why compassionate leadership is important

Terms like compassion are rarely thrown around in the workplace. The Economist described it as “an emotion typically associated with response to others’ suffering” before they discussed why it’s an important skill set. Leaders often start out with the intent to build the team that they wish they had. They empathize and display kindness, while still having to answer to the bottom line. 

One first-time CMO told me she was never going to make her team work on weekends and overload them with work. She ended up working every weekend herself instead and took her frustration out on the team. Another VP at a media company was insistent that he would always be understanding of why deadlines weren’t met and be friends with each team member, but over the course of a year, he admitted to becoming less empathetic, even pulling away socially, because there was a bottom line and hard decisions to make. 

Leaders who strive to be empathetic find that empathy is a passive stance of receiving the difficult feelings of others. Over time, the constant pressure of performance, the exhaustion of creating strategy after strategy and putting out fires, added to the continuous need to make tough decisions with even tougher implications to the lives of others can cause those same leaders to reduce their desire to empathize. In short: it can be exhausting to receive how others feel. 

Unlike empathetic leadership, which may create a passive moment of receiving and feeling for others, compassionate leadership creates a proactive approach to growing a team that understands the bottom line but also trusts in you to act with them in mind. Compassionate leaders live in a proactive approach to their role: they are clear with expectations, company needs, and yet take action with an active concern for your team members.  

Compassionate Leadership Creates Better, Not More

Compassion in the workplace is much like compassion for your friends or even family members. It’s more than being nice or checking in. The key is to be in a state of: how can I be of benefit to those around me? That question is different from “how can I help” or “what do you need” because they look for answers from others after-the-fact. Compassionate leaders are aware of circumstances and team sentiment as they unfold and are in a constant place of: how can I make this better. It starts to create a culture of trust, where the team around you trusts that you are balancing the needs of the business with their needs as humans because you are in a place of “creating better” rather than doing more. 

Example: A friend that’s now the head of revenue at a large media company routinely goes around the sales floor to see what each person is working on, just to get an idea of what their in-market issues are. It doesn’t matter if it’s a senior team member or college-intern. He never asks “how can I help” – because he says he’s aware that he can’t always help – but he ends the conversation with “I understand and you’re doing a great job, this is how I’ve learned how to do x better.” He then uses what he’s learned to have a better understanding of what the team needs, resources he needs to deploy, and more.

Nurture Innovation through Action

Creating an environment where team members feel psychologically safe and supported means they need to trust that you are looking out for them; but that trust is gleaned from your actions and communication, not from your intent. When leaders are in a state of “how can I benefit others” they live in a state of proactive-problem solving to support the growth of the team, and when a team feels supported, they work harder and smarter for the company. This means clearing their path to make success easier: redefine processes for efficiency and growth, remove bottlenecks based on control or ego, and reward supportive interactions. When something does go wrong, they first see what they could have done better, then look to implement changes. 

Studies show that when workers feel safe to take risks, they strive to reach stretch goals, give more feedback, step “out of their lane” to help each other, and engage in creative problem-solving. TLDR: the environment encourages innovation and disruption. 

Example:  An old boss of mine once told me “I’ve heard x, y, z about you. I do not see it and I’m new here, but I want you to know I’m going to investigate because I make my own decisions.” A month later he came back and told me that he found no evidence to justify what he had “heard” and that he was going to ensure the roadblocks I had to my job would be managed.  He became my biggest advocate at the company. I have never worked harder for anyone.

Conflict Dismantling, Not Conflict Resolution

Compassionate leaders engage in awareness of their team and work to prevent patterns of negative behavior from becoming the norm. They employ a key rule: they do not allow behavior that negatively impacts the team. This means finger-pointing, not meeting deadlines that then force others to work longer, etc. Compassionate leaders do not wait until an issue “arises” through a team-member complaint to engage in conflict-resolution; they observe patterns and work to dismantle an issue before they become conflicts. 

This creates trust in the team that their problems and concerns about another team member not be met with frustration or dismissiveness. It also helps create an environment where a leader is not basing personnel or team decisions on the word of one or two people because they are actively engaged in observing the team.  

Example: Many places with toxic or purposefully difficult employees say, “that’s just how they are, but they are so good at x that we have to let it go. YOU have to be nicer.” At a tech company, a now CTO friend was a new manager that walked into a similar team environment. After months of working with the individual to help curb those behaviors, she fired him.  When her higher-ups got upset, her response was, “I have no interest in creating a fear-based culture where the entire team walks on egg-shells while another team member berates them.” During her tenure at that company, she grew one of the most high-performing teams, without any of her team members quitting on her.

Always Choose Growth over Business

It is easy to make decisions for the business that can negatively affect the growth of individual team members while positively affecting the bottom line – it’s why the saying goes “people quit managers, not jobs.” It is much more complex to help team members grow in a manner that will positively affect the business by giving them opportunities to grow and show growth. Compassionate leaders know how critical it is to give those growth opportunities even when it feels risky because it pushes team members to grow – which in turn grows the business and improves the bottom line. They strive to create excellence, to create better, and develop an environment that pushes for that.

Example: A Managing Partner at a large NY firm told me that he always chooses to mentor the young associates that did not walk in with connections, so-called pedigree, etc. He said that those associates needed the chance for someone to believe in them and they wanted to grow, whereas the other associates were so used to that type of attention that it didn’t push them to grow, it just held them where they are. He chooses associates for plum projects that do not fit the traditional archetypes and he’s had the most loyal, high-performing team of associates for most of his career.

Building Trust, not Expecting it

Empathy-led leaders may expect others to be understanding and trust that they are doing the right thing and are surprised when they are met with resistance, where compassionate leaders show teams why decisions are made and how they will affect the team as a whole at every step of the way.  Compassionate leadership is about understanding that people are complex and their view of a situation unfolding will be based on years of programming. They do not expect trust, they actively work to earn it at every turn. 

Example: One of the career-board-members I spoke routinely says: “If you have a leader that tells you ‘trust me’ but cannot show you why do not trust them.” He notes that if a person cannot communicate how they got to a decision then either they are unsure of how their decision was made, or they do not want to deal with anyone’s reaction to that decision. He has often advised his companies to remove these types of leaders because, “Those people do not know how to grow a business because a business is only as good as its team, which deserves more than a toxic, press-debacle waiting to happen.” 

Compassionate leadership is essential in today’s workplace, it puts an emphasis on leaders that actively work with the company and for their team members. It’s about cultivating leaders that assess, acknowledge, and implement change with a belief that growing people will result in growing a sustainable business. It’s the “new” (in reality, very old) power play that prioritizes human growth that results in powerful, tangible business results.