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Can Compassion Make You a Better Leader?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By April Townsend
August 8, 2022

“Can you believe it?” my friend Monique said, while shaking her head. “My boss has called twice since I got home from surgery just to check in and see how I’m doing. No work discussions at all—she genuinely cared about me and how I was doing. I wish every other boss I’ve had could have shown such genuine concern for me. It just proves that I made the right decision to take a position working for her.” I agreed, and together we explored how the old model of managers has evolved to one where simply being human and showing compassion is valued.

Goodbye Inflexible Work Environments

There’s no question that the last couple of years have been difficult, both personally and professionally. Employees have pushed back against rigid work cultures that refuse to acknowledge that every employee has different needs. While there’s still a debate on how the great resignation will play out, it’s safe to say that it will never go back to the way it was and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

If nothing else, it’s raised our awareness on the struggles and challenges our employees are dealing with both personally and professionally. The impact of on-going stress, combined with fear and loneliness, has taken a toll on our mental health. Some research has found that 4 out of 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or mental health challenges, double the number reported in 2019.

The #1 Contributor to Job Satisfaction

The #1 factor in a person’s job satisfaction is their relationship with their leaders. This means that by virtue of your role as a leader, you are the single biggest factor to how your employees experience work, particularly post-pandemic. This underscores the call for incorporating compassion into your leadership skills. Science backs this up with numerous studies showing how compassionate leaders not only appear stronger, they also have more engaged followers, inspire better collaboration and experience lower turnover. This happens by leaders intentionally creating psychologically safe environments where employees are more trusting, more connected to one another and more committed to the organization.

As a leader in a public organization, you’re no doubt seeing first-hand how this is playing out with those on your team. Every employee has experienced Covid-19 and its repercussions in different ways. For all of us dealing with “Covid fatigue,” there’s an opportunity to show compassion by creating an environment that shows you really care.

Compassion, Not Empathy

First, let’s clarify what is meant by compassion, which is different than empathy. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes, meaning that when you see someone suffering, you adopt the suffering as well, so you suffer together.

Compassion is different. Compassion is when you see someone suffering or struggling, instead of choosing to suffer together, you feel a desire to act or create change to relieve the suffering. Compassion occurs when you take a mental and emotional step back and ask yourself what you can do to support the person who is suffering. Think of it this way: Empathy is an emotion, while compassion is an intention.

Surprisingly, compassion actually leads to a sense of empowerment and a positive state of mind, even while being aware of the challenges that other people are facing. Why? Because it reinforces our confidence that we can help the other person, rather than getting caught up in their suffering.

What’s the Real Story?

To be clear, showing compassion doesn’t mean that you avoid taking someone to task for not completing their work or if they’re exhibiting problematic behaviors. Rather than being “soft” or being a people-pleaser and giving them what they want, the focus is on giving people what they need—such as tough feedback. Instead of assuming the worst, start by giving someone the benefit of the doubt and then make an effort to fully understand the situation so you can make the best decision for all involved.

Ultimately, your goal is to understand the real story. To get there, it may be helpful to ask, “During the last month, what have you struggled with the most?” or perhaps, “What change could we make in your work that would have the biggest impact on your well-being?” Your role is to encourage or guide your employee’s efforts when needed, while being clear on your expectations, as well as the consequences if deadlines aren’t met.

Compassion Is the Difference

When employees have a compassionate manager, they are 25 percent more engaged in their jobs, they are 20 percent more committed to the organization and they are 11 percent less likely to experience burnout. You have a choice—you can choose to create a rigid work environment, or you can choose to be a leader who encourages (and models) a strong connection between the people on your team where they feel seen, known and not alone. If you ask me, that second option doesn’t sound so bad. Like my friend Monique, I’d certainly want to work for you.

Author: Dr. April Townsend worked in local government for over 30 years, holding a variety of executive leadership and management positions. She is currently a Scholar-in-Residence with the Utah Women and Leadership Project and owner of Townsend Consulting, LLC, providing leadership coaching and organizational consulting services. She can be reached at April@ Townsend.Consulting.  Twitter handle: @AprilT2014

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