Across organisations, there is a slow but sure movement away from a culture of hustle and always-on connectivity to well-being and mindful working. Leaders find themselves uniquely placed in this context. Instead of reinforcing targets and shepherding employees, they can relate to them on a 1-on-1 level and make decisions that bring out the best in a company’s people assets.
That is what compassion and being a compassionate leader is all about. As a trait, it is an essential part of many leadership styles. Now, it has come to define a new way of leading teams and organisations, prioritising humans first. A few ways to identify compassionate leaders would be to observe their style, and some examples can be:
· A leader without empathy is like an engine without a spark plug — it simply won’t engage. Being empathetic is essential for connection; we can leverage the spark to lead with compassion — reference HBR (paraphrased).
· When leaders recognise the importance of building community, they forge connections that help them do their best work and live their best lives.
· Leaders can share and learn from past mistakes and identify the pros/cons of a decision. They can impact both the organisation and employees through apparent approaches.
In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, empathetic leadership is more critical than ever.
Unpacking Compassionate vs Empathic Leadership: What is it and How Does it Work?
Compassionate and empathetic leadership focuses on a leader’s ability to understand the feelings of others and share the same, but they differ in how they act on those feelings. Empathy is “to feel with someone”, while compassion is “to be there to help”. Empathy in leadership builds strong relationships, collaboration, trust, and loyalty. Compassion in leadership is a step forward and beyond empathy, which involves taking action to help others, even if it means making difficult choices. Some believe compassionate leadership is more effective and successful than empathetic leadership because it positively impacts the team’s well-being, performance, and resilience.
Empathic leadership is a managerial competence where you identify with another person’s point of view and make decisions to motivate, educate, and persuade the individual based on this insight. Empathy has long been a crucial soft skill for leaders. Yet, more than three in four CEOs struggle to be empathetic, suggests research. It is easy for organisational leaders to get trapped in an ivory tower of their ideas, views, and high-level challenges, which do not always intersect with the opinions and experiences of ground-level employees. However, the challenge lies in being empathic towards many; it is easy to empathise with an individual you relate to or can be biased towards such an employee. It will lead to a leadership challenge as you may discriminate against others and, conversely, make the employee dependent.
Compassionate leadership is such an important — and uncommon — skill. It entails that those in leadership positions step into someone else’s shoes. It allows you to view things from a different perspective so that you can:
● Find another solution to a challenge
● Motivates employees with a rationale that makes sense to them
● Have a context with which to assess performance and rewards
● Resolve conflicts by better understanding employees’ perspectives
Why Become a Compassionate or an Empathetic Leader?
In many ways, empathy is an intrinsic skill that many people bring to the table, even in non-leadership roles. For example, sales professionals with empathy can better pinpoint customer issues and resolve them via a brand’s product. An empathetic service provider can be more patient while interacting with an angry customer.
In a leadership role, the ability to be empathetic comes into its own, almost every day, in every decision you make. It doesn’t mean someone cannot make tough calls or is extremely conflict averse. This leadership style allows you to navigate these complex situations and come out on the winning side without compromising the employee’s or the organisation’s well-being.
Modern workplaces value both compassionate and empathetic leaders because they can:
1. Boost revenues
These individuals can create better products that truly resonate with the customer. They can also keep employees happy, leading to higher workplace satisfaction and lower workforce turnover. All of this has a positive impact on a company’s bottom line. Such leaders build teams who express empathic capacities, i.e. using the right tone of voice to understand the customer’s wants and needs better. By choosing the right words and emoticons, they also critically achieve closeness with the customer in written communication. Currently, with a focus on distributed and remote work, demonstrating empathy in remote communication is a fundamental tool for establishing a closer relationship with customers to meet their requirements best.
2. Support diverse and distributed teams
Empathy is about helping people from different backgrounds find a point of intersection. As a result, empathetic leaders are very good at supporting collaboration between people who are not necessarily like-minded or are facing logistical barriers like working from different locations. With hybrid work, employees cannot find their feet with real-time-only collaboration or stick to an asynchronous model. It can also exclude employees from essential discussions. Employees often encounter considerable interruptions, miss more lunch hours, and put in longer days than they did back at the office. There are clear advantages for employees whose bosses acknowledge their challenges and find solutions. Research from accountancy firm Ernst & Young shows this more sensitive mindset creates trust between employees and bosses, with 90% of US workers reporting how empathic behaviours from bosses bring higher job satisfaction and 79% agreeing it decreases employee turnover.
