Answers to your Questions about Compassionate Leadership

On April 8, we hosted an encore presentation of one of our most popular webinars on a topic that feels especially timely: Compassionate Leadership: Coaching Leaders to Turn Empathy into Action. Hundreds of practitioners from around the world tuned in, and asked dozens of provocative questions on the topic.

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As for those questions, we’ve collected answers from our experts, including MRG President Tricia Naddaff and Head of Research (and webinar presenter) Maria Brown. Below we have answers that expand on our understanding of empathy and compassion, clarify the research, and illuminate the coaching applications of this research.

Understanding Empathy & Compassion

Q: Is a compassionate response always related to negative feelings? Could it be related to joy?

What an interesting question.  In fact compassion is specifically defined in relationship to suffering:

“Compassion literally means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.”

After a bit of searching, it appears that there is no word for taking action in response to other people’s joy or happiness (although there is a fair amount of research suggesting the feeling happy for other people’s happiness is good for our overall wellbeing).

Q: What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

A: It is important to make the distinction because the terms are often used interchangeably. I would place sympathy somewhere between recognizing that someone is suffering and feeling empathy for them. Sympathy has to do with feeling sorrow for someone who is suffering. However, it stops short of actually putting yourself in their shoes so that you feel what they feel – that is empathy. Both involve an emotional response to other people’s suffering, but only empathy gets us close to actually feeling what the other person is feeling.

Q: I have always thought that compassion includes ‘forgiveness’ – this aspect is missing. Can you comment?

A: Thank you for bringing this up.  Compassion is actually a very complex human expression. There are many definitions of compassion in the literature and, as with all of our research, we do our best to stay true to the most common themes out there.  What we measured in this research is compassion in the context of an organizational relationship. However there are many other things that can influence compassion such as one’s spiritual or philosophical beliefs, or an individual’s values, or having life circumstances that enable someone to have the capacity and ability to help another.  Forgiveness would certainly fall into the many other factors that are likely to influence an individual’s ability and inclination to be compassionate.

Q: What is the downside of pulling someone out of their pain too quickly?

A: This is an interesting question. It makes me think of the potential advantages of distress and pain. For one, it teaches an individual how to cope with painful situations, a skill that can be useful in the future, especially when one has a job that requires dealing with stress or distress regularly. The ability to cope with distress could have broad reaching effects, as one might learn coping skills that they can apply to many different situations. When we help someone out of a distressing situation and provide too much support or don’t give them time to learn from it, we might hinder this learning process. However, it often takes time for someone to notice another’s distress and by that time, it is likely that some coping – and learning – has already taken place. It is also important to note that pulling someone out of pain is not usually about taking away the pain altogether; it is often about providing enough support so that the person can find and utilize some way to cope.

Q: Some who are suffering say it’s most helpful when others are simply, truly present and connected to them. When others try to fix their suffering (offering resources, e.g.) they feel distance rather than closeness. Would you comment on this, please?

A: This is a very good point. It is one thing to offer support and another to push it on people. Someone who is truly present and connected will be able to identify the needs of someone in distress and respond accordingly. Empathetic leaders are by our definition sensitive to others’ needs and genuinely interested in connecting with others. This would suggest that they can identify the best way to support others and adjust their level of support based on someone’s reaction. I also believe it is important to provide support as needed rather than jump in and try to fix someone’s problems but this distinction will look different depending on context and the individuals involved. The important thing is to recognize this and not apply the same formula across the board. 

Q: When is it the most valuable to be empathetic and compassionate? Are there any contexts where it is an advantage being less empathetic and compassionate?

A: Good question. As you mention, when to do what will depend on context. Behaving compassionately requires that one have the ability to do something to help others. If one does not have the realistic capacity to help someone else because they don’t work directly with them and cannot exert control over the situation that is affecting them, attempting to be compassionate can actually increase their own distress. Similarly, if helping one or a few will lead to negative consequences for the larger group, then feeling empathy until an opportunity to help comes up might be a more valuable approach.

The Research

Q: How were the scores weighted?

Scores were weighted to ensure that all observer groups had the same influence on the combined observer score.

