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Why Compassionate Leadership Matters

How can business leaders create better business outcomes? By bringing compassion into their leadership toolkit.

illustration of dancing figures
Compassionate leadership shows teams appreciation in many ways, including acknowledgement of their contributions.

For decades, compassionate leadership was the domain of social workers and wellness coaches, not corporate executives. But the recent pandemic has prompted executives at the highest levels to consider how leading with empathy can be a primary tool for managing a team. Especially one dispersed across the world, isolated at home for more than a year, and dealing with the epidemiological uncertainty of a global pandemic.

Leading with compassion is not just nice to have; it’s a business outcome game-changer and a key quality in effective leadership. In fact, in a classic leadership paper first published in 1966 by Bowers and Seashore, support – “behavior that enhances someone else’s feeling of personal worth” – is named as one of four crucial components to effective leadership.

What makes compassionate leadership so challenging?

A number of studies suggest employees associate compassion with strong leadership in their bosses. However, it takes time to create sea change in management styles. Think about everyone’s favorite example of a hard-driving but ineffective boss: Steve Carell’s character in the show “The Office, who thought a hard edge was needed for strong, decisive leadership.

However, once we accept compassion as key to effective leadership, individual managers have to be in a place to practice it.

Leading with compassion is not just nice to have; it’s a business outcome game-changer and a key quality in effective leadership.

“The first obstacle to leading with compassion is our own innate wanting to feel comfortable,” said Dr. Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of the 1995 classic “Emotional Intelligence.” “The part of our brain that feels distress and pain activates when we see someone else in distress and pain.” It can be difficult for a leader to demand peak performance while probing the uncomfortable truths required of deep empathy.

As a first step, lean into the human relationship piece of it. Human resources guru Laszlo Bock suggests, “Start every conversation with the simple question: ‘How are you? I just want to check in on you.’ Showing empathy is the most important thing you can do for productivity, performance, innovation, retention – for any meaningful outcome.”

Be easier on yourself, show vulnerability, and model a work-life balance

Perhaps counterintuitively, one of our biggest barriers to being compassionate with others is our inability to be compassionate with ourselves. By refusing to cut yourself any slack, you project an unforgiving attitude to the rest of your team.

“I worked with a founder who tended to set impossibly harsh standards for himself,” said Dr. Emily Anhalt, a psychologist and co-founder of Coa, a mental health start-up. “Without even realizing it, he was instilling a similar kind of energy and expectation in the company.” When leaders set aside their own perfectionistic tendencies, they allow space for their own humanity to shine through, cascading that permission to every person they manage.

Showing empathy is the most important thing you can do for productivity, performance, innovation, retention – for any meaningful outcome.

Laszlo Bock, Human Resources guru

One place to start: Share a personal challenge with your team, signaling that everyone is welcome to bring their whole self to work. Let them know our weaknesses are an accepted part of how we show up at work. By demonstrating your ability to be vulnerable, you provide space for others to open up and share. Via Twitter, Clayton Long, vice president of operations at J2 Global, said, “Create an environment of psychological safety where uncomfortable truths are okay and even appreciated.”

Similarly, many companies have unlimited vacation policies, yet the executives never take a day of vacation. Modeling balance in your life is important so that your employees can follow your example and prevent burnout.

Amid uncertainty, create oases of stability, and empower team members to have a voice

As a business leader, you can’t control the stress that comes from living amid a global pandemic. But you can create stability and relief for your team amid the uncertainties you can’t control.

“Employees need to feel like there are things they can count on, that there is some kind of ritual structure. This can look like cultural or social events in a company, certain annual perks, a weekly happy hour. Whatever it might be, having some ritual is important,” said Dr. Anhalt.

Express gratitude liberally and regularly. Whenever you have a positive thought about something someone did, tell the person.

Julie Felner, Author of How to Work Like a Human

Knowing that leadership is accessible is also important. At Salesforce, Slack has made informal chats between direct reports, teams, and people of all levels a daily occurrence. It has helped strip away hierarchy and provide greater transparency, making teams feel more connected and less isolated. 

Jeanne Bliss, author of “Chief Customer Officer 2.0” suggests setting up a “digital nerve center” that captures the serendipity of the open office environment. Similar to the open workspace of Slack, tools like Zoom help managers create virtual rooms that enable employees to pop in, ask questions, or brainstorm. And, they include everybody from senior executives to junior associates. “This breaks down who is more important than who,” said Bliss. “Giving people a seat at the table, who wouldn’t normally have a seat, will have an energizing impact.”

Marketing agency leader Gina Rau practices this with virtual lunch tables. Said Rau, “Imagine walking into the lunch room and sitting down at a table with colleagues – but now in a Zoom Room. It’s on our calendar every other week during lunch time, and there’s usually an activity or a conversation prompt. It’s a delightful way to connect with colleagues.”

Show your team appreciation

Last, compassionate leadership shows teams appreciation by acknowledging their contributions. We turned to social media to ask members of the Salesforce community how they liked to be appreciated. Several people said that just listening, empathizing, and taking an interest in their lives outside of work went a long way. Others liked the idea of a shout-out on social media, commending a recent work win. Others mentioned the simplicity of respecting a stated work schedule, acknowledging the delicate boundary between work and the rest of life.

When leaders set aside their own perfectionistic tendencies, they allow space for their own humanity to shine through, cascading that permission to every person they manage. 

Julie Felner, an expert in team dynamics who has worked with innovative Silicon Valley teams for more than 20 years, advises taking the time to acknowledge people’s achievements in team meetings. In “How to Work Like a Human,” Felner writes, “Express gratitude liberally and regularly. Whenever you have a positive thought about something someone did, tell the person.” These small actions “never fail to restore our connections with one another and reset our empathy levels.”

In sum, try leading with compassion. You might find you have better business outcomes, more productive teams, and higher employee retention – not to mention more smiling, happy people around you.

This article originally appeared in Vantage Point, a Salesforce magazine.


Hayley Nelson is the Vice President of Content Marketing. She has led innovation efforts in marketing and product development for Airbnb, the New York Times, Wired Magazine, and other leading brands, always at the intersection of technology, design, content, and community-building. She is passionate about media and its role in society.

More by Hayley

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