Aug 17, 2021 13 min read
Compassion and Compassionate Leaders at Workplace
“I remember the first time I was being interviewed for the Operations leader role. The company had its office in Indore and I was flying from Delhi leaving my family and a job of 10 years to understand the role, discuss the job, and its deliverables, with Satish, the HR site leader. Everything seemed good but moving from Delhi and bringing my family to Indore was just too much. I was not convinced and then on the night when I was flying out, Satish said, “Priyank, the truth is that you will get better roles and higher compensation packages, but this site needs you. I am sure under your leadership; the teams will flourish, and we will be able to march ahead. Will you give us a chance?”
That conversation changed the way I looked at my role and it’s been 3 years now; I have loved every moment of working with Satish. I guess, we all love working for people who can be honest and vulnerable with us. Satish is one such person. He is no nonsense and totally authentic. It’s remarkable that he is so in touch with how employees at the site are experiencing and is willing to go that extra mile to make them feel heard and values. It is rare to have someone who is so genuinely involved with the wellbeing of their team members.”
- Priyank Chandra, Ops leader, IT Services Company
There is a very popular saying, ‘people don’t leave their jobs, they leave their bosses’ and if they can’t physically quit, they mentally quit. The fact that quality of relationship between bosses and employee affect work experience is not new. No wonder, in a Deloitte millennial survey (2016), 7700 millennials from 29 countries shared their expectations and responded that for a business to have a long-term success, it should put employees first and build relationship based on mutual trust and integrity. The need to be heard, respected and to be empathized with, undoubtedly is increasingly becoming a ‘pull factor’ for employees, especially in the volatile, uncertain world of today. Herein lies the need to be compassionate, to develop compassionate leadership and cultivate a supportive culture.
In the present article, I will briefly touch upon a foundational understanding of compassion, share few findings on what compassion can do and lastly talk about how it can be cultivated by leaders. In doing so, I limit the scope of the article.
What compassion is and why is it a critical element in effective leadership?
An old Indian proverb says, ‘Nothing grows under a banyan tree’, that the huge tree towers so high and spreads it’s branches so wide and with such thick foliage that the sun cannot filter through to nourish the tiny seedlings below.
The same can be said unfortunately of many strong and visible leaders who drive and achieve overarching production metrics but fail to nourish their teams that look up for support to flourish. A solution to such conditions can be offered through following and developing compassionate leadership that presents a shift from the western notions of individualistic, heroic view of the leader to one which is characteristically Indian- a leadership that is shared, distributive, empowering and adaptive.
So, what is compassion and what does compassionate leadership do? Defined in many dictionaries, compassion is a deep desire and sense of knowing or “awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it” (Marriam Webster – Online dictionary, n.d). Interestingly, Indian culture, has a long tradition of compassion, where being moved by the pain of others lies at the heart of all religion, spiritual practices, and ethical considerations (Armstrong, 2011).
Does it then mean that as Indians we are naturally inclined to compassion or that we are more compassionate than people from other cultures? While there is no conclusive evidence supporting or contradicting this statement, studies show that cultural priming does influence what we expect from others in various spheres of our life- personal, professional, at home or at work (Bhagat, McDevitt, & McDevitt, 2010). From an organizational perspective, we expect our supervisors, managers, leaders, and team members to be compassionate. Infact, so critical is the need to feel understood and supported that perceived compassion in supervisor’s behavior is linked with lowered risk of burnout and stress (Rynes et al.2012; Rajeswari et al.2020). Similarly compassionate dealings within the team have been linked with better employee engagement, increased loyalty, trust, and interconnectedness. The study further noted that compassionate leadership is correlated with 27% reduction in sick leaves and 46% reduction in disability pensions (Williams, 2012) suggesting a strong link between compassion and financials of a company.
Yet, another group of studies especially on compassionate responding has been strongly related to promote healing and building quality relationships (Frost et al., 2000; Grant, Dutton, & Rosso, 2008). These studies show that compassion demonstrated during crisis at critical times such as after 9/11 ( Dutton et al, 2002) or after Taj Mumbai terrorist attack (Mohapatra & Wilkinson, 2021) or now even during COVID (McKinsey & Company, 2020) is fundamental in determining organizational resilience and psychological wellbeing of employees.
McKinsey goes a step further and suggests leaders to be more compassionate during the pandemic times when COVID 19 has triggered sensitivity and distress. Under such circumstances it prescribes a leadership behavior that (a) proactively creates space to attain keener awareness of what is going within and around themselves (b)is bold in exhibiting vulnerability (c) demonstrates empathy to better identify what others and self are feeling and thinking (d) and demonstrates caring behavior.
Can compassion be learnt?
Yes, compassion can be learned, and it is fair to assume that if you have read the article so far, you have all the intention to practice compassion. Passmore (2019) suggests that compassion can be consciously cultivated by focusing on three vital spheres – (a) working on our capacity to be kind towards self (b) being mindful of others (c) by unleashing a compassionate culture.
Practices and trainings based on self-kindness has been found very effective in situations demanding high emotional work- for example in occupations like counseling, teaching, social work. These practices build heavily on compassion directed towards self, particularly when self-experiences doubt, failures, uncertainties, or suffering. Let’s imagine a situation, an employee prepares well for a client presentation, but during the presentation the client comes across as aggressive and uncooperative and the deal falls off. The employee blames self undoubtedly feels low and is clearly distressed. Chances are that he/she might be ashamed, confused and might fall into the cycle of self-defeating thoughts. This is a time when he/she can benefit from practice of compassionate self. Two techniques most strongly associated with it are mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness and meditation include a conscious attempt on the present-the thoughts, feelings that occupy the mind at that moment. By engaging in moments of inner stillness can one enjoy strength, clarity and regain composure and acceptance of authentic self. Doing this regularly helps train the mind to notice self and others in a non-judgmental, accepting manner, a skill that can be easily transferred to under conditions of stress and challenge.
Once, self-compassion is learnt, the next step is to turn compassion towards others and the initial step in doing it is through developing empathy- experiencing the world of other the way they do. Skills that people are trained to develop empathy include active listening, focusing on the crux of the story and practicing empathy by seeking active feedback. In a study conducted on counselors, empathy training focusing on these three components increased client comfort, their readiness to improve and benefit from counseling and elevated their overall satisfaction with counseling (Kumar, 2010). The same has been studied as an effective intervention when developing compassion in nurses and in staff dealing with in-patient care. Both these work situations not only calls in for emotional regulation, client care but also compassionate responses that influence job outcomes and other experience (Su et al, 2020; Sinclair, 2016).
The third component involves cultivating a compassionate culture by ‘walking the talk’. As adults, we learn more by observation than direct training, so having leaders work as role models is particularly effective when the objective is to reinforce an emotional culture that is rife with compassion. Many practices help in forming a compassionate culture- regular townhalls, informal employee connects, open door policies, formal procedures and practices seeking and studying employee sentiments have been found very useful.
Compassion is essential when we think of building positive work experiences. Of course, we have companies which have harsh people management practices, but they still earn huge profits, but stop and think for a moment, would you like to work for such a company of would you like your child to be treated poorly by an inconsiderate boss? You might be motivated by seeing how you respond. In the words of Simon Sinek, “let us all be the leaders, we wish we had.”
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