Compassionate Leadership and Culture

Compassionate LeadershipIn order to see what compassionate leadership looks like, it is helpful to get a picture of the opposite. I had a client years ago, who was an SVP of a bank, an Ivy league grad, and one of the smartest leaders I’ve ever met. She was courageous, curious, influential, and had extremely high expectations of herself and others – which was a contributor to her success. But she lacked compassion. She had no tolerance for anything less than the best, even when circumstances were exceptions to the rule.

As a female immigrant in a man’s industry, she spent her life having to prove herself more than anyone else had to. She led an uphill battle in making her own success. She rose to the top of a bank – a white man’s world – from the bottom, and she thought that if she could meet the demands of the job under her difficult circumstances, anyone could.

But that belief caused her to not listen to or consider excuses (however valid), exceptions, mistakes, or feedback. She worked her employees to burnout and was unforgiving if they made mistakes. Her feedback was full of frustration, resentment, and disappointment, which wasn’t exactly motivating for her people. They didn’t think she cared, even though she very deeply cared for every person on her team. She thought she was showing her care by pushing her employees to their limits, which was not working out so well for anyone. The entire team felt deflated, unmotivated, and disengaged – and she didn’t seem to notice or care.

What Is Compassion, and What Is it Not?

Compassion is often misunderstood and confused with kindness or empathy. However, compassion is more complex than either. Kindness is commonly defined as being warm, friendly, generous, caring, and respectful in your actions, speech, and behavior toward yourself and others – whether you know them or not. Empathy is about being able to understand and share the feelings of others and imagine how you might feel if you were in a similar situation.

The reason compassion is chosen as a tenet of leadership here, and not empathy or kindness, is because compassion is about demonstrated kindness and empathy, in the face of suffering. Compassion requires the demonstration of it all and goes further to include the context of suffering.

When we work with others, while being kind and empathetic is important and not always practiced, it is understood. It is not considerate to eat someone else’s lunch. It is friendly to say hello when you see someone in the lobby you haven’t seen in a while. Follow the empathic credo of “Do unto others as you want to be treated,” often referred to as The Golden Rule. These are easy-to-grasp guidelines for basic and decent workplace behavior. Compassion involves suffering, and suffering is not always easy to grasp.

While complicated – and definitions are often debated – the array of definitions of compassion always involve suffering and a motivation to alleviate it. The University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine defines compassion as, “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”

Suffering involves any state of distress, pain, or hardship – whether physical, emotional, or psychological. In the workplace, suffering may look like something as big as an employee getting a cancer diagnosis or laid off, or it could look like the disappointment of your boss not being able to attend a presentation you worked hard on.

As a leader, when you see someone suffering, whether it is someone struggling at home or at work in any way on any level, compassion in action is noticing that suffering and then wanting to do something about it.  Wanting to alleviate the suffering is the key distinction in compassion, which may or may not require action. A leader with formal or informal power who is inclined to do something when they see someone else in their organization struggling, may be considered as showing compassionate leadership.

Feedback is one context where suffering is present all around. There is very likely suffering, however big or small, on both sides of a feedback conversation.

  • When you have to give constructive feedback, you first must acknowledge that it might be uncomfortable for you to give it. Suffering here may be fear, nervousness, anxiety, or discomfort in the face of giving feedback without knowing how it will be received.
  • There is nearly always discomfort of being on the receiving end of difficult feedback, too. Suffering may be hearing constructive feedback about your project or behavior or skills — and feeling disappointment, self-doubt, sadness, or other forms of emotional distress as you process how you did not meet desired expectations.

Compassion in action here may look like self-compassion – recognizing the discomfort within yourself and cultivating the courage to take steps anyway, whether it is courage needed to initiate the conversation or to receive the feedback graciously and learn from it.

When you offer the feedback with compassion, alongside candor and courage, it may still feel difficult for the other person to hear, but they also know you care. Compassion is at the very center of feedback because it is when someone recognizes underperformance or inappropriate behavior in some way – and then takes the next step to make the person aware and help them through the challenge by giving them feedback – this helps them avoid future suffering and helps them grow. The very heart of someone willing to step into discomfort to give another person feedback means they care.