  • First a mean score for each observer group is calculated for each participant. This leads to each participant having a mean boss, peer and direct report score for each behavior and competency measured by the LEA 360™.
  • To reduce it to one combined score per participant per measure, a single average score across all three observer groups is calculated for each participant on each behavior (median) and competency (mean).

Q: When we look at the group comparison graphs, what is the significance level?

A: Significance level was set at a p-value of 0.05.

Q: Has your research also focused on compassion for self as a leader?

A: This is a great question. We have not looked at compassion for self as an outcome measure but it is something that many leaders need to work on and has the potential to reap broad benefits as well. We do not currently measure this in the LEA 360 but it is something we will consider when we conduct testing and updating of the assessment’s leadership impact items.

Q: How do we reconcile the high-empathy leaders’ low scores on Achieving Results with being an effective leader?

A: Achieving results involves a series of behaviors (i.e., management focus, dominant and production) that have to do with taking charge, leading in a more forceful manner and setting high goals. While leaders in the high empathy group tended to emphasize these at lower levels – not at zero but lower than the other group – the outcome measure of Delivers results (i.e. accomplishes a great deal, achieves significant results, focuses on measureable outcomes) was not different across the two groups. This suggests that while one group is engaging in behaviors that demonstrate a focus on results, both groups are equally effective at delivering results. One possibility is that people working with more empathetic leaders are driven to delivering results because of factors not related to pressure from leadership (e.g., commitment to the work, commitment to the team, enjoying the work).

Q: Have you tracked the business results for compassionate leaders compared other leaders?

A: The LEA 360™ is an assessment that measures an individual’s behavior and effectiveness ratings.  This assessment is designed to be used across a very diverse, global population and as such there is no universal, objective measure of actual financial or business success.  What we are able to do instead is to gather observer perceptions of effectiveness in both business and financial areas.

The research we shared during the webinar showed that in business and financial areas, out high-compassion group of leaders outperformed the high-empathy group (that is, the leaders who were higher on empathy but not on compassion). However, it is important to check whether compassionate leaders outperform less empathetic leaders (i.e., the other 65%) as well.

As you can see in this graph, compassionate leaders outperformed less empathetic leaders in most leadership impact measures. There was no difference between the two groups on three of the impact measures. Importantly, less empathetic leaders did not have an advantage on any leadership impact measure.

Note: Three of these differentiators were expected to be significant as they form part of our operational definition of compassionate leadership (i.e. Ability to develop people, Ability to work with diverse people, Capacity for ethical leadership).

Q: In reviewing other research on high performing leaders, what are the other behaviors and competencies have ranked higher than empathy and compassion?

A: Context and situational factors play a large role in determining which behaviors and competencies are associated with effectiveness. Even compassion and empathy are likely to be more important in some areas and industries over others. Because of the role of context in determining what is important, is it difficult to rank competencies this way. However, while there is great variety in the link between leadership effectiveness and behaviors and competencies, we have found that there are three behaviors measured in the LEA appear to be associated with higher levels of effectiveness in many (although not all) leadership situations.  Those three behaviors are Strategic, Communication and Management Focus.

Q: Have you looked at compassion and the IDI?

A: Good question. We did not look at IDI data in relation to empathy and compassion yet. However, it will be something we incorporate into this line of research as we continue to investigate empathy and compassionate leadership. Stay tuned. We will share those results with the network as they become available.

Q: Do you have a bibliography of peer reviewed articles on compassion/empathy and its positive impact on business?  This would be so helpful.

A: Absolutely. Here are some of our references.

Cherkowski, S. (2012). Teacher Commitment in Sustainable Learning Communities: A New” Ancient” Story of Educational Leadership. Canadian Journal of Education, 35(1).

Dutton, J. E., Workman, K. M., & Hardin, A. E. (2014). Compassion at work. Annual Review of Organizational  Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), 277-304.

Lilius, J. M., Kanov, J., Dutton, J. E., Worline, M. C., & Maitlis, S. (2012). Compassion revealed. The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship, 273-288.

