The Importance of Compassionate Leadership in Working Relationships

The Importance of Compassionate Leadership in Working Relationships

Burnout has become a hot topic in the workplace in recent years, as has its opposite pole – well-being, which is influenced by the attitude of a direct supervisor, who should be supportive, inclusive and focussed on collaboration. What does compassionate leadership mean, and why is it important nowadays in the workplace? 

The following are among the most essential leadership features according to the latest Annual Leadership Development research data from 2021: honesty, ethics, trust, psychological resilience, promotion of diversity, empathy and compassion, whereas business thinking, persuasion, decision making and risk taking are losing popularity. These trends are also reflected in new leadership approaches like transformative leadership, authentic leadership and inclusive leadership, which are increasingly focusing attention on a manager's ability to make team members feel noticed, accepted and valued. 

What is compassionate leadership? 

Compassionate leadership can also be found among the new trends. True and sensitive interest about a person's well-being, an ability to notice changes in people’s behaviour and a readiness to act in order to help them are at the core of this type of leadership. However, this approach is not currently recognized or widespread, as 80% of leaders who took part in the 2020 Harvard Business Review survey, did not consider themselves to be compassionate enough. How do you become a compassionate leader? 

Basic principles of compassionate leadership 

First step: compassion towards oneself. Despite the seeming paradox, firstly, it is important for any manager to become compassionate towards themselves, so as to be able to be compassionate towards one’s employees. During the pandemic, I have seen how managers sacrifice themselves until they are completely exhausted. This also facilitates employee overwork and a negative attitude towards work. The first step for a leader is to learn to manage one's internal resources. One has to listen to oneself: am I getting good sleep? Am I not overworking? Do I listen to my feelings and my body? If a manager is not doing this, then they do not, unfortunately, have any chance of noticing that someone beside them is suffering and needing assistance. By listening in to one's needs, a leader can also affect the well-being of other people at work.  


A customer, having ended up in a condition of emotional exhaustion, set themselves a rule – no e-mails after 6pm. And only by introducing this rule did the person notice that others had also become accustomed to working until late at night. This served as the signal to say: “Dear colleagues, come to your senses and get some rest!” But, until the person started on this themselves, they did not even notice this problem. 

A manager’s initiative is particularly important in this case, because by listening into themselves and caring for their own well-being at work, the manager displays a healthy example to employees and encourages them to care for themselves. 

Three principles – to notice, to listen and to get involved 

Compassionate leadership requires a manager to have the ability to notice, to listen and to get effectively involved in an employee’s emotional experience and to resolve the crisis situation. The idea that compassion is not the same thing as empathy was a discovery for me. It does not work according to the principle: “You are angry – I am angry. You are happy – I am happy…” Compassion means understanding and coping with your own and another person's complex emotions, maintaining a clear head and acting for the good of the aggrieved person according to their personal situation. One could say that compassion is empathy, in combination with actions, to assist the aggrieved employee to overcome their pain. 

One of the ways of developing compassionate leadership is to work consciously with one’s communication with employees. It is worth a manager asking themselves: how can I help others? Have I been monopolizing meetings, do I let others get involved sufficiently and express themselves? Do I listen fully? Do I pose the right questions? Do I pay attention to body language? 

A compassionate leader is able to notice real signals which provide evidence of aggravation or emotional experiences in an employee's life. Has an employee, who was previously active and communicable, suddenly become passive and closed? Does someone seem consistently tired and worried? It is important to communicate daily to promptly notice these types of changes. In an ideal situation, there should be an opportunity to meet in private at the workplace (virtually as well) – face to face with each employee every day, even if only for a short period. 

Compassion is especially required in cases where people are suffering and where employees are awaiting support, understanding and help from their leader. The most frequent causes of depression are: illness, the loss of a close person or the end of a relationship, a relationship crisis, harassment, discrimination, insecurity and work/family conflict. It is quite obvious that a majority of these feelings are caused by private, intimate issues, which are not, at times, acceptable for discussion at work. This is how it really is. To practice compassionate leadership fully, it is important to take the opportunity to discuss one's personal life at work. In the end, if an issue is troubling an employee, it will not disappear during working time and is, most likely, just being suppressed. That is why it is important to create an environment where employees can be completely emotionally secure and share in what is happening in their lives. 

If an employee reveals that they are going through difficulties in some situation, the task of a compassionate leader is to exhibit an unbiased attitude and take action to lessen the problem. Compassionate leadership is especially important in crisis situations. It helps to remember that crisis is an opportunity to become mutually closer. At the same time, however, we should not forget that people cope with emotional experiences and stress in different ways.  

