Leading with Compassion: the difference is in the doing

By Stella Voules

Not so long ago, pre COVID-19, we were compiling research into cultivating compassion-based leadership. We became increasingly aware that today’s organisations seem to lack compassion – or at best, it was thought to be scarce. Our research indicated that pressure for performance, productivity and efficiency reduces our capacity to notice what other people are dealing with and to respond compassionately. It could also be that compassionate behaviours are seen as weak and therefore have no place at work (Poorkavoos, 2016).

Roll on 2020 and one global pandemic later, leaders, both individuals and organisations, have had to re-write the norms. We’ve had to revaluate what performance, productivity and efficiency look like, and re-examine the relationship landscape. We’ve needed to come together and feel connected, whilst being literally isolated from one another.

As advocates for cultivating compassionate cultures, we reflected on the role that compassion can play in helping to buoy us through the challenges ahead, as well as redefining the landscape that we will return to.

A recent McKinsey article Tuning in, turning outward: Cultivating compassionate leadership in a crisis, proposed that “Four qualities—awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and compassion—are critical for business leaders to care for people in crisis and set the stage for business recovery.”

But how do we separate compassion and empathy? To put yourself in another’s shoes and feel for them, is that not both compassionate and empathetic? Research scientist Emma Seppala explains that “the definition of compassion is often confused with that of empathy. Empathy, as defined by researchers, is the visceral or emotional experience of another person’s feelings. It is, in a sense, an automatic mirroring of another’s emotion, like tearing up at a friend’s sadness. Altruism is an action that benefits someone else. It may or may not be accompanied by empathy or compassion, for example in the case of making a donation for tax purposes. Although these terms are related to compassion, they are not identical. Compassion often does, of course, involve an empathic response … and involves an authentic desire to help.”

At JOST & Co, we identify compassionate leaders as those who:

Notice — Feel Concern — Act

When it comes to compassion, the difference (that sets it apart from empathy) is in the doing.

Coming together, whilst working apart

In a time when leaders are physically separated from their teams, the challenge to lead with compassion – to do – to act, is greater than ever. But to not act, poses a far greater risk. Like us, our teams are feeling fear and anxiety; they are grappling with uncertainty and new challenges.

“You are leaving capability on the table if you’re not managing compassion in your culture. It’s too costly to ignore it.” 

Monica Worline, PhD Stanford

Now is the time to firstly look inward and become aware of how you are feeling. It’s only then that we can listen to others and acknowledge what they are feeling and how they are coping. Sharing your own concerns starts to role model vulnerability, thereby creating a safe place for your team to open up and share. This opens a space you can step into and act.

What can we as leaders do?

Coming together and acting will be the glue that holds the team together through this crisis, whilst setting a stage to rebuild on.

As leaders we can start to build a culture of compassion by:

  • Having and displaying compassion for ourselves, and also for others. Make sure you practice self care, and create the space for others to do so also.
  • Operating with integrity, not backing down from delivering ‘bad news’, but consciously choosing the most compassionate approach for delivering the news. 
  • Espousing accountability byholding people accountable for their work, and not hesitating to address difficult performance issues, and execute consequences for sub-performance. This requires you to build a relationship based on trust with your team.
  • Demonstrating presence, which reflects the ability to stay attuned to people and situations by focusing on the present moment. Presence represents a conscious choice of behaviour and is much more than just having a conversation; it also involves sharing and honouring moments spent with a person. It is a tool which can be used to demonstrate compassion and concern for employees. Recognise the things that are important to your people, and celebrate their successes.
  • Expressing empathyand showing a willingness to consider the employee’s needs in decision making.
  • Being authentic, by showing vulnerability and openness in sharing our experiences (including successes and failures) with others. COVID-19 has been tough on everyone in different ways. Don’t whitewash it, gloss over it or ask people to simply be resilient.
  • Accepting and tolerating differences (opinions, lifestyle choices and skills), recognising the strengths and unique qualities of each person, and demonstrating sensitivity toward their welfare.
  • Generally, being the best version of yourself and introducing play to your workplace. Create employee engagement activations that can be delivered to their home that show an understanding for the challenges of remote working, e.g. meal delivery, ergonomic equipment hire, or creating a daily check-in form for teams and following up on the feedback

Compassionate leadership is not a ‘soft’ ideological approach: it creates an environment where learning and quality improvement are the norm; it is fundamental to high-quality, high-performing systems and drives improvement in performance. Building a compassionate culture lowers stress and improves team cohesiveness and effectiveness and, as the leader of your team, that’s a profound contribution to its success.