Does Compassion have a Place in Leadership?
In May 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) officially recognised burnout as a chronic medical condition, naming it an ‘occupational phenomenon’—to reflect that it is a work-based syndrome caused by chronic stress.
Work and personal life often come together to create a unique suffering for each person. Burnout, anxiety, loneliness, and depression—these are the symptoms of the daily suffering people face in this day and age. They are also symptoms of a greater systemic problem of overwork and always-on culture. Employees are further tossed into dissonance and uncertainty with the increasing complexity and speed of change at work. Leaders and managers account for at least 70% of engagement with employees , so whether they lead with compassion makes a big difference – and not just to the employees, but also the business.
A Gallup study revealed that if a supervisor or someone at work cared about them, employees were significantly more likely to stay with companies, have much more engaged customers, and be substantially more productive and generate more profits . In examining the link between leadership styles and profitability, research also showed that compassionate leadership was found to have the greatest influence on productivity and profitability .
What do we mean by Compassionate Leadership? It is not about people-pleasing or just about feelings. It is an ability to be sensitive to the challenges that people are facing, to respond with empathy and then take action to support and develop them. Compassionate Leadership is about a genuine intention to contribute to the well-being of others and to see them thrive. This can sometimes require giving honest feedback, but most of the time, it is about seeing how we can each help add to the happiness of others.
In this series, we will be going in-depth into what Compassionate Leadership is, why it matters to business leaders, and how we can begin to lead with compassion into the workplace. To kick us off, let us look at what we mean by ‘leadership’.
Leadership has always been central to the human experience and has been studied formally and informally for thousands of years. Typically, when we think of a leader, we think their job as is simply to define a clear vision statement answering the “What, Why, and How” of an organisation. In defining the approach and criteria the organisation hopes to achieve, the leader provides employees with direction, assistance, and purpose that motivate an organisation's stakeholders or group of followers to achieve tasks or strategic goals.
However, Compassionate Leadership goes beyond this definition. You may have some questions – Does being compassionate make me soft as a leader? Does leadership require having compassion-based skills? Why and how will integrating leadership abilities and compassion-based skills improve my leadership in my company? In this series, we will be exploring leadership from three perspectives:
Leadership is a procedural process
Leadership consists of reciprocal influence
Leadership addresses goals or needs to be reached.
With this understanding of leadership, we will investigate what Compassionate Leadership is, how it is practised, and the difference that it can make.
Before moving on, we must understand a core tenet of Compassionate Leadership: that leadership is about more than simply having followers. It is not a title and is not achieved by just following a few principles. It can be formal or informal, based on real power or perceived power, role or context-based. Leadership is complex, but the critical component of being a leader is the courage to make the right choices, whether they be the most popular decisions or not; at the same time, they must draw their stakeholders—be they employees, investors or communities—into a compelling vision.
Therefore, Compassionate Leadership does not look the same for everyone. Everyone has their own personal leadership styles – it does not matter whether you are a C-suite leader or an Executive. In becoming a compassionate leader, you must take the first step on a personal journey to explore your own psychological, physical, team-based and organisational leadership capacity.
The effects of empowering every person to pursue a shared purpose of achieving a positive, lasting impact on others around them go beyond better team culture or kinder office environments. It is important—foundational, even—to the excellent execution of an organisation’s mission and vision.
Suffering in the Workplace
As humans, all members of working organisations bring their illnesses, emotional distress and depression to work. At their workplace, the demands of work and the daily interactions with clients, employers and colleagues take a toll. Thus, each person experiences a particular kind of suffering, as the stressors at work and in their personal lives intersect in the workplace.
Yet, this suffering cannot even be expressed. Most organisations expect the suppression of unpleasant emotions at work, and the emotional pain of employees is neither displayed, treated nor healed. Instead, employees are expected to be professional, taking a “deal with your problems at home” approach. But such an attitude is neither caring nor effective. It is a pity thus to realise that compassion in the workplace has historically not been a major focal point of organisational studies.
This is changing. With more employees suffering financially, psychologically, and socially, organisational researchers and practitioners have begun to pay more attention to compassion at work to address such suffering. We are beginning to acknowledge the cost of ignoring such suffering and the benefits of compassion at work.
In the next article, we will investigate what makes compassion so valuable to the human experience and the three directions of compassion.
Take some time to reflect on your workplace leadership culture – how much is compassion part of the picture?
When have you experienced compassion in the workplace?
Dr. Daniel E. Martin is an Associate Professor of Management at California State University, East Bay, and Director of Research at the Charter for Compassion. Formerly a Visiting Associate Professor at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University (and currently a Consulting Scientist), a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law & Society at UC Berkeley, a Research Fellow for the U.S. Army Research Institute as well as a Personnel Research Psychologist for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, he has worked with private, public and non-profit organizations on pre-employment selection, training, and organizational assessment.
 Beck and Harter. 2015. “Managers Account for 70% of Variance in Employee Engagement”
 Brim. 2015. “Strengths-Based Leadership: The 4 Things Followers Need” https://www.gallup.com/cliftonstrengths/en/251003/strengths-based-leadership-things-followers-need.aspx
 Boedker, C., Vidgen, R., Meagher, K., Cogin, J., Mouritsen, J., & Runnalls, J. M. (2011). Leadership, culture and management practices of high performing workplaces in Australia: the high performing workplaces index. Sydney: Society for Knowledge Economics. http://www.hpw.org.au/uploads/5/9/1/7/59177601/boedker_vidgen_meagher_cogin_mouritsen_and_runnalls_2011_high_performing_workplaces_index_october_6_2011.pdf