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Why a compassionate leader is a better leader

Published 3 August 2022 in Leadership • 7 min read

Contrary to popular belief, traits such as empathy and compassion can be trained and developed. And that is what should be happening in the workplace. Not only does a caring approach reduce stress and the risk of burnout in the workforce – it also enhances CEOs’ own leadership and wellbeing.

Among the myriad changes brought by the pandemic, a significant one is mental health’s new prominence in the workplace.

Wellbeing had already been rising up the corporate agenda, but the pandemic exacerbated mental health issues. In just one example, the CovSocial research project into a large cohort of Berliners aged 18–65 showed that participants reported increased depression, anxiety, loneliness and stress during the Cov19-pandemic and especially during lock-downs. During the second lockdown, they experienced “lockdown fatigue,” and their symptoms were increasing with each passing month.

The situation in Berlin reflected the situation in the wider world. Fitbit, for instance, aggregated its user activity data between March and September 2020, and found that meditation had seen a massive 2,900% increase globally. Forced to stay at home, people were desperate to find their own ways to relieve stress.

This new focus on mental health has drawn attention to a new style of workplace and leadership model that emphasizes care for and empathy with employees. What does this mean for organizations and their leaders in practice?

Empathy can transform the workplace

We are seeing an evolution in leadership. From the hierarchical, command-and-control model, which is centered around the individual and focused on pay, performance and productivity, to one that is flatter and more democratic.

Gallup’s meta-analytics have found that there are four things employees need from leaders: trust, compassion, stability and hope. And these traits require leaders to take a different approach whereby authority is based on skills and personal qualities rather than power and control.

Compassionate leadership involves listening to and understanding people’s challenges, empathizing with them, really caring and supporting them and taking practical steps to help. It requires courage to adopt a different mindset: leaders will have to admit that they might not have all the answers, and, instead of dictating orders, they will need to work together to find a shared solution. That can be unsettling. 

But the benefits of a more caring and compassionate approach are twofold. Not only will it benefit employees, who will feel more engaged, motivated and trusted – and will therefore be more loyal – it will also benefit the leader. Because leaders are first and foremost humans, and they will feel the benefits of a compassionate approach as much as those they lead do.

But can every leader become compassionate?

The ability to switch approach can be taught. Humans have different motivational systems, ranging from power and achievement to threat, anxiety and affiliation to care. And, with practice, we can learn how to move from more incentive-focused motivational systems to more socially-focused systems of care.

After all, an investment banker, for instance, might take decisions based on competitive motives of power, achievement and possibly consumption at work, but when he is at home with his family the care motivation may predominate. These systems or motives are context-sensitive and can switch easily depending on the environment you are in. Similarly, these motivations can be trained to become more long-lasting characteristics of a person and ways of approaching life, in the same way that a person can be trained to play the piano, violin or tennis.

It is important to make clear, that the power motivation is not inherently bad – only when it is used with status as the primary goal. If it exists solely for the benefit of the individual and to the detriment of others, it runs contrary to the care motivation, which is focused on benefiting the group and each other for the common good. So it is crucial to shift the leadership style from a traditional power-oriented mode to a care-based and compassionate one. The optimal leader would be an empowering carer who uses the fuel and agency of power to be courageous, to move things forward and to promote care in the workplace.

There are specific forms of mindfulness and compassion-based mental training that can actually improve care and compassion and reduce stress, loneliness and mental health issues as well as foster social connectivity and cohesion.

Our ReSource Project, which was an extensive study conducted over a nine-month period, showed that by undertaking 30 minutes of care-based practice every day, the structures of one’s brain can change, what we call structural brain plasticity. The practice not only increases compassion and empathy, but also other associated prosocial and altruistic behaviors.

Findings from the ReSource Project, but also early findings from a purely online 10-week intervention in the context of the CovSocial project in Berlin, meanwhile, have shown that compassion-based training with a partner through so-called Dyads allows the reduction of loneliness, stress and depression while at the same time increasing resilience, empathy, compassion and the development of a sense of shared humanity, connectedness and interdependence. Improving these social skills is key to compassionate leadership.

Such a caring outlook shifts the leader’s approach away from hierarchy and power, and it can really benefit them as well as the rest of the organization. It can be lonely at the top of the power status hierarchy, when people are reluctant to be open and honest in sharing ideas, innovations and issues. The leader who is determined to remain in command-and-control mode has to accept leadership in isolation.

The training remit is expanding

Soft skills, such as empathy, compassion and perspective taking, are hard-wired into our brains as much as muscle memory. They are a part of our make-up and can be trained systematically with specific exercises and specific tools.

There are many mindfulness-based companies introducing these practices into businesses on a large scale. This is a positive step, and will hopefully lead to mental training being seen as equal to more established training.

Some years back, large enterprises started to open fitness suites in their offices because they recognized the benefit to their employees. Mental fitness is just as, if not more, important because of the mental health crisis we are facing. The benefits of this kind of training are manifold: not only does it help to reduce stress, but it also increases resilience and capacity, creativity, values and motivation.

With the office gym, users need an induction, teachers and training to make sure they can use the equipment correctly, and are enhancing their fitness rather than risking injury. The same principle applies to mental training. Different forms of training will elicit different responses and build up different skills. Thus, for example, learning about the difference between empathy, empathic distress and compassion will be crucial.

Empathy and compassion are not the same

Empathy refers to our ability to share the feelings of others while still being aware that it’s not our own emotion we are feeling. People’s brains are wired to empathize with others, be it with positive or negative emotions of others. If we are exposed to the suffering of others, for example, the brain areas in us that get reactivated are the ones that process our own pain and suffering. We literally feel with another. 

It is important: in the very rare cases where these empathic brain responses are not activated, people display psychopathic or sociopathic tendencies.

But while a healthy empathic response is positive and necessary for healthy relationships with others, there is a danger that it moves into personal or empathic distress. In that case, the suffering of the others becomes my own personal distress and the healthy self-other distinction gets blurry and we may even withdraw from or blame the other. A leader is not responsible for other people’s feelings, and taking on too much of the stress and burdens of others can lead to personal distress and on the longer run to burnout and possibly aggression.

A compassionate state, by contrast, is resilient. Compassion is based in the care-system and feelings of warmth and concern and a strong altruistic motivation for the benefit of others. It is impossible to burn out from too much care and altruistic motivation.

Some CEOs and leaders may be afraid that displaying empathy makes them appear weak. They have a point. If empathy leads into empathic distress, they will be weakened. Differentiating and learning how to be compassionate with healthy empathy at the outset is something we have well understood in science and can be taught successfully to many hundreds of people. However, at the workplace this difference is not yet well understood, but for leaders, learning the difference will improve both their own and their employees’ wellbeing. It is a crucial step toward creating a happy and healthy workplace for all.

Authors

Tania Singer

Tania Singer

Head of the Social Neuroscience Lab of the Max Planck Society

Dr Tania Singer is head of the Social Neuroscience Lab of the Max Planck Society.

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