Compassion is empathy in action.
And as an avid news reader and social media user, I’m struck on a daily basis by the fear that we are living in a world where compassion can be conspicuously absent. At the highest levels of leadership – at least from what we see in the headlines – compassion seems to be a dirty word, regularly discarded in favor of a more self-serving, winner-takes-all approach.
Fortunately, my hope is regularly renewed when I see some of the work being done in our own MRG community. So many of the people and organizations we work with are prioritizing developing leaders who are not just successful and effective, but also compassionate – people who make their organizations better places.
That’s likely why there was so much excitement surrounding this week’s webinar: Compassionate Leadership: Coaching Leaders to Turn Empathy into Action. Our Head of Research, Maria Brown, just presented this brand-new research at the EMCC conference in late April, where it was enthusiastically received.
When she presented the encore via webinar this week, hundreds of practitioners around the world tuned in, eager for practical, research-based strategies for developing a competency that can seem ephemeral.
The key insights she shared:
Compassion isn’t a “nice to have” – it has real benefits for organizations and individuals. It probably seems fairly intuitive that people who receive compassion feel better – they feel more valued, their anxiety decreases, they see events in a more positive light. But the giver of compassion also benefits, by way of more meaningful connections, and being seen as a stronger leader. And for the organization as a whole, there are major rewards to witnessing compassion: greater employee commitment, openness to receiving help, organization-wide resilience, and a reduction in punitive actions toward others, just to name a few.
- To reach compassion, start with empathy. The very first step toward compassionate leadership is for an individual to simply observe that someone else is in distress. To move beyond that, leaders need to work on developing empathy – feeling bad that someone is in distress. (Compassion is taking that feeling and putting it into action – but we’ll get to that in a minute!)
- To develop high-empathy leaders, work on adjusting emphasis on key behaviors. To support leaders who are working on developing empathy, coach them to behave in ways that foster collaboration and welcome input from others during the decision-making process. These leaders should try to place less relative emphasis on more results-oriented behaviors. (Of course, this doesn’t mean anyone should stop trying to achieve results – it’s all about the balancing act!)
- For business benefits, empathy isn’t enough. There is an advantage to being an empathetic leader: empathetic leaders were rated higher on leadership competencies related to people skills and cognitive skills associated with perspective taking. However… it also did not confer an advantage in terms of business or broader cognitive skills. To realize bigger benefits, we need to aim for compassion.
- To support empathetic leaders in becoming compassionate leaders, work on further behavioral shifts. To be more compassionate, leaders should avoid over-reliance on outgoing behaviors. We can also coach them to be less reliant on organizational norms, and more open to changing conventions. They will benefit from taking charge and seeking opportunities to be influential, consider the implications of their actions, communicate clearly, and maintain specialized knowledge.
- Blind spots abound, so self-awareness plays a critical role. Leaders who are struggling with compassion have a tendency to overestimate how much they’re emphasizing some behaviors: their colleagues aren’t seeing the, take charge, maintain expertise, or take risks as much as they think they are. They also underestimate how clearly they communicate.
- Selecting the right assessment is key. 360 feedback is the best tool for illuminating blind spots and creating self-awareness. But not all 360s are created equal. There are some key components to look for in a 360 assessment tool, especially when your goal is to develop compassionate leaders. Look for an assessment with appropriate norms (so you can account for variations in cultural expectations); neutral language (so the subject can feel enlightened without feeling threatened); research insights (to help provide developmental guidance); includes data on both behaviors and competencies (to help leaders make the developmental leaps to effect real change); and offers an ongoing accountability solution (so leaders can continue stick to their goals and monitor their progress).
Want to catch up on the whole webinar? You can download the slide deck or watch the recording on-demand here.
Maria also fielded some fascinating questions during the webinar, and there were even more that she couldn’t get to during the hour. We’ve answered those below. Still curious? Reach out to us any time! Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, comments, or even ideas for future studies and webinars – we’re all ears!
Questions & Answers
Q: What is the difference to you between sympathy and empathy?
A: This is an important distinction to make 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: Since women are seen as more compassionate leaders, does that correlate to pay as well?
