage. To illustrate the difference between compassion and indulgence, imagine a toddler who wants to eat cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Indulging them would mean saying “yes” every time, but the long-term effect would be that the toddler becomes unhealthy. Compassion means that because you truly care for them, you don’t want this to happen, and therefore say “no” – most of the time at least.
In a leadership development context this might mean taking tough decisions about how work is organized, who does what, and what really needs to be done in the first place. It also means taking action on poor performance and unacceptable behavior, because letting people “off the hook” is neither in the best interest of the organization nor the individual.
Compassion in leadership development – the business case
The benefits to individuals of being managed this way are probably obvious, but what about the organization? One of the wonderful things about compassion is that it inherently promotes pro-social behavior, which becomes a self-reinforcing loop. As the Dalai Lama says: “When we are motivated by compassion and wisdom, the results of our actions benefit everyone, not just our individual selves or some immediate convenience.”
Research on compassion in leadership development is still in its infancy, but there is evidence to suggest that this approach:
- Results in stronger bonds between colleagues
- Leads to employees having greater commitment to their organization and being likely to talk about it in positive terms
- Makes employees more likely to show supportive behaviors towards the people they themselves manage
- Enables employees to experience positive emotions, which improve creativity, customer service and boost productivity.
Given the times we live in which have led to an increased focus on kindness and compassion, this brand of leadership development is likely to be on the rise in the months and years to come. Compassion is not over-indulgence or always giving people what they want, but arises from a deep care about those you lead and acting from a genuine care for their wellbeing. This can mean making some tough decisions in the short term, but over the longer term these will pay back in terms of benefits to the individual and the organization.
My top tips for being a compassionate leader are:
- Listen to understand, not to respond
- Be fully present in whatever task you’re engaged in
- Work to see things as they really are, without judgement
- Empathize with others – ask questions to understand their experience
- Think about the impact on your people when making decisions, even the small ones
- Keep in mind the genuine best interests of your people, not the path of least resistance
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