Compassion in the workplace: it seems it is just as important as it is elusive. And while many leaders might like to think they are bringing a compassionate approach to their work, they may be overestimating how clearly that presents itself. In fact, only 2% of respondents in our flash webinar survey believed that compassionate leadership is common.
In a recent webinar, Coaching for Compassion: What Research Tells Us about Developing Leaders Who Care, members of the MRG team – Lucy Sullivan, Maria Brown, and Tricia Naddaff – explored compassionate leadership: what it is, and how a behavior-based approach to coaching can help leaders embrace it. Read on for highlights from the webinar – or watch the full webinar on-demand now.
The Business Case for Compassionate Leadership
When it comes to working life, you may feel like we’re in the midst of an unhappiness epidemic – and recent surveys support that. Worldwide, two-third of workers feel disengaged, and nearly 1 in 5 describe themselves as miserable at work. And the trends are not encouraging – since 2020, employee satisfaction has declined ten times faster than in the previous 3 years. And Gen Z – the fastest-growing generation in the workforce – is also the most dissatisfied.
The good news? Leaders can make a difference. Leaders account for 70% of the variance in team engagement. And when leaders carry compassion into the workplace, the impact is measurable. It’s not just the recipient of the compassion who feels the impact – the person giving compassion also experiences benefits (including being perceived as a stronger leader), and the entire organizational culture benefits, with increased resilience and employee commitment. (Cherkowski, 2012; Dutton, Workman, & Hardin, 2014; Lilius, Kanov, Duttin, Worline, & Mattis, 2012)
The bottom line: while the interpersonal importance of compassion is well known, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that compassion has compelling organizational benefits as well.
New Research Findings: 3 Ways Compassionate Leaders are Unique
It’s clear that developing compassionate leaders is a worthwhile pursuit. So the MRG research team took a data-driven approach: if we can understand what makes compassionate leaders different from their less compassionate counterparts, we can more effectively target the behaviors we want to develop.
Maria Brown, MRG’s Head of Research, conducted a global study of 5,764 leaders who completed the LEA 360™, a two-part questionnaire that measures both behavior (how someone behaves in their leadership) and effectiveness (how effective their peers perceive them to be). The study compared High Compassion Leaders (leaders who were rated as highly effective on a set of six compassion-related competencies) with other leaders.
Three noteworthy findings emerged:
- Compassionate leaders are rare. Only 15.7% of leaders studied met the study’s definition of a High Compassion Leader.
- Compassionate leaders are more effective. The LEA 360™’s Impact questionnaire measures 32 competencies – the 6 Compassionate Competencies as well as 26 others. These measures cover diverse aspects of leadership – credibility, social skills, cognitive skills, management, organizational impact, and more. High Compassion Leaders were more effective in every competency measured.
- Compassionate leaders behave differently than their less compassionate counterparts. In total, our research revealed a set of 9 behaviors that differentiate highly compassionate leaders – more on those behaviors and how to develop them below.
Coaching for Compassion: Help Leaders Make these Key Behavior Shifts
Taking a data-driven and behavioral approach to coaching for compassion is practical in many ways: coach and coachee can identify practical, actionable ways to shift their approach in the workplace to make their desired impact.
Still – nine behavior shifts? This may sound like a lot. But it’s important to understand that not every leader (not even every lower-compassion leader) will need to develop all nine behaviors.
To identify the behaviors that most need targeting, a scientifically sound psychometric assessment is a good starting point. At MRG, we use the LEA 360™ to reveal a leader’s self-perception, as well as how their observers (including peers, bosses, and direct reports) see them – and where those perceptions differ.
5 Behaviors to Boost for more Compassionate Leadership:
- The Behavior: Empathy
- Boost it: Acknowledge your reactions and their “I’m sorry you are going through this.”
- The Behavior: Strategic
- Boost it: Let people know that you are identifying the consequences; thinking ahead and prioritizing what is most important.
- The Behavior: Consensual
- Boost it: Ask for input early and often. “What are your thoughts about X?”
- The Behavior: Communication
- Boost it: Be clear and specific in your explanations and be willing to repeat your messages.
- The Behavior: Cooperation
- Boost it: Offer your help and assistance; be willing to compromise.
4 Behaviors to Dial Down for more Compassionate Leadership:
- The Behavior: Dominant
- Dial it down: Be mindful of how often you debate, use forceful language, act in very assertive ways – use these more aggressive tactics only when truly necessary.
- The Behavior: Self
- Dial it down: Notice how often you operate, think, decide and act without including others– balance your independence in thinking and action with more connection and collaboration.
- The Behavior: Feedback
- Dial it down: Be aware of how blunt your feedback is; incorporate more reflective questions during feedback – make feedback a dialogue rather than a monologue.
- The Behavior: Production
- Dial it down: Determine how frequently you are asking people to stretch, work harder and do more. Ensure you are not overemphasizing results over good methods and employee wellbeing.
Something critical to bear in mind when we coach: think of behavioral shifts as a dial – not a light switch. All of these behaviors play a role in effective leadership, and none should be entirely eliminated, nor should they be in constant use. Experimenting with small changes in emphasis can yield surprisingly impactful results for leaders.
3 Common Roadblocks to Compassion (and How to Overcome Them)
If developing compassionate leadership were easy, it probably wouldn’t be so rare. In fact, there are several common roadblocks to developing compassionate leadership. Recognize them – and learn how to get past them:
Roadblock #1: The leader centers on themselves (rather than the recipient of the compassion).
Start with input, not output. Pause to get perspective and listen carefully before pushing forward with what you believe is a compassionate act.
Don’t assume what you’d want is what they’d want. When it comes to what the recipient wants, there are many individual, group, and cultural considerations.
