First Steps to Compassionate Leadership

Leadership and compassion are two words that we would not expect to find in the same sentence. For many years, the popular perception of a leader was that of being strong, rational, decisive, obstinate, and focused on results, with more technical, operational, and cognitive skills. An Executive Leadership, as we usually referred to. However, despite these skills being valid, over the last few years there has been a greater awareness of the importance of collaboration within a team and between different teams. These challenges reside at the level of emotions, impacting not only in terms of employees’ well-being, but also in their performance and productivity. This way, the theme of empathy and compassion begins to have an increasing presence and importance within organizations.

Let us first clarify what this is compassion, because in our culture this word is often associated with another type of meaning such as being sorry, condescending or having a relationship of superiority and victimization.

Another but simple definition of compassion is the will to help. Compassion derives from the ability to feel empathy, to be aware, from a cognitive and emotional understanding of the other’s experience. It generates a feeling of kindness and the intention to help and to be of service, encouraging action.

Joan Halifax (American anthropologist with extensive work in the field of compassion) says that “compassion is not a luxury; it is an essential need for our well-being, resilience and survival”, and should therefore be part not only of leadership, but of the simple fact that we are human and live in society.

It is important to note that being compassionate is not about “healing” or “repairing” the other. It is intending to help with our resources, time, and attention, but keeping a clear eye on what the limits are and what are the emotional processes of others and ourselves. Because when we empathize too much with another’s suffering without this discernment, we easily get into empathic stress which prevents us from being able to give our best help. For this reason, it is essential for the leader to work on her own self-knowledge and emotional self-regulation, so that she can more easily find this balance.

Good for the leader. Good for the team.

Over the past few years, neuroscience has shown that cultivating compassion promotes greater well-being for oneself, better neuronal integration, better connection with others, and even an improved immune system.

Regarding teams and organizations, research carried out have shown that a more compassionate leadership facilitates:

  • greater employee involvement and commitment
  • better performance in teamwork
  • greater cohesion in decisions
  • an environment of greater psychological safety
  • greater well-being
  • a greater stimulus to innovation and creativity
  • lower employee turnover

How to be a more compassionate leader

We all have different characteristics and personalities, with more or less pro-social drive, but the good news is that, as researcher Richard Davidson puts it: “compassion is a trainable skill and practice can really change the way our brains do. it perceives the emotions of the other and increases our capacity to act”. Here are some tips on how to become a more compassionate leader:

  1. Practice compassion on yourself. As Serena Chen, professor of psychology at UC-Berkeley, puts it: “Self-compassion and compassion for others are intertwined… Being kind to yourself and not self-judging is an essential practice for developing compassion for others.” Studies indicate that self-compassion builds resilience, a growth mindset and the motivation to do better. We also know that leaders who develop greater self-awareness (through Mindfulness practices for example) and who demonstrate greater compassion for themselves and others build environments of greater trust that lead to greater engagement and more sustainable performance. in their teams and organizations.
  2. Create an environment of psychological safety within your team. A leader inspires above all by his attitude and by experiencing what he says and demands. Live the values ​​you want your team to live by. As leaders, we are often afraid to demonstrate some kind of authenticity, vulnerability and openness to other employees, but it is essential to create environments where others can do the same without the fear of being judged, making room for greater creativity , collaboration and better performance.
  3. Know your employees’ deepest motivations. Break down barriers that often exist by better understanding the individual contexts, needs, preferences and motivations of your employees. From a professional point of view, this allows you, for example, to organize teams so that their individual motivational strengths can be better utilized. It also allows them to know how to help overcome obstacles that prevent them from performing tasks or achieving better performance.
  4. Listen more consciously and effectively. Pay attention and presence when talking to each employee individually or as a team. Listen generously and attentively, eliminating as many distractions as possible. Even in more difficult conversations, avoid authority or aggression, speak honestly but openly, use personal language and put yourself in the other person’s situation.
  5. Practice ways to help. I invite you to use this compassion micropractice: when faced with any situation, meeting or conversation that requires your participation, stop, breathe and bring to mind the thought: “How can I help this person in this situation?” Make this a little inner voice that accompanies you and surprise your team by being attentive and offering support (which does not mean solving the situation), so that they recognize you as a help provider as well.
  6. Help employees cultivate a compassionate attitude. Your compassionate attitude towards others will inspire your employees to adopt a more compassionate attitude towards each other. This attitude must be recognized and valued.

It is important to emphasize that being a compassionate leader does not necessarily mean agreeing with the other’s opinion or attitude or not setting limits. A leader can be compassionate, opening up to understand the other’s perspective, “feeling with” the other, respecting the other’s values ​​and emotions and still making constructive criticisms, communicating limits or giving bad news, for example.

An urgency, not a fad

Compassionate leadership is much more than a modern-day fad or another nice addition to the list of leadership skills required by companies or offered by training companies. It is a human, social, business requirement that becomes essential and urgent for us to deal with today’s challenges and develop happier and more collaborative organizations and societies.

In a study of 1,000 leaders from 800 organizations, 91% of them said that compassion is very important to their leadership and 80% said they would like to increase their compassion, but they don’t know how. If you are also one of these leaders who would like to learn to cultivate their compassion more in the workplace, please know that Compassionate Leadership is one of the modules of the SEARCH INSIDE YOURSELF program, a course in emotional intelligence, leadership and mindfulness, which the Executive Academy promotes this June.

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