COVID-19 can be likened to a crisis that even one year on, continues to have a substantial impact at an emotional, cognitive, physiological, financial and social level. Everyone has been hit in some way, from individuals, families and leaders to organisations.

In the immediate aftermath to a crisis, it is natural that a leader does everything possible to limit damage and losses to the business and to try to stabilise it in the short-term. However, what does a leader do when they need their team for the long-term recovery of the business, and every team member, including themselves, has been affected by the crisis too?

In addition to keeping an eye on business needs, it is important that leaders keep an eye on their team’s needs. If leaders bury their head in the sand or charge forward shouting ‘business as usual’, targets and deadlines may be met, though by a team that is buckling at its knees.

When a team has been through a crisis and is still coping with its impact, team members may be full of anxiety, grief, uncertainty, instability and shock. Leaving the team in this state without acknowledging and addressing it, whilst piling on more demands, can maintain their state of threat. Employees may be left feeling uncared for and like a means to an end. In turn, this can hinder the team’s morale, well-being, functioning, and trust in the organisation, which can be of significant cost to the business.

Now more than ever, leaders have to put their people first. The challenges is for leaders to find a balance between holding their teams when they are struggling and finding solutions to empower them to get back to creating, exploring and growing in their roles, so that they and the business can flourish in line with the organisational values and goals.

To do this, leaders need the right language and tool for the job. Compassion is the language and tool for leaders to become well-versed and skilled in.

This is the first in a series of articles on compassionate leadership. Here, we introduce the concept of compassion and how it applies to leadership.

What does compassion really mean?

To understand how to lead with compassion, we first have to understand what compassion means. Take a moment to think about your definition of compassion. I myself had a vague understanding that compassion meant being kind and caring. Through my training as a Clinical Psychologist, I discovered that compassion is so much more complex than this.

There are many myths and misunderstandings about compassion, and it may be important to start by clarifying that compassion is:

  • not just being nice
  • not just an emotion or love
  • not weak
  • not about ignoring problems
  • not about trying to get rid of pain and anything negative

Paul Gilbert, the pioneer of Compassion Focused Therapy, explains that compassion is: “A sensitivity to suffering and… a commitment to reduce and prevent more suffering.”

Our capacity to show compassion is rooted in the mammalian instinct of caring. When babies cry, they are signalling that they are in some kind of distress (they may be cold, wet, hungry or scared). When we hear babies cry, we may detect that they are in need and have a natural pull to do something about it (by holding, rocking, soothing, feeding the child, or changing a dirty diaper). This helps to soothe the baby and get them to an emotional state where they feel safe again and less threatened.

Compassion combines our caring instinct with our intellectual abilities, cognitive reasoning, and awareness. This allows us to know that when we and others (including family, friends, strangers, teams, clients, and businesses) experience pain, challenges and suffering, we need to do something about it. It also allows us to predict what may reduce or increase suffering in the long term, so that we can continue to support ourselves and others to adjust our behaviour accordingly, both over time and in different settings.

Two core components of compassion

In essence, being compassionate towards ourselves and others entails two core components:

  1. Engaging with pain and suffering when it is present

This means that we do not ignore, deny, and push away pain when it is around. Rather, we do the opposite and lean into the painful world of the other person (or we lean into our own pain in the case of self-compassion) without judging this as wrong. We lean in with a sensitive, warm, kind and gentle presence where our message is:

  • I see your pain in this moment.
  • I am not denying it or judging it.
  • I am moved by this pain.
  • I feel your pain because if I were in your shoes, I can imagine that this would hurt.
  • In the context of your life experiences and your current stressors, it makes total sense that you feel this way.

Courage is a fundamental quality that enables us to turn towards our own and others’ pain. Both as leaders and as employees, we may be trained and primed to appear strong and in control. Admitting that there is pain, that we are in pain, and that we see it in ourselves and each other takes absolute guts because it is the opposite of what many of us are used to doing.

2. Acting to reduce and prevent more pain and suffering

This is about taking responsibility and committing to doing something about the problem. By leaning into and getting to know the internal distress of an individual, team and system, we can then be in a better position to use our wisdom to figure out what the most helpful action will be. This takes a strong and determined focus and energy that says:

  • I have a wish for things to be better.
  • I am going to take responsibility for what is in my control.
  • I am going to figure out what the most helpful course of action is.

Wisdom is a fundamental quality that enables us to figure out what action is going to be helpful rather than harmful.

How does compassion apply to leadership?

Let’s think about this based on the two core components of compassion.

  1. Engaging with pain and suffering when it is present

When leaders can show their team sympathy, empathy, kindness and care, then team members can feel safe and secure at work, even if they face ongoing pressures at work and in their personal lives. Leaders can also connect with and empathise with their teams by honestly sharing some of their own personal struggles. This do not mean over-sharing to a point that there is too much self-disclosure or that the team is left feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Rather it is a wise kind of sharing where leaders normalise that it is OK to not be OK and to be struggling during times of stress.

This can enable employees to realise that they are not alone. They may feel better understood and in turn they may develop more sensitivity and understanding of each other. In this way compassion can create connectedness. It may foster a sense of community where the team approach struggles and challenges together whilst still working towards common organisational goals.  

When leaders find the courage to be vulnerable and this is received sensitively by others, the team may also feel safer about sharing their own vulnerabilities and develop a sense of trust that they are not going to be judged. This may set a precedent for having conversations based on openness, honesty and candour, which in turn can lead to better business outcomes as the team may feel more comfortable with calling out problems and what may be hindering progress.

2. Acting to reduce and prevent more pain and suffering

When leaders are genuinely curious about how their team is feeling and take the time to listen, this is when they can start to get to the root cause of the problems in the team and organisation (e.g. why performance has dropped or why there is an increase in absenteeism). Without this information, the underlying causes of organisational issues may remain unknown, and hence left unaddressed.

Once the information is gathered and understood, leaders can be in a better position to identify the relevant solutions and actions in line with the needs of the team and firm. Compassionate action can be a collaborative process where leaders work with their teams to:

  • think about what is going to help and what is going to hinder the situation
  • reduce unhelpful behaviours (e.g. over-working or using critical and blaming language with each other)
  • increase helpful behaviours (e.g. taking breaks or delegating work or having monthly team well-being meetings)
  • recognise and acknowledge when they cannot find an answer for the problem and may need to ask for help
  • doing the harder thing (e.g. saying ‘no’, calling out unhelpful team dynamics, or holding people accountable for their responsibilities)

Summing up

Compassion is the opposite of weak and fluffy. It is about curiosity and genuine interest in the mind of another, be it an individual employee or team as a whole. It takes time, dedication, and courage to actively listen and be with another in their difficulties rather than rush past it to focus on the next target. It requires curiosity about our own mind so that we can regulate our personal feelings and not become overwhelmed by others’ pain or take on another person’s problems. It takes mindful awareness and wise consideration to catch unhelpful patterns and dynamics playing out and to take the most helpful action even if it is not the easiest course of action.

Courage and wisdom are at the heart of compassion and at the heart of being a compassionate leader.


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