By Nick Jankel

Professional Global Keynote Speaker, Transformation & Innovation Catalyst, Leadership Theorist & Practitioner, 6 x Dyslexic Author, 3 x TV Coach, Co-Creator of Bio-Transformation®

This article is part 5 of 6 in the series 5 Must-Know Leadership Trends, Ideas & Ideals

Compassion & Kindness In Company Cultures

Most leaders are coming to realize that positive working environments, with high levels of trust and psychological safety, pay back dividends in terms of capacity to drive forward innovation and business transformation. Trust is the lubricant of significant change, as any true transformation requires experiences of loss and grief; and demands personal exposure and vulnerability.

Without feeling trusted and safe, most people simply will not take the risks of changing themselves or their part of the business. In a new study of 889 employees by Catalyst, empathy was shown to unlock innovation: When people reported their leaders were empathetic, 61% stated they were more likely to be innovative.

These transformative benefits of positive workplace environments are on top of the data that shows trust and safety reduce stress, disease, healthcare costs, disloyalty, attrition, and disengagement.

A good Harvard Business Review article suggests that one of the key characteristics of a positive workplace is “providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.” It’s not often one sees the C-word in a business article! In the McKinsey book CEO Excellence, which looks at how great CEOs work, they state that all 70-odd CEOs featured in the book treat supposed ‘soft’ skills, like compassion and kindness, as they would the ‘hard’ stuff!

To run an organization today at the scale of Google – with its internal and external engagement demands – requires high levels of interpersonal sophistication. Alphabet’s CEO Sundar Pichai

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Compassion includes, but goes beyond, empathy. We think of compassion as a verb, not a noun or adjective. It means first noticing, then feeling within our own mind and body, and ultimately taking positive action to alleviate suffering in others. We also think that engaging in sensemaking with those suffering is also an important element of compassion (and Wise Leadership as a whole).

At the Compassion Lab at the University of Michigan, academics have discovered that leaders who are compassionate toward employees foster individual and collective resilience in challenging times. They recommend that leaders should consider “treating individuals as whole people who carry emotions into the workplace and display them, encouraging permeable work and life boundaries, and facilitating high-quality relationships among employees.”

Unlike some leaders, who send emails in the middle of the night demanding that their employees be “extremely hardcore” and work “long hours at high intensity,” research from this academic at Nottingham suggests that “compassionate leaders help to both enhance company performance and boost worker wellbeing” and that “virtuous leadership is significantly and positively linked to an upbeat assessment of organizational performance.”

The great news is that research with kids as young as two, as well as in our ape cousins, has demonstrated that we are hard-wired to be empathic, compassionate, and kind. fMRI studies show that we feel the pain of those we care about in the same part of our brain that lights up when we feel threatened or in pain ourselves.

We are compassionate out of the box. But, unsurprisingly, research consistently shows that there is a wide compassion gap, as well as a vulnerability gap, between what leaders say and what they do. According to the researchers, “while 74% of leaders say they are acting with more compassion, only 48% of team members say they are experiencing more compassion from their leaders.”

An HBR article, written just after 9/11 attacks, clarifies the role of organizational culture in compassion. While “the human capacity to show compassion is universal, some organizations suppress it while others create an environment in which compassion is not only expressed but spreads.”

They go on to say that “unleashing compassion enables [employees] to recover from  setbacks more quickly and effectively, and it increases their attachment to their colleagues and hence to the company itself… a leader’s ability to enable a compassionate response throughout a company directly affects the organization’s ability to maintain high performance in difficult times. It fosters a company’s capacity to heal, to learn, to adapt, and to excel.”

However, our years of experience working with leaders to develop empathy, compassion, and vulnerability tells us that it takes committed self-development for leaders to unlock the full power of their empathy and kindness after years of self-protection and the suppression of kindness to survive/compete/look cool. Thus, it is hard to be truly compassionate, kind, or empathic without high levels of wisdom, radical self-awareness, and deep self-knowledge as a leader (see Trend 3 on Wise Leadership and Wisdom in the Workplace).

As always with leadership, leading others with compassion begins with understanding how to show compassion towards ourselves. And that is very much easier said than done. This is some of what lies at the core of our Conscious Leadership module: the ability to notice, seek to understand, and seek to alleviate our own pain, anger, fear, and stuckness. This then opens up space for us to support others more effectively, as well as to have the kind of courage needed to lead transformation, AI-enabled business models, and nature-based innovation.

After all, if we cannot do this for ourselves, what hope have we at being compassionate and kind to those we lead?

The great news is that there are tangible, practical, and evidence-based practices that can boost how much employees, and customers, feel empathized with, seen, and appreciated. Even simple practices like sitting (versus standing) when talking with a team member, making eye contact, and using simple sentences to validate what people have said have proven to be effective.

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