The Empathetic Leader (Strength in Compassion)
Each individual I have reported to in my career I have learned from. It did not matter if I agreed with their leadership at times. My last supervisor was a great leader that to this day I greatly respect. One of the largest things that I learned from her was the strength of empathy and truly caring about people and the effect this has. Empathy is very powerful as over time it can build loyalty with staff and help staff care and be more engaged. Empathy helps build trust and trust is essential in building healthy teams. I saw my leader quite quickly gain my loyalty and I realized that this was a skill that she had fostered. She truly cared about people and this helped her direct reports feel like they were heard. This employee-focused approach is a great approach when instilling change but compassionate leadership also needs to be managed as an extreme amount of empathy can lead to poor decisions and distort our judgement. Understanding your staff and people and having empathy is very different than letting it affect your decision making to the point where tough decisions are not made. It is my opinion that compassion can get in the way of important decisions but that is what makes us human- I have had to let people go of people that I would never have wanted to, good performers with family’s and having a personal relationship to these people it was uncomfortable and was difficult but it was tougher on them. I had compassion and often tried to keep in touch and do what I could to support the person in employment after I had to let someone go. I also felt like letting people go with dignity and continuing a positive relationship with their former employer is good for the brand of the employer.
I also have seen many situations where I feel the lack of empathy and compassionate leadership has caused the trust to be damaged in teams. This can often be the case when a manager becomes process driven with little judgement. I remember having to provide push-back when I was a senior manager and one of my direct reports had a large traumatic tragedy within their family- the employee in question suffered from depression after this and instead of offering support my supervisor wanted to let him go before he went on disability. I fought this and made sure this would not occur as felt ethically this was wrong and showing compassion is important in building a team. The employee never did return to work but what I did build was trust with my team- they knew I would have their back. I found that with this trust my team often felt empowered and we were accountable to each other- collaboration often was not forced and people openly spoke to each other. We did have some issues with other teams who saw us as a threat but went out of our way to work with them and tried to collaborate. Still, compassion and empathy can provide a pathway to leading with influence as trust instead of authority which provides more engagement and at the end more productivity.
Compassion has an important function in leadership as accountability and commitment can be affected by a lack of empathy and compassion. Listening, communicating and understanding other people will often help internal communication within organizations which provides multiple benefits. Compassion is essential for servant leaders and coaches who are trying to build compassion into their corporate culture. Getting personal at work is uncomfortable for some people and might not be seen as professional but individuals spend a lot of their lives at work and getting personal is part of compassionate leadership. Building bonds with peers and staff can help corporate culture foster a safe environment where collaboration and trust become seamless. Inspiring leaders often are the ones with the most self-awareness and trust within their teams and compassion and empathy is common in their leadership skill-set.
Fahim Moledina is the Principal Consultant for Opti-Syn Consulting and is a business leader with expertise in project/change management, finance, lean/agile methods, as well as marketing and sales.
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