Two women are seated together in an office space around a large meeting table with business papers in front of them on the table. One woman with shoulder length grey hair and glasses is facing the camera and is talking to a colleague whose back is to the camera. The atmosphere is one of compassionate leadership focused on collaboration with a colleague.

As an occupational psychologist who specialises in developing compassion in the workplace, I am often asked by senior staff in organisations what it means to be a compassionate leader? They are often worried that developing a compassionate leadership approach will mean that they might appear weak, soft or indulgent in terms of their team’s performance. However, the research and many years of working with senior leaders to enhance their compassionate leadership skills, actually suggests the opposite of these concerns. In fact, compassion and accountability are not mutually exclusive.

Firstly, let me outline what acting with compassion looks like in a work setting – it means that we notice the challenges someone is facing, we listen non-judgementally to their difficulties, we offer them empathy and understanding and then look for opportunities to assist or help them to overcome their obstacles. Now nothing about this appears soft, indulgent or weak, in actual fact, in showing compassion we purposefully turn towards someone’s pain and try to alleviate it. This act takes immense courage, strength and fortitude on the part of the leader, because let’s face it, most people want to run as far away as possible from real difficulty and distress rather than actively seek to listen, support and act.

Taking a compassionate approach as a leader, when your organisation is introducing new processes or technology, is a recognised mechanism to enable staff to overcome their natural resistance to change. Ensuring that staff know they can approach their leader with their genuine concerns about the impact of change on their working lives, knowing they will be heard, respected and offered kind and thoughtful assistance is critical in today’s ever evolving world of work. New technology and transformational change are constant across all sectors and, to be successful in our endeavours, we need our leaders to enact compassion in all their interactions. This way, leaders will not only encourage staff to adopt and embrace new technologies, systems, practices and procedures, but they will be instrumental in building a compassionate and, therefore, more productive organisational culture.

Compassionate leaders, who have developed a self-compassionate practice of their own and have learnt to tolerate their own distress, can tune in to the struggles they encounter at work and meet them with kindness and composure. They are able to reflect, be present and provide the psychological safety required for their people to come to them with their challenges, without fear of reprisal, blame or harsh criticism. Therefore, the team know that their leader has got their back and only wants them to succeed, as individuals and collectively, which only ever enhances their effectiveness and performance. In fact, compassionate leaders are renowned for their advanced emotional intelligence and people management skills which place them at the forefront in terms of delivering competitive advantage in the workplace.

Some key questions you may want to ask yourself to develop a compassionate leadership approach include:

  • Do I show genuine care and concern for the people in my team?
  • Do the people in my team know that I will try to help them if they have a problem or are showing resistance to change?
  • Do I actively promote a team culture where people trust each other, where they can discuss their concerns together and know that they won’t be judged but will be encouraged to deal with their challenges proactively?
  • Can I hold people accountable in a kind, fair and even-handed manner that enables and empowers them to approach any challenge they face with renewed optimism and tenacity?
  • Do I role model self-compassion as a leader by being kind to myself when I am struggling myself, seeking connection with my colleagues and recognising what I am thinking and feeling without judgement?

If you can positively answer these questions, you are well on your way to enacting compassionate leadership. If not yet, remember that we are all works in progress and that we create change with one effective interaction at a time.

Dr Amanda Super is a Chartered Occupational Psychologist who has designed and delivers online Compassionate Leadership Coaching Programmes to leaders from all sectors across the UK, please follow this link for further information.

Feel free to follow her on Twitter @DrAmandaSuper, where she regularly posts about developing compassion, self-compassion and compassionate leadership in the workplace.

Keep up to date with free resources and insights