Why compassionate leaders make better leaders

Compassionate leadership involves a focus on relationships through careful listening to, understanding, empathising with and supporting other people, enabling those we lead to feel valued, respected and cared for, so they can reach their potential and do their best work. There is clear evidence that compassionate leadership results in more engaged and motivated staff with high levels of wellbeing.

How do compassionate leaders behave? They empathise with their colleagues and seek to understand the challenges they face; they are committed to supporting others to cope with and respond successfully to work challenges; and they are focused on enabling those they lead to be effective and thrive in their work. Compassionate leaders don’t have all the answers and don’t simply tell people what to do, instead they engage with the people they work with to find shared solutions to problems.

For leadership to be compassionate, it must also be inclusive. Compassion blurs the boundaries between self and other, promoting belonging, trust, understanding, mutual support and, by definition, inclusion. This creates an inclusive, psychologically safe environment in which diversity in all forms is valued and team members can contribute creatively and enthusiastically to team performance.

It is evident that organizations have struggled over many years to sustain inclusive, people-centred cultures and our research suggests that it is local action in teams, departments and organisations (big and small), where the work to create these types of cultures is most effective, because that is where the people are. Developing compassionate leadership approaches helps leaders hold crucial conversations about inclusion, ensuring they hear and reflect deeply on what staff are telling them and then take necessary action to help address inequities and discrimination in the workplace.

Compassionate leadership involves four behaviours.


This means being present with and focusing on others – ‘listening with fascination’). Listening is probably the most important leadership skill and compassionate leaders take time to listen to the challenges, obstacles, frustrations and harms colleagues experience as well as listening to accounts of their successes and joys.


This involves taking time to properly explore and understand the situations people are struggling with. It implies valuing and exploring conflicting perspectives rather than leaders simply imposing their own understanding.


This involves mirroring and feeling colleagues’ distress, frustration, joy, etc, without being overwhelmed by the emotion and becoming unable to help.


This involves taking thoughtful and intelligent action to support individuals and teams. Removing obstacles that get in the way of people doing their work (eg, chronic excessive workloads, conflicts between departments) and providing the resources people and services need (eg, staff, equipment, training) are the most important tasks for leaders.

Research shows that compassionate leadership has wide-ranging benefits for both staff and organisations. People who work in supportive teams with clear goals and good team leadership, have dramatically lower levels of stress. Compassionate leadership increases staff engagement and satisfaction, resulting in better outcomes for organisations including improved financial performance.

Compassionate leadership is not a ‘soft option’ and can help leaders effectively manage the performance of individuals, teams, organisations and systems. Too often performance problems are not directly addressed and so-called ‘wicked problems’ are avoided or hidden. The skills of compassionate leadership help in the management of performance problems through encouraging the collective responsibility of teams for solving them, helping to promote a culture of learning, where innovation is encouraged and where it is accepted that not all innovation will be successful.

Compassionate leadership helps to create psychologically safe working environments by encouraging team members to share learning and improve the quality of their work through regular reviews. Moreover, considerable research evidence shows that such teams are both more productive and innovative. In safe team environments, there are higher levels of learning and innovation. In contrast, blaming cultures are fearful, inhibit compassion and prevent learning.

Michael West is a member of the Global Compassion Coalition Board, Visiting Professor at the King’s Fund, Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology at Lancaster University, Visiting Professor at University College, Dublin, and Emeritus Professor at Aston University. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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