3. Increased productivity
The effects of empathetic leadership on productivity are overwhelmingly positive. Usually, the roadblocks to great work arise from miscommunication, interpersonal conflict, or an inability to see eye to eye. An empathetic leader can iron out such issues and pave the way for increased productivity. The sympathetic approach can sometimes overwhelm leaders, draining them emotionally. However, compassionate leadership sustains energy levels by focusing more on empathy-driven problem-solving.
4. Push sales
People with empathy typically excel at sales, which benefits your organisation apart from revenues. For example, empathetic leaders can drive the adoption of new technologies. They can guide employees through organisational change and help new employees settle in faster by “selling” the company, its culture, and values. The new challenge imposed on the sales team is about higher sales, a shorter time to achieve the same and limited resources or support; it sets harsh conditions. Empathic leaders recognise this situation; the emotional suffering due to the sales review process leads to disengagement, and thus, the sales team needs to be motivated. They go about to relieve the suffering, increase empowerment of the sales team, create a clear sense of control, and lead to positive action. Compassionate leaders take such situations head-on with an action plan to improve team members’ resilience.
How to Become an Empathetic Leader?
Cultivating empathy is a proactive process. You can work towards becoming an empathetic leader by:
● Being vulnerable and authentic: Consider sharing glimpses of your personality with your team members, including challenges and shortcomings. Doing so will encourage others to come forward with their views and experiences.
● Practice Self-compassion: It begins with self-love. Treat yourself kindly when you falter; only then can you extend compassion to others. Some ways to practice self-compassion are:
○ Acknowledge your feelings and thoughts without judging them
○ Remind yourself that you are not alone and that others share your struggles
○ Use supportive and encouraging language when talking to yourself
○ Be mindful of the present moment and avoid dwelling on the past or worrying about the future
● Mindful Listening & Observation: Closely listen to your team’s needs, challenges and aspirations. Listen actively and observe keenly. Some benefits of these skills are:
● Act Proactively & Effectively: Don’t just sympathise; strategise effectively and act promptly to relieve pain points. To work proactively and effectively means to cause change by taking action rather than reacting to changes. It also means setting concrete, realistic goals, prioritising tasks, planning, preparing in advance and taking advantage of new opportunities.
● Celebrating successes regularly: By celebrating successes regularly, you tell employees that they are heard and valued. It also provides a balance for tough decisions and not-so-pleasant workplace scenarios.
● Promote a Culture of Care & Respect: Foster an environment conducive to open communication where everyone feels valued. Some doable things:
○ Appreciate others’ perspectives, knowledge, skills, and abilities.
○ Clarify decision-making processes and errors on the side of inclusive leadership by seeking inputs into those processes.
○ Make soft skills a priority, such as emotional intelligence, self-control, and adaptability.
○ Resist all forms of exclusion and clearly articulate zero tolerance for harassment.
● Seeking opportunities to set an example: Empathetic leaders must always specify an instance when promoting empathetic relationships. The real benefit of this skill emerges when it multiplies across the team and organisation, minimising friction in everyday workflows.
● Practising your non-verbal communication skills: Non-verbal communication is central to empathetic interactions. Take courses (or work with a coach) to learn how non-verbal communication works and what cues you should listen to.
● Employing active listening: In active listening, there is a two-way communication process between the leader and the team member. You verbally reaffirm what you just heard, ask questions, and actively engage in the conversation.
Which One Triumphs — Compassion or Empathy?
Though both leadership styles score high on emotional intelligence, some argue that compassionate leadership has a slight edge over its empathetic counterpart due to specific attributes:
- Better Well-being: Compassionate leaders protect their and their team’s mental health by not getting too emotionally entangled.
- Enhanced Performance: By actively working on solutions rather than dwelling on problems, focusing on alleviating stress boosts productivity.
- Increased Resilience: Tough times are taken head-on with an action plan leading to improved resilience among team members.
However, every coin has two sides. To harness compassionate leadership’s full potential, we must also address its pitfalls, such as the risk of overlooking individual needs while resolving issues or potential burnout from constantly problem-solving.
As companies navigate a complex global economy, market turmoil, and stiff competition, compassionate and empathetic leadership are vital for healthy workplaces. It ensures that employees do not just work and survive but also genuinely thrive while meeting organisational goals.
Did this article help you on your path to becoming a compassionate or empathetic leader? Let me know in the comments below or email me at Arvind@am-pmassociates.com.