With so many people experiencing burnout and exhaustion in the workplace over the last few years, it’s not surprising that business conversations are turning to the importance of empathy in leadership. Yet while empathy is an essential and valuable quality in a leader, cultivating it is not without challenges, including burnout on the part of the leader. After all, if empathy is the ability to make an emotional connection that allows someone to step into another person’s struggles and suffer alongside that person, it’s a wellspring that may be quickly exhausted. A leader who is continually stepping into a team member’s struggles may be drained of a personal emotional reservoir.
Empathy is a valuable skill that enables connection and supports inclusion, but another equally important skill that drives action and affects lasting change is compassion.
What Is Compassion?
Compassion is the action side of empathy. Where empathy steps into someone else’s shoes and experiences the same feelings as someone else, compassion takes empathy one step further into action. It may be one thing to feel the same tension and stress as an employee struggling with extra burdens at home, but it’s compassionate to be flexible and help that employee find ways to work to reduce tension and stress.
Focusing on compassion as an outgrowth of empathy can have a powerful impact across the organization. When leaders connect with employees through empathy and then react with compassion, people feel a greater connection, leaders run less risk of burning out, and positive change can result.
As you look at how to put empathy into action, consider what’s required of a compassionate leader, and be prepared to engage in conversations about why compassion is vital to the health of your organization. Here are four things to keep in mind:
1. Compassion Requires Strength
Compassionate leaders, especially those in an uncompassionate environment, need a baseline level of strength and courage to achieve benefits. In an environment that doesn’t value compassion, leaders need to have the courage to go against the grain as an advocate for their teams. They need the strength of will that allows them to put the needs of their team members up against the organization's culture, if necessary.
Ask yourself: Are you ready to push back against less compassionate ways of doing things for the good of your team members?
2. Compassion Produces Results
Leaders who operate with compassion are not necessarily sacrificing business results in favor of employee needs. Rather, compassionate leaders can advocate for resources and flexibility that team members need to get their jobs done well, thus driving the team's results as a whole.
Ask yourself: What results can my compassionate actions produce?
3. Compassion Improves Engagement
When leaders demonstrate genuine compassion, their employees and colleagues will connect with them in ways that improve loyalty, satisfaction, and overall engagement. If employees leave managers, not jobs, then those employees who feel a sense of commitment and connection with their leaders are less likely to leave.
Ask yourself: Do my team members feel connected and loyal to me? Would compassion drive engagement on my team?
4. Compassion Takes Discipline
In many circumstances, acting with compassion requires discipline. For example, after a tense or heated conversation in the office, it might be tempting to react instinctively—to raise your voice or give someone the cold shoulder or even retaliate. Compassionate leadership requires you to subdue those instincts and respond in a more intentional way—a way that asks how others will react to you.
Ask yourself: Am I exhibiting compassion when I react to others in my work environment?
Empathy and kindness are vital components of quality leadership now and in the future, but they are incomplete without compassion. Compassion puts empathy to work. It takes the genuine emotional connection produced by empathy and empowers it to drive change.
- What is one way you can act with compassion toward a team member today?
- How can senior leaders encourage others to act with both empathy and compassion?
- Can you think of a scenario where you might need personal discipline to react with compassion?