This is how feedback can be a gift of compassion. 

Compassionate Leadership Begins with Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff, researcher and pioneer in the study of self-compassion, defines self-compassion as, “The process of turning compassion inward.” When we are self-compassionate, “We are kind and understanding rather than harshly self-critical when we fail, make mistakes, or feel inadequate.” She continues, “With self-compassion, we give ourselves the same kindness and care we’d give to a good friend.”

You must first recognize and acknowledge your own suffering before you can give yourself compassion. Whether it is when you are about to give feedback, when you are exhausted and made an error at work, when you are regretting a decision, when you are caregiving for your aging parent while still having to show up as leader, or when you are just fighting a cold. Compassion can help you recognize your humanness and common humanity and meet your challenge with warmth instead of judgment.

To be a truly compassionate leader, you have to learn how to give yourself compassion. If you don’t practice self-compassion, the risks and opportunities are both huge, including: 

Wellbeing

Leading others at work can be stressful and demand a lot of your time, attention, and energy. Practicing self-compassion can help you cope with conflict, stress, setbacks, and self-criticism. Self-compassion also cultivates resilience and keeps burnout at bay.

Stronger Relationships

Self-compassion requires leaders to recognize and accept their own vulnerabilities and imperfections and helps them relate to and accept the struggles and challenges of others they work with. This fosters stronger relationships and a more inclusive and caring work environment. 

Decision Making

Leaders who practice self-compassion are less likely to be driven by perfectionism, fear of failure, and harsh self-judgment. Their realistic, balanced, and very human perspective allows them to make decisions based on compassion, wisdom, and the best interests of the people on the team and in the organization.

Culture

Leaders set the tone for those they lead and serve as role models for their employees. When leaders practice and demonstrate self-compassion, they create a culture that values wellbeing, self-care, and healthy balance of all personal and professional priorities. This can inspire and encourage employees to also prioritize self-compassion, leading to increased overall job satisfaction, productivity, and psychological safety, and less burnout and turnover.

Growth Mindset

Leaders are not immune to making mistakes or experiencing failures. Self-compassion helps leaders recover from setbacks more easily – with self-kindness rather than shame – and learn from them. This helps them to grow, adapt, and create a culture that promotes failing fast, innovation, risk-taking, and continuous improvement.

So, self-compassion may sound soft to leaders, but the benefits are not. The upside is incredibly powerful and can lead to a stronger, happier self, team, and organization.

What Does Compassionate Leadership at Work Look Like?

We already defined compassion, so let’s start to wrap our minds around how it might be able to show up at work.

Sara Schairer, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Compassion It and author of The Case for Compassion, says that the first step to compassion at work is recognizing the suffering in the room, whether that is a literal room you share with other(s), a virtual video “room,” on the line of a phone call, or even perceive it in an email or message. Once you sense suffering, connect with the person and recognize their common humanity. Common humanity is the concept that we are all in this together, and that everyone struggles, slips, and makes mistakes from time to time. Here, this may involve listening to the other person express anything about whatever they’re going through, and ensuring they feel seen and heard.

Schairer said, “Ignoring suffering won’t make it go away. Instead, you can prioritize compassion by starting meetings with check-ins, asking colleagues how they’re feeling, fully listening, being kind, and modeling self-compassion.”

For leaders with power and knowledge, compassionate leadership may look like offering to fill in for a colleague who is going through a rough time, encouraging an employee to take the day off when you notice they need it, or scheduling a self-care day for the whole team to reset after a challenging project. It could be as simple as noticing distress in someone else, and letting them know you’re there for them. 

Compassionate Leadership Has Boundaries

Compassion on its own won’t work. As a leader, you can’t go around giving it out and letting everyone off the hook for their jobs when there is suffering. In most companies, the work still has to get done. Authors of the book Compassionate Leadership, Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, talk about how over-focusing on compassion alone can cause caring avoidance, which is when you let empathy “be a barrier to action.”

They describe compassion not as a permanent trait, but as a mindset a leader can operate in under certain circumstances and with certain boundaries. “Showing compassion in leadership can’t come at the expense of wisdom and effectiveness. You need both. Wise compassionate leadership is the ability to do hard things in a human way.”