A: The outcome variables measured by the LEA are related to skills that can be seen and rated by observers. We do not collect information about pay or employee income. While we know that women tend to be rated higher on the competencies associated with compassionate leadership, we would not be able to determine whether they tend to pay larger salaries to their employees. Gender dynamics play a large role in salary negotiations. For example, men tend to negotiate larger salaries with their bosses when the boss is a woman than when the boss is a man. Additionally, some studies show that people tend to show greater compassion to those who are most like them, which would suggest that female bosses might show more compassion in the form of pay to other women. Given the variety of findings in the literature and the complexity of the issue, this would certainly be an interesting question to address in a future study.
Q: Are there situations where leaders with high compassionate leadership scores may be taken advantage of by some followers or other peer leaders?
A: One of the advantages of compassionate leadership is that, according to our research, it appears to be related to effectiveness in almost all competencies measured by the LEA 360. This includes skills like effective thinking and insight into others, which suggests that highly compassionate leaders should be skilled at interpreting the intentions of others and making effective decisions based on those interpretations. However, given the many dynamics that individual leaders can encounter at work, there could be many opportunities for others to take advantage of compassionate leaders. In cases where it becomes apparent that a compassionate leader is being taken advantage of, it would be helpful to remind them of some of their other strengths. For example, compassionate leaders as a group tend to show above average levels of strategic behaviors (70th percentile) and restraint (65th percentile). By being strategic and thinking about the impact of their actions, and by restraining their emotional expression, compassionate leaders can take the time and distance they need to think about what others are asking of them and whether they are being asked to do too much.
Q: What correlation would you expect to see between compassionate leaders and an emotional intelligence score?
A: There are many definitions of EQ, but at its core EQ measures four things:
- The ability to accurately experience and understand one’s own emotions
- The ability to appropriately express one’s own emotions
- The ability to accurately identify the emotions of others
- The ability to respond appropriately to the emotions of others
Some definitions of EQ also include the ability to influence other’s emotions.
Because compassion includes observing another’s experience, empathizing with another’s experience and acting to relieve the discomfort of another, we would expect there to be a positive correlation between compassionate leadership and emotional intelligence. However, because compassion deals primarily with the active response to another’s distress, some compassionate leaders may still find it challenging to navigate their own emotions in experience and/or expression. Therefore, while we can assume a positive relationship between compassion and EQ, we must also acknowledge that they are two different constructs.
Q: How does MRG’s assessment include / exclude EQ measures?
A: MRG has explored this question in great detail. You can see more about that work here.
Q: Since companies want and expect results, why would they want to focus empathy development?
A: The ultimate goal for any leader seeking to increase their effectiveness is to show compassion. However, empathy is a necessary step toward compassion and compassion without empathy does not exist. Therefore, depending on where someone is developmentally, they might need to work on developing empathy before they begin working on developing compassion. These developmental efforts are not futile, as higher levels of empathy were found to be related to many people and cognitive skills. It is also important to note that there were no group differences with regard to delivering results, suggesting that higher empathy does not affect one’s ability to deliver measurable outcomes at work.
Q: Is there an ideal number of observers or observer ratio to reduce bias. Recommendations for smaller organizations?
A: While it is difficult to have a completely objective perspective on any individual (even coaches can have biases!), The MRG model establishes that there is not one right way to lead. This limits the expression of bias, as the person responding to the questionnaire would not know what the ideal profile looks like. Additionally, the behavioral items are not linked to competence which further limits the potential for biased responses.
In terms of numbers, our participants have an average of ten observers across the three most common observer groups (bosses, peers and direct reports). This number provides a broad range of perspectives about a given leader. When we think about different perspectives, it is important to recognize that perception is reality. If an observer perceives a leader as less empathetic, then that is the reality the observer experiences and this is useful information for the leader. Reaching ten observers per leader can be a challenge for smaller organizations. One way to work with a smaller number of observers is to invite observers with different viewpoints on the leader. This is not limited to having observers from each of the three groups listed above. As long as it is feasible, leaders should make sure that they invite observers who work with them in different capacities and have access to different aspects of who they are at work.
Q: How is the research affected by having twice as many men as women in the sample?
A: We try to include a representative sample of leaders in our studies and this means that some demographic categories have larger representation than others. However, this makes the results more generalizable overall. It is difficult to account for all the demographic factors present in any group of leaders, so getting close to what we would see in a random sample of leaders provides the greatest chances for generalizability. To address questions about specific groups (e.g., gender, generation, country) the best approach is to look at those groups separately. I would invite you to reach out to us if you would like to learn more about empathy and compassion in different groups of leaders. The study we presented during the webinar is a starting point and we will continue to conduct and share new research in this area.