Compassion is a powerful force in the workplace. A study conducted by the Australian School of Business has found that compassionate leaders increase the productivity and morale of team members, in addition to overall organizational profitability. But there’s a catch: compassion among mid- and low-level managers who interact with employees on a daily basis is just as important as compassion from executives. In fact, compassion from lower management had a greater impact than compassion among high-level executives. That means compassionate leaders are needed at every level of the organization—not just the C-Suite—in order to boost employee engagement and morale, while also reducing employee turnover.
Jon Kabat-Zinn pioneered the concept of compassionate leadership as a means to reduce stress through mindfulness. “Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally,” Kabat-Zinn said. “It’s about knowing what is on your mind.” Compassionate leadership is about knowing what’s on team members’ minds. Leaders at all levels of organizations can use the three pillars of compassionate leadership to accomplish that.
Effective understanding requires a well-rounded understanding of what a group or individual is thinking. Affective understanding requires a nuanced understanding of what a group or individual is feeling. Motivational understanding requires an understanding of collective problems and challenges. By engaging with all three pillars, organizations can foster compassionate leaders at all levels to prevent employee turnover and bolster productivity.
1. “I Understand You”: Using Empathy to Build Stronger Connections
The 2016 presidential election has made clear that we’re living in a time of unprecedented polarization. A recent PEW Research Center survey found that Americans are historically divided on key values—and the gap is widening. There’s not a lot of empathy in our culture. This polarization in society affects the workplace, creating in-groups within each organization that are based on commonly held personal beliefs more than company-wide initiatives or goals. Empathy is a key ingredient in improving overall group dynamics. That’s why effective understanding—which is also referred to as cognitive understanding, or empathy—is a key pillar of compassionate leadership. A well-rounded understanding of what groups and individuals are thinking is required to create compassionate leaders.
Renowned workplace culture experts Howard J. Ross and Jon Robert Tartaglione write in Our Search For Belonging, “Many empathy researchers argue that the primary byproduct of empathy should be an intention to respond in a socially beneficial manner to the benefit of all. In this way, empathy is more than just a nice way to understand the state of another; it’s also a pathway to improving the circumstances of the group.” They go on to explore how it is our “compulsion to connect” with others that often creates schisms because it drives us to deeply connect with some at the expense of other relationships. In order to overcome this compulsion, business leaders must strive for an empathy that enriches the group as a whole, not just a select few.
Moreover, compassionate leaders need to work against the compulsion to only support team members that share their beliefs. But this is easier said than done. Power actually “diminishes our sense of empathy,” argue Ross and Tartaglione. So what’s the path for leaders to gain a well-rounded understanding of what groups or individuals are thinking? It begins with self-awareness. “Recently, neuroscientists have begun to find that our brains are not wired to deploy empathy indiscriminately, but rather to allocate our empathic resources preferentially toward those in our in-groups.” Leaders that can overcome their empathic shortcomings will begin to create more inclusive environments that breed creativity, innovation, and interdepartmental cooperation.
2. “I Feel You”: Using Affective Understanding to Gain Nuanced Perspective
Empathy and sympathy are often confused, but it’s critical to register the difference as we transition into the second pillar of compassionate leadership: affective understanding. Leaders can understand individuals or groups without agreeing or having an emotional response. However, having that emotional response can help the leaders gain the nuanced understanding of how individuals or groups are feeling. The Leadership Institute notes, “Facts alone aren't enough. The people you lead also want to know that you feel what they feel. That you understand them on an emotional level.” How can leaders move past sympathy and gain an affective—or emotional—understanding of their teams?
Connecting to others on an emotional level is a two-way street. It requires all those involved to practice authenticity, vulnerability, and mindfulness, and focus on what’s happening in the present moment, argues Harvard-trained psychologist Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu. That means business leaders need to learn how to drop everything and listen, and allow what they hear to affect them on an emotional level so that they can become vulnerable and act from a place of heartfulness. “Heartfulness consists in letting ourselves be touched by the world, giving rise to expansive feelings of appreciation for others,” Murphy-Shigematsu writes in his book, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness. He goes on to say, “Vulnerability can be a source of transformative power.”
Acceptance and gratitude are also required for us to gain an affective understanding of others. “Heartfulness involves balancing this tension between accepting things as they are and working to make them better,” Murphy-Shigematsu writes. Acceptance allows us to be kind to others while we move forward toward creating positive change and while gratitude for our coworkers and their abilities builds compassion and strengthens relationships.
3. “I Want to Help”: Overcoming Challenges Through Motivational Understanding
What should compassionate leaders do once they understand and feel the unique challenges and perspectives of individuals and team members? The final step of compassionate leadership is motivational understanding. By understanding individual and collective challenges and seeking to help, leaders motivate team members and build organizational commitment through trust. This is a proven strategy for reducing employee turnover. Leaders that are committed to making organizations great places to work, helping employees find meaning in their work, and fostering great relationships between coworkers have the most engaged and loyal employees, research shows.
Researchers, educators, and experts on compassion in organizations, Monica Worline and Jane Dutton note that compassion is best expressed in action in the workplace. When leaders act to alleviate challenges and to advance team members personally and professionally, strong bonds are forged both between the leader and the team members, and the team members and the organization. “When actions taken to alleviate suffering are improvisational, creative, and skillfully devised to meet unique, idiosyncratic needs, we refer to them as compassion moves,” Worline and Dutton write in their book, Awakening Compassion at Work. But how can leaders turn empathy and compassion into action?
“Moves are more than acts—they represent skillful and practical knowing-in-action,” the authors write. “Workplace compassion moves that are based in our knowledge about someone else help in two ways: they alleviate suffering and they keep work going. Compassion moves fit both the needs of people and the norms and routines that govern work life.” Some common moves to help employees include being flexible with time when employees are facing challenges, providing task flexibility and buffering to create choices for employees, monitoring and regularly checking in, and providing reassurance and safety. To appropriately respond to a particular employee in the motivational understanding stage of compassionate leadership, it’s critical to first empathize and feel their struggles.
Going Forward: Creating Compassionate Leaders
In an era of unprecedented division and polarization, empathy and compassion hold great power for bringing people together. Compassionate leadership reduces employee turnover by building stronger relationships and fostering greater trust within an organization. Additionally, compassionate leadership has been found to boost productivity, engagement, and innovation. By understanding, feeling, and acting on team members’ challenges, your leaders can build stronger organizations—one relationship at a time.