What Is Compassionate Leadership?

In my job as an editor of a health trade publication, I work with a doctor, who is our head editorial advisor—and a proponent of what some call “compassionate leadership.” He doesn’t give his approach to leadership that label, or any label at all, but that’s what it reminds me of when he says, “Kindness is the key” in managing workplace challenges.

“Kindness is key” means starting a conversation with an employee who is not working out by asking, “You’re not happy here, are you?” That question is an alternative to beginning the conversation with accusations and criticisms. It’s a way of opening employees to acknowledging the difficulty they are having in their role, rather than fixating on assigning blame.

I was reminded of that “kindness is key” approach last week when I read a Q&A in Forbes between contributor Laurel Donnellan and Nate Regier, Ph.D., CEO and founding owner of “Next Element Consulting,” a global leadership training firm dedicated to bringing more compassion to the workplace. “What is this situation trying to teach you?” a mentor would ask Regier when a job-related challenge had gone badly. “He practiced compassionate accountability by balancing empathy and caring with responsibility for behavior, including my emotions,” Regier shared with Donnellan.

I notice insecure managers in the workplace doing just the opposite—savoring the opportunity to feel superior by noting the smallest shortcomings. It’s especially egregious when those who are most eager to note tiny errors are the same who are the least capable and least on the ball. It isn’t that these managers are bad people (for the most part). It’s that they are insecure. That insecurity leads to a “gotcha” culture in which employees are focused on bringing to light other employees’ shortcomings to feel better about themselves, and to not look as bad by comparison. Sometimes it’s a matter of an insecure manager who relishes bringing an employee he suspects is more intelligent than himself, down a notch by finding small points to critique. I’ve started simply not responding when I notice a person doing this insecure “gotcha” thing. I just look at them, nod, and move on to another topic or nod, smile, and say something noncommittal like, “Yeah, I see.” Or “Oh, OK.” I’ve learned it’s a mistake to become defensive and encourage a conversation about whatever minutia has been dredged up to scrutinize. It’s like quicksand or thick mud—you don’t want to put even one toe in that sticky, encumbering mess. 

The question becomes how to create and encourage secure leadership that has no need to play gotcha, and instead can focus on substance and compassion. It starts with whom you recruit for those positions. Are these petty people, judging from their comments in meetings, and the feedback that can be obtained from those who have worked under them? There is so much feedback I would like to give about the managers I’ve worked with at my company, but no one asks or seems to care about my input. 

So the first step is getting input from the people who have worked under those the company is considering for promotion. At my undergraduate university, one of my past professors was up for promotion and reached out to me asking if I would write a recommendation on his behalf. It was refreshing to see that the university cared what students thought of the person it was hoping to promote. I was happy to offer that he was one of my favorite professors, enumerating exactly why.

If a person you are thinking of advancing at your company has acted insensitively—or even cruelly—to employees and co-workers, isn’t that information you would like to have before suggesting he or she be given more opportunity to manage? You can’t have compassionate leadership without compassionate people, right?

Does your organization put an emphasis on compassionate leadership, or just leadership that gets results, regardless of the means?

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