Where is the Compassionate Leadership in a Crisis?

In the last few months, the spread of COVID-19 and its impacts of lives, as well as livelihoods, have questioned our approach to leadership. One cannot deny that a period of crisis calls for tough decisions — at the same time, compassion can be a valuable tool for mitigating anxiety and ensuring that a team stays on track. It is expected that the leaders will empathize with another’s suffering, to feel with pain and think with intelligence, and finally to live up the values/culture of the organization.

It’s a leader’s job to guide an organization through these challenges and come out on the winning side. But foresight, strategy, and action will fall short if not accompanied by empathy — particularly in a time of crisis. While culture of an organization is living it should ideally adopt to changing organization strategy and actions. The organization values drive leadership in uncertain times however leadership which are not able to live up to the values will build trust deficit with the employees and as customers goodwill be impacted. Reports suggest that compassionate leadership is viewed as an essential trait by most of us, but we are unsure of its exact manifestation.

● 91% of leaders in a recent survey said that compassion was “very important”

● However, 80% don’t know how to apply compassion — how can business leaders be “nice” when making a decision and holding someone accountable?

COVID-19 has brought out several leadership styles with diverging results. In some organizations, business leaders have opted for more drastic measures to ensure long-term viability. Others have gone down a more people-centric route, prioritizing employee sentiment in the short-term.

But the conversation begins well before the pandemic.

Compassionate leadership is important even in the best of times

If one was to define compassionate leadership, one could simply say:

“Compassionate leadership is a decision-making approach where the implementation of decision factors in people’s suffering and proactively acts to alleviate said suffering.”

This has far-reaching benefits — a Compassion Study found that leaders who choose this tactic achieve widespread benefits across sufferers (those who are impacted by the decision), clients, (unimpacted) employees, and the entire organization. Also, the sufferer is able to sustain themselves through the grieving process and can recover faster.

The positive emotions resulting from compassionate leadership can boost productivity, improve bodily health, and inspire better customer service.

All of this is even more important as we face a climate of uncertainty as a civilization, in addition to a shift in our personal and professional priorities.

Down to brass tacks — what does leadership look like in a pandemic?

Observing leaders from around the world tackle unprecedented challenges due to COVID-19, a multi-faceted picture emerges.

On the one hand, several organizations and business leaders are actively weaving in compassionate leadership into their operational models. Consider the life insurance company, AIA Singapore. As its staff moves to full-time WFH, its CEO recognizes the cost to employees — infrastructure costs, a psychological burden, and timelines restructuring. To alleviate this “suffering” AIA Singapore will give its permanent and contractual staff SG1000.

Meanwhile, the asset management company, Ninety One, has rejigged its annual targets altogether.

CEO Hendrik du Toit explained that Ninety One is no longer working towards a financial target like regular years. ‘We are running to a target of delivering for our clients, keeping capacity and capability intact. We are not going to try to impress the market with an earnings surprise to the positive and cut our muscle. This is the time you get loyalty from your people,” he said.

Networking giant, Cisco, set its eyes on a more inclusive future for its workforce and the general population, setting up four response mechanisms — The Most Vulnerable (non-profit efforts to support those disproportionately impacted by crises), Families and Community (for the extended employee network), Research and Resilience (for healthcare and social equality technologies), and Strategic Recovery (and to drive operational change in healthcare and education).

As Cisco demonstrates, compassionate leadership extends well beyond the borders of one’s own organization.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in a crisis, the picture isn’t one-dimensional. Corporate giants like Walt Disney decided to put nearly half of its workforce (comprising 100,000 employees) on furlough — staff savings resulting from this helped to maintain the company’s A rating by financial agency Moody’s. Senior leaders at Disney, meanwhile, continue to enjoy most of their stock-related perks.

How will this impact Walt Disney’s goodwill and employability is not subject to question as they engaged with the Union to arrive at a compassionate arrangement. Walt Disney will continue to provide medical insurance coverage for 12 months from the day of furlough, educational assistance and other employee benefits to the employees demonstrating that they live their values through highs or lows.

Even industrywide, some leaders could be cutting down on employee benefits to offset the financial burden arising from COVID-19-related expense and loss to business.

● A reduction in annual leave (8%)

● A hit to retirement benefits (5%)

● Limitations on healthcare benefits (4%)

● Fewer sick leave provisions (4%)

(as per a Willis Towers Watson survey, reported by the World Economic Forum)

And with 30% of CEOs expecting repeated crises in the next three years, compassion might struggle to show itself.

Tips from McKinsey on the road ahead

Fortunately, in a connected world like ours, it is possible to unlearn outmoded leadership styles and imbibe approaches more suited to the situation at hand. McKinsey suggests that today’s leaders must focus on four qualities to care for organizations during a crisis and unlock recovery pathways; these are — awareness, vulnerability, empathy, and, of course, compassion.

To achieve this, follow the tips below:

  1. Acknowledge any reaction to the crisis and fine-tune via a crisis response infrastructure
  2. Avoid suppressing emotions — instead, communicate with your people honestly and thoughtfully
  3. Express gratitude for people’s contribution, highlighting small to significant value adds
  4. Put in place mechanisms for compassionate acts, considering the fallout of every decision
  5. Plan for a post-crisis period where you reimagine the organization

These are some of the key steps in fostering compassionate leadership during a crisis. If you aren’t sure about your current leadership approach (and how it could bring in more compassion) here is a useful resource from Harvard Business Review for self-assessment.

While compassionate leadership isn’t rare, its tenets can be difficult to follow in the face of a crisis. Could this be due to structural causes? Watch this space as I discuss further in my next article.

Board Advisor, Growth Enabler, Strategy & Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor

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Arvind Mehrotra

Arvind Mehrotra

Board Advisor, Growth Enabler, Strategy & Culture Alignment and Technology Advisor

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