Exactly how this plays out is highly contextual and based on your values and the company values. In general, it is knowing how to demonstrate care while doing hard thing things and having tough conversations that need to be had. For example, this may mean giving direct and difficult feedback about their work, in a warm and caring way so the person can actually hear it and know you care about them.

There is a myth that kindness and compassion in leadership renders people ineffective. This old way of thinking ignores newer research that says that compassion is a meta competency that bolsters many other important organizational behaviors and group dynamics. Hougaard and Carter said, “Compassion in leadership creates stronger connections between people. It improves collaboration, raises levels of trust, and enhances loyalty. In addition, studies find that compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and more competent.”

In short, to gain the most effectiveness as a leader, you have to be clear, courageous, and candid about what you need – in a compassionate way. Raasmus and Carter would call this wise compassionate leadership.

Compassion in Organizational Systems

Compassion does not always look like itself on the surface – it can be complicated and messy, particularly when applied at the systems level. In the Buddhist contemplative tradition, the goal of Karuna, the Sanskrit and Pali words for deep compassion, is to find ways to promote the least suffering for everyone. In organizational contexts, this is complicated. The leaders who are making decisions that impact large numbers of people have all the power as to whether or not the decision is made with compassion. Compassionate decisions may mean laying people off in a humane way, in an effort to save the long-term health of the business and everyone else working in it.

In this example of laying people off in an effort to support the greater number of individuals – it points to imposing short-term discomfort and suffering to promote the long-term health, wellbeing, and happiness for the most people involved. Of course, this does not make that particular decision to lay off part of your organization easy, but it does provide some rationale on how compassionate leaders can make such decisions.

Dacher Keltner, Psychology Professor at the University of California Berkeley and bestselling author talks about taking the compassionate approach to decision making and blending it with systems thinking. Keltner said, “You’ve got to step back and think about all the utilities and consequences downstream.” Compassion in action is not often obvious and not always as it seems.

Taking the concept that compassion does not always look like compassion down a level, let’s look at feedback conversations with the broader goal of reducing suffering in the long run and for the greatest number of people. Your ability as a leader to say hard things that need to be said – with the goal of helping that person, team, and organization improve productivity, behavior, performance, and/or wellbeing – is critical. There is no question that leaning into the discomfort in that situation will not only be compassionate, but worth it in the long run – even though on the surface it may appear to be quite the contrary.

Keltner explained that “tough compassion” can sometimes mean encouraging someone to face a struggle they have to face because it’s good for them in the long run. In some cases, giving someone feedback that may sting or firing a high performer who doesn’t fit the culture, may create suffering for them in the short term, but also may benefit others involved – and even them in the long run.

In order to have compassionate systems, you need compassionately courageous leaders.

Compassion Contagion: Building a Culture

The coolest thing about compassion, is that the more you demonstrate it, the more it spreads. Compassion is a “highly contagious emotion,” said Keltner.

As a leader, if you want to build a culture of trust, care, learning, and excellence among colleagues and teams, compassion is central. If leaders do a good job of showing compassion, others will feel it and respond to that by showing compassing as well – and the cycle continues. In this way, building a culture of compassion starts with –and necessitates – compassionate leadership.

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Melissa Eisler

Melissa Eisler, MA, PCC, is an ICF certified executive coach. She partners with leaders to develop their systems thinking, resilience, strategic communication skills, and executive presence in order to reach individual, team, and organizational goals. She blends more than 15 years of experience in leadership positions in the corporate world, with her master’s degree in organizational leadership and extensive background in mindfulness to help her clients master their leadership skills and steer their teams through challenges and change. Learn more about Melissa here.

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Melissa is the founder and executive coach at Wide Lens Leadership and a Partner at Evolution. As an ICF Certified Executive Coach with a Master's degree in organizational leadership, Melissa has coached hundreds of leaders ranging from C-suite to entrepreneur, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, and across diverse industries. Her work focuses on helping high-performing senior leaders and their teams magnify impact by building trust, collaboration, accountability, and healthy communication skills.