“When we are motivated by compassion and wisdom, the results of our actions benefit everyone, not just our individual selves or some immediate convenience.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              Dalai Lama


In the past few weeks, not just in the UK but across the globe, we’ve seen huge community initiatives take shape and have been experiencing a sense of neighbourliness like never before.

At work, I’ve heard that many people have had different, more meaningful conversations with their colleagues and bosses, conversations about health, wellbeing and support – topics which have typically not been at the forefront of 121s that are usually more focussed on tasks, projects, deliverables, outcomes and performance.

I sum these conversations up as ‘care and compassion and empathy at a grand scale’ and noticing this shift in workplace exchanges has got me thinking about what we as leaders can learn here?

Before recent events, discussions I had with leaders tended to be along the lines of:

·        “I know being compassionate is important, but I struggle to see where it fits at work”

·        “I don’t believe there’s a place for personal issues at work”

·        “I’m too busy to be compassionate”

·        “There are more important things for us to focus on here than being compassionate to people”

However, now many are saying “life will never be the same”, but what do they mean exactly? 

I heard similar words used immediately after the 9/11 attacks and after the 2008 financial crisis.

Does our current experience provide us with a golden opportunity to learn how to be more compassionate leaders?

And if so, will we take it and use it?

Or will we squander it and return to the old norms and ways of being?  


What is Compassionate Leadership?

Compassionate leadership is more than just being a compassionate leader and caring for a colleague who is in psychological distress.*

Compassionate leadership is about:

a) being a compassionate person and

b) encouraging compassion and caring in the wider organisation (i.e.: trying to create a culture where being compassionate is not just acceptable but is seen as the norm)

c) encouraging employees to talk about their problems and providing relevant and appropriate support.


Why has compassion been so scarce in organisational life up until now?

There are many reasons why leaders at all levels find it difficult to be compassionate at work. You may recognise these:

–         Pressure for performance, productivity and efficiency which reduces the capacity of leaders to notice another person’s distress

–         When leaders are overloaded and overwhelmed, they are less able to respond in a compassionate way

–         Organisational cultures. Where compassionate behaviours are not acceptable

–         Fear of being seen as weak – or fear of burdening others. Some leaders fear that expressing their distress may affect the way they are viewed and ultimately jeopardise the future of their job

–         And finally, some leaders fear that if they show compassion people might start taking them for granted, see them as a “soft touch” and not fit for a leadership role.

We currently have a real-life reminder that humankind is interconnected and that what affects the individual, affects the larger community, within and across borders. Compassion can often be thought of as ‘fluffy’ and not of relevance to business performance. However, much of the research around compassion suggests otherwise.


What do followers want from leaders?

A 2009 Gallup survey, reputedly the biggest global study of what followers want, claims that the world’s 7 billion citizens wanted four basic needs to be fulfilled by the leaders and institutions which lead our nations and the world:

1.      Compassion

2.      Stability

3.      Trust, and

4.      Hope and inspiration for the future.


How then, can leaders develop the skills and behaviours of compassionate leadership?

If closer contact and knowing more about how colleagues typically behave makes it easier to notice any changes in their behaviour and have a sense of what sort of act might be appropriate to help someone cope with their distress; then here are some suggestions to help foster closer relationships and create the environment in which people can feel empathy for one another.

  • Lilius et al (2011) suggests that leaders should reinforce values that encourage employees to establish strong relationships with each other, and to learn about each other’s lives.

This approach is backed up by Kouzes and Posner’s research and their ‘Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership’ model, particularly the ‘Model the Way’ practice.

  • By establishing strong relationships between team members through meeting or socialising with colleagues on a daily or weekly basis

But, how do you do this in a virtual world? There have been some great examples of teams coming together on a more social basis recently, from weekly virtual lunches (some in fancy dress), virtual quiz nights, and virtual coffee chats, etc

  • By acting as role models and supporting the compassion process by expressing care and concern towards team members
  • By encouraging a culture of openness by sharing your own problems, signalling that it’s appropriate to talk about personal difficulties and challenges.

Reflecting on activities that foster compassion in their team and wider organisation can also enable leaders to develop the skills and behaviours of compassionate leadership. Questions such as the ones below are a good start:

1.      Do I actively promote a culture in which people trust each other and know that if they talk about their problems, other team members will not judge them and they will listen and try to help?

2.      Do I actively encourage and empower others to respond to a colleague’s suffering?

3.      Do I show care and concern towards people in my team?

4.      Is there a strong connection between people in my team which makes them feel joined, seen, felt, known and not alone?

5.      When people in my team notice a change in the condition of a colleague, do they feel comfortable about inquiring further?

Compassionate leadership in practice means leaders listening with curiosity to those they lead, arriving at a shared (rather than imposed) understanding of the challenges they face, empathising with and caring for them, and then taking action to help or support them.


What are the business benefits of being a compassionate leader?

A team member who is experiencing psychological distress is not the only one who benefits from compassionate leadership. The positive effect of compassionate leadership on people reaches way beyond – it has a clear influence on clients, colleagues who witness the compassion act, and those who are involved in the actual act of compassion.

Compassionate leadership enables people to experience positive emotions which:

  • Boosts productivity (Lilius et al., 2011).
  • Lowers heart rate and blood pressure and strengthen the immune system (Friedrickson et al., 2000; Gross, 1994), and
  • Results in positive customer service (Figley, 1995; Goetz et al., 2010).


Finally …

I am hopeful that maybe this time of social distancing and quarantine could help leaders and society as a whole gain a much-needed insight into what it means to be vulnerable. And, I hope that this awareness will lead to new understanding and empathy; and changes in the way leaders and their followers work with each other at work.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson here is that life cannot afford to keep going back to business-as-usual in the ways we are comfortable with, when we have evidence that this is not sustainable and does not provide stability. A virus is a living organism, it has a place in history, and it can be a teacher to us at this time. Is this an opportunity for us to take a more holistic look at how we organise ourselves, how we are living on our planet?


If you want to find out how to develop your compassionate leadership skills (or those of your team) please get in touch with us at info@jmaleadership.com or call us on + 44 1604 607738.

We look forward to hearing from you.


* Psychological distress – or suffering – is a broad term which covers different types of unpleasant experiences that an individual goes through during a lifetime (e.g. loss or illness of a loved one, breakup of a romantic relationship or physical illness). Examples in the work domain include situations such as when people suffer from bullying, harassment, unfair treatment at work, lack of job security or work-family conflicts.