Q: Is this data qualitative or quantitative? I’m curious how this focus impacts the organization’s bottom line ability to grow its footprint?

A: These data are quantitative. Behaviors are measured using a semi-ipsative questionnaire and competency ratings are measures using a anchored rating scales.

Q: Are there cultural or regional differences?

A: This is a great question and one that we will pursue as we continue our research into compassionate leadership. Stay tuned. We will share those results with the network as soon as they are ready.

Q: Do you have a breakdown of the rater groups when it comes to empathy? Specifically, what are the competency ratings of superiors/boss rate high versus other empathy scores?

A: This is an interesting question. This study looked at combined observer data. However, as we expand this line of research, we will certainly be looking at empathy and compassion by observer type. We know that perceptions vary across categories of observers. Different groups tend to have different lines of sight into a leader as well as different expectations from the leader. This can lead to different interpretations of their effectiveness. Stay tuned. We will share this research with our network when it is available.

Implications & Applications

Q: When is giving advice likely to be seen as insensitive?

A: This is a good question, since advice that is not well taken for whatever reason is also not likely to be followed no matter how helpful it is. There are several times when advice can seem insensitive. Some examples include: when it is not requested or appears to come out of nowhere, when the advice makes someone feel poorly about themselves or appears too judgmental, when the advice does not consider the full context of the situation. Fortunately, practitioners are in a place where advice is expected as long as it stays within the bounds of someone’s professional life. Even when one is providing advice within these bounds, practitioners need to be careful of how they phrase and position the advice, especially in relation to what the person is currently doing and what they need to change. There are many ways to highlight someone’s weak spots but it is important to do so using neutral or positive language and always discuss a solution that is feasible for the leader. It does nothing to point out someone’s shortcomings without giving them a way to work on them. Finally, advice should consider someone’s current context. Similar to the previous point, we need to consider why someone is behaving in a particular way and whether there are situational factors outside of their control that are diving them in that direction that would change how they approach a change in what they are doing.

Q: Comparing the behavioral patterns of empathetic and compassionate leaders, practices such as outgoing and management focus are on the opposite sides. What are the coaching implications of this?

One of the reasons leadership is challenging is because it requires so much adjustment and nuance.  There is never just one pattern of behaviors to hold onto that will serve a leader across all leadership situations.  I think one of the biggest challenges a leader faces is to be self-aware enough to make slight adjustments in their approaches to leadership based on the outcomes they are trying to achieve and the contexts they are working in.  So in the case of the empathetic versus the compassionate leader the critical first step is for the leader to be clear about the outcome she is trying to achieve.  Is it the appropriate time to just stay present for the individual or group and not move into action?  If that is the case than aligning with some of the behavior patterns of the empathetic leader profile is where she wants to be. In the case of the two LEA dimensions mentioned in the question, this would mean being a bit more informal and friendly and pulling back a bit on taking initiative, giving direction, and being influential.  If it is time to take actions that will help alleviate the suffering of an individual or a group then she will want to align more with the compassionate leadership profile.  Again using Outgoing and Management Focus as examples, she would want to very slightly pull back on being social, friendly, and using humor, and slightly increase her level of initiative, direction and influence.

I think our work as coaches is about helping leaders become better diagnosticians about the situations they are in and clearer thinkers about the outcomes they want to achieve.  Then, as coaches, we can help leaders become more effective at adjusting their behaviors so they can be even more effective in the variety of situations that so naturally occur in the complexities of organizational life.

Q: I appreciate that compassion is an ‘act’ and can have a significant impact but do you have advice on suggested actions? I find often people don’t know what to do. Instead they ask their employees what they can do, which strikes me as more empathetic than compassionate. 

A: You bring up a good point. One might assume that if a leader truly feels someone’s pain and are inclined to act on it, then they should know what to do. While this might be true in a lot of cases, I think it sometimes makes sense to ask about what would be helpful, especially if one hasn’t been in a particular situation themselves. Alternatively, the compassionate leader may be offer choices to the individual they are trying to support.  For example, they could ask, “would it be helpful for you and I to talk more about this,” “would it be helpful for you to take some time off,” “would it be useful to take advantage of our EAP, etc.” Sometimes laying out some choices can yield a way forward.