Compassionate leadership in remote work 

To successfully implement compassionate leadership in a remote working regimen as well, it is important to accept that there are currently quite effective communication opportunities in the virtual environment already and that we cannot wait for a return to the normal regimen, as it won't be like it was previously.  Unfortunately, managers in a remote regimen often lose the personal link with their employees, as there are no longer office chats, coffee breaks or celebrations in an informal atmosphere. Taking the size of the burden that the new circumstances have created for many into account, it is important for managers to take particular care about ensuring regular communication with employees right now. 

The golden rule for managers: communicate directly with each employee every day. Even a two-minute telephone call will allow you to understand how the person is feeling and what is going on with them. For some employees, talking remotely about their private lives may be more difficult. However, the opportunity to show initiative and courage is in the lap of the manager, to break through the silence, show interest and maintain the conversation. 

The increasing value of appreciation  

A compassionate leader is aware that employee well-being is of great value, and therefore, it is important to maintain an employee’s self-esteem, sense of importance and understanding about their contribution to the achievement of a common goal. Appreciation for what they have achieved makes an employee feel noticed and valued – 80% of employees maintain that they would be ready to work more if this was appreciated by their manager. 

Appreciation is associated with several aspects of well-being – heightened self-esteem, improved physical health and better sleep. At the same time, it serves as a protective mechanism in crises, catastrophes or periods of trauma.  

Various ways of practicing appreciation can be developed in a team – the sending of cards expressing appreciation, the creation of a wall of appreciation, or commencing meetings with expressions of appreciation. However, a few principles should be remembered for cultivating healthy appreciation. Firstly, it is important to address this appreciation to people, not processes or results.  Secondly, it is worth thinking about special and detailed expressions of appreciation, which are meant specifically for the recipient and at the particular time. Thirdly, people can sense when appreciation is expressed just to tick a box, so the main thing is that it comes from the heart. 

Hurdles and stereotypes 

The question may arise – if compassionate leadership is so good, why isn't it being practiced already in all businesses? Business culture is dynamic and, therefore, it is sometimes also brutal. It continually demands goals and results, furthermore, with everything having to be done quickly. In such circumstances, when people are overloaded, overcome with their fears and challenges, it becomes harder to notice if someone alongside us is suffering, and at times there is the assumption that a choice must be made between either the result at work, or – what I often hear from managers – being concerned about others. In addition, some managers still see compassion as a sign of their weakness and are afraid of showing it. In such circumstances, it is sometimes difficult to allocate priority to compassion, or to devote the necessary time to it. There are hundreds of important matters on a manager’s agenda – project deadlines, costs, meetings etc. Can a moment for compassion also be found among these hundreds of matters? 

The question sometimes arises: what can be lost by devoting more time to relationships with employees and their well-being? In the short term, the introduction of compassionate leadership practices could slow down the pace of work. However, the investment in employee well-being and a compassionate work culture will be repaid in motivated and fully attentive employees. They will be interested in following a leader who listens to them and helps them in difficult times and knows how to express sincere appreciation, valuing what the employee has invested and their importance. 

In brief, about other types of leadership 

  • Transformative leadership is a type of leadership which transforms people’s and the organization's value system, standards, goals, needs and ethics, which inspires followers to positive changes in their lives and work. Transformative leaders place an emphasis on the formulation of a clear vision, to inspire and convince their subordinates to introduce changes. This type of leadership style is demonstrated by Netflix and Amazon leaders. 
  • Authentic leadership is based on self-confidence, honesty and truth. Leaders with this type of management style understand their highest goal. They are passionate in relation to their mission, act from the heart, have strong ethical values, and are not afraid to admit to their mistakes or weaknesses, and can form trustworthy relationships with others. Mother Teresa serves as an example of this type of leadership.
  • Acknowledging leadership is a positive approach to people management, performance and change management, which is based on an evaluation of people’s strengths. An acknowledging leader bases their confidence on the fact that the shared work is more important than authority or power. This increases people's energy, promotes confidence, enthusiasm and good performance. People’s investment is very highly valued in this approach and the ideas and conclusions of employees are widely used.
  • Inclusive leadership is a style where the manager takes into account and respects the differences between team members, to facilitate and strengthen the contribution of each team member, instead of forcing them to assimilate into collective requirements or the achievement of goals. This approach in personnel management helps organizations to adapt to different customers, markets ideas and talent.  

Olga Dzene - leadership development expert, consultant, presenter and coach

Republished from ibizness