Keep your finger on the pulse. When in doubt, keep listening. Compassion isn’t a single act, but an ongoing exchange – so don’t act once and walk away; but know when to walk away.
Roadblock #2: Leadership doesn’t think there’s a business case for focusing on compassion – you can’t get organizational buy-in.
Leverage the data. Our research shows that compassionate leaders were rated higher than their less compassionate counterparts on all leadership effectiveness measures – including many competencies related to the bottom line.
Roadblock #3: Lack of self-awareness (lower-compassion leaders don’t know they’re lower compassion).
One of the areas where less compassionate leaders were rated lower was self-awareness. Use a valid 360 assessment to help leaders see where they actually stand. Observer feedback can help leaders identify opportunities for growth, including the six competencies associated with compassionate leadership and the behaviors correlated with compassionate leadership.
The bottom line? Compassionate leadership doesn’t just help individuals – it helps organizations, too.
There is a strong business case for compassionate leadership. Leaders who aren’t acting with compassion may not realize it – or they may not think it matters.
But with support, assessment, and coaching, any leader can develop compassion – making work better for themselves, their colleagues, and their organization.
Tackling such a timely topic raised many fascinating questions from those who attended the webinar. Below you’ll find answers from both Maria and Tricia to some of the questions we were asked. For more details on how to develop leaders who care, watch the full webinar on demand now.
Q&A with the Experts
Q: Does having higher a higher score on the “Strategic” behavior enhance feedback?
Q: How do the behaviors Self, Feedback, & Production come into play with compassionate leadership?
Q: What is the correlation with being a highly compassionate leader and an individual’s natural personality type?
Q: What are the challenges combative leaders have with compassionate leadership?
Q: What is the difference between an LEA Behavior and an LEA Competency?
Q: Is there a difference in what compassionate leadership for hybrid vs in-person teams?
Q: Can you speak to compassion amidst culture & language differences?
Q: Why do people feel so disengaged at work?
Q: Why use conjunctive phrases? i.e. Fair does not necessarily mean equitable
Answer from Maria: This question brings up an important aspect of questionnaire design. What exactly do we want to measure and how do we write an item that measures it?
In our use of the term “fair” it refers to ensuring everyone is getting the same treatment. For example, people are recognized for their contributions in accordance to what they contributed. “Equitable” implies that the leader ensures that there aren’t obstacles that may affect what members of different groups get to access and that they all have a voice.
In the end, we wanted to measure effectiveness in terms of how a leader acknowledges individuals fairly, ensures everyone has a voice, and distributes opportunities fairly. This encompasses both of those terms and required the specificity.
There is an optional DEI questionnaire that can be added to an LEA 360 that looks at the areas of diversity, equity and inclusion in more detail. Those items provide more detailed feedback on the factors that make up each of the broader competencies.
Q: Why do you use 32 competencies for leadership impact but only 22 competencies in your study?
Answer from Maria: Thank you for the opportunity to clarify how many items were included in each of the analyses. The LEA measures 22 leadership behaviors. When we compared high compassion leaders to their less compassionate counterparts, we compared them on all 22 leadership behaviors. As you saw in the results, 9 of those behaviors differentiated the groups of leaders.
The LEA observer questionnaire also measures 32 leadership competencies. Six of those were used to define compassionate leadership. The two groups were compared on the remaining 26 competencies. What we found there was that high compassion leaders outscored less compassionate leaders on all 26 of those competencies.
Q: Any correlation between the compassionate leader and DEI impacts and strategies?
Answer from Maria: This is a great question. Our definition of compassionate leadership included measures of Equity (Is fair and equitable) and Inclusion (Is effectively inclusive). High compassion leaders were also high on those competencies – but only because they are part of the definition of compassion.
One of the LEA 26 LEA competencies in which high compassion leaders outscored their less compassionate counterparts was Ability to work with Diverse People. This shows that they are more effective working with people from diverse background, lifestyles, belief systems and cultures.
Q: How is self-awareness measured in the LEA Part A?
Answer from Maria: Self-awareness is one of the competencies measured in the leadership impact questionnaire (part B) of the LEA. It is an observer item and allows leaders to see how much self-awareness they convey to others.
Q: Do you have literature or tools that can you recommend to implement with our leaders?
Answer from Tricia: For people certified in MRG assessments, specifically the LEA, the Leadership Learning Libraries offer a list of helpful articles and resources for each LEA behavior. (An example: this Learning Library for the behavior Empathy, one of the behaviors leaders should dial up to increase their compassion.) The LEA resource guide also provides a lot of helpful guidance. In general, mindfulness training has also been shown to increase compassionate responses to others.
Q: Can you share examples of experiential experiences that would help develop compassionate leadership in high potentials?
Answer from Tricia: I don’t have any specific experiential experiences that are directly targeted at helping high potentials become more compassionate, however, we have found that facilitating peer coaching (using the GROW model) with a group of leaders helps build good coaching skills which are very aligned with the behavior patterns associated with being a compassionate leader, especially when we allow a round of “constructive advising” after the peer coaching.
Q: If you’re coaching a leader with lots of executive team turnover who thinks that they just have bad hires, how would you approach bringing lack of compassion to their attention?
Answer from Tricia: Hopefully there is some data available on these leaders – are there employee engagement surveys, exit interviews on the folks who left, performance reviews on the executive or the people who left? It won’t surprise you that we’re big fans of data to supplement opinion and non-data driven thoughts and ideas. If there is data and the turnover is to some degree related to a less compassionate culture or approach to leadership, then there is an opening to share the research. If data to support a less compassionate reason for these exits is not available, then presenting the research results beginning with the effectiveness insights (i.e. “This leadership pattern is responsible for a significant magnitude of increased effectiveness across 32 diverse leadership competencies…”). This is likely to get more executives at least curious.