Another important point to consider is that compassion in its purest form implies that one acts because they have a desire to reduce another’s suffering. If that is truly the driving force behind them asking what they can do to help, then it might in fact be a compassionate act. If the driving force is “I think I need to do this because it is expected,” then something other than compassion might be at play.

Q: How do you express empathy and compassion in this remote working environment?

A: There’s no right or wrong way to respond with compassion, and there are also cultural nuances that always need to be borne in mind. Having said this, a few practices are likely to make a positive difference.

  1. Reflect – think about people’s greatest concerns and fears, what is most likely to motivate and demotivate them, and how much you know about them as individuals and about their circumstances.
  2. Articulate – during challenging times in particular, provide facts and certainty; don’t feed speculation or negativity. Play the role of the facilitator, making sure that others have their voice without any one person dominating the virtual room. Use collective pronouns and first names as much as possible; try not to “impersonalize” the narrative. Focus on relationship and people first. Check in with people, ask how they’re doing and what they need, rather than going straight into the checklist.
  3. Sustain – provide structure and meaningful tasks as much as possible. Keep people busy and feeling that they are contributing meaningfully to the team. Encourage and foster collaboration and engagement as much as possible. Technology can enable this quite effectively. Think at the level of the individual – some will prefer to work with other colleagues, some will prefer their autonomy. Ensure that everyone is kept in the loop and that blind spots of communication (content and timing) do not occur.

Q: How does compassionate leadership differ from a leader who demonstrates and develops strong levels of emotional intelligence?

A: They are not that dissimilar, and arguably strong EI skills makes it more likely that the leader might be more engaging as a compassionate leader. EI covers a wide range of constructs so we cannot assume that they might  all relate to compassionate leadership specifically and directly, but it is reasonable to suggest that leaders who demonstrate strong self-awareness and strong emotional regulation are more likely to be objective and complete in their ability to understand and appropriately respond compassionately to the needs of others. They will understand their own biases and will be able to see the world of others other than only through their own natural filters and assumptions. The clear need for empathy in compassionate leadership implies a certain perspective, i.e. the inclination to not simply intellectually understand the needs and sensitivities of others, but to emotionally identify with those needs and to really care about ensuring that others get the support they need.

Q: Is a self LEA (without the 360) an accurate measure of empathy and compassion?  I see that some leaders might want to know this but not want to do the full 360.

A: We can gather information about self perceptions using the LEA self. However, as we found in this research, there were some blind spots in those self-perceptions. There were several areas where leader and observer perceptions were not in alignment. Empathy and compassion are two skills that necessarily involve another person and, because of this, make it especially important to avoid blind spots.  It may be possible to help with this by receiving feedback from just one observer group, rather than engaging in a full 360.  For many leaders, the direct report feedback is likely to be the most critical perspective regarding empathy and compassion.

Q: Can too much empathy or too much support have a negative impact on the receiver? Might they end up becoming dependent on the other person?

A: Leaders who focus on demonstrating too much compassion or too much empathy might see some negative consequences. First, if they are over-focusing on these two areas, then they might be neglecting other aspects of their role. Effective leadership involves a careful balance of responsibility and that includes feeling empathy and showing compassion to others. However, as we saw in this research, both empathetic and compassionate leaders tend to display a complex set of behaviors, many of which are not related to feeling empathy or demonstrating compassion.

I would also suggest that receivers of empathy and compassion will gain the most benefits from receiving the right amount of support – not too much and not too little. Too little support may not get them what they need to overcome the issues causing distress, and too much may lead to over-reliance on support in some cases. As was brought up in one of the previous questions – people often learn through the process of overcoming difficulties. If someone is shielded too well from potentially negative circumstances, they might not have the opportunity to develop coping mechanisms that can help them overcome distress-causing issues in the future.


About the author

Lucy is the Head of Marketing at MRG. She's a passionate people person who talks with her hands even when she's on the phone. She will not rest until everyone on earth has taken their IDI.

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