Author: Robby Vanuxem, Managing Director, Hays Belgium
There have long been two broad schools of thought as to whether bosses should be predominantly ‘compassionate’ or ‘tough’ in how they treat their employees. Which one do you most believe in? Do you enthusiastically ask your team how their weekend was, or sit stone-faced at your desk waiting for them to get back to work after the weekend? It’s understandable that this debate continues to rage, even in today’s era of wellness initiatives such as mindfulness and meditation in the office.
After all, while a ‘nice’ boss may be better-liked by their workers, many managers worry that being too ‘matey’ towards their employees could erode the respect they command and make them easier to take advantage of.
Indeed, if you ask most leaders and managers, it seems to still be widely believed that a more traditionally distant approach remains the best one for a responsible boss to take. But as recent studies have shown, treating your employees with compassion can bring sometimes surprising benefits, both for them and for you.
So, why should you more consciously interact with your own team members on a human level, including taking an interest in their lives outside work?
Why is a compassionate approach to leadership so important?
Various advantages have been noted of becoming a more compassionate leader. These include:
- It helps your workers to feel a greater sense of belonging to your company, which has become increasingly important amid the rise of remote and flexible working patterns, and the ever-more blurred lines between many of our work and personal lives.
- Human connection is more important now than ever before. As the way we communicate becomes more driven by technology, it’s crucial that you adopt a compassionate approach with every member of staff, no matter where they are based or how new they are to the business. Not only this, but effective digital transformation requires ongoing effective change management – key to this is the ability to communicate and guide your teams through periods of flux.
- Staff who feel comfortable talking to you are also more likely to open up to you. As an employer, this means you’re more likely to learn the goals and ambitions of your staff – key to retaining your top performers. Moreover, being recognised as not just a boss, but also a colleague and friend, means you’ll be approachable enough to discuss problems both in and outside work – including the wellbeing and mental health of your staff.
- Being well-liked or perceived as warm by your team can also help you to build trust. As Emma Seppälä PhD, author of The Happiness Track and Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, has put it: “… leaders who project warmth – even before establishing their competence – are more effective than those who lead with their toughness and skill. Why? One reason is trust. Employees feel greater trust with someone who is kind.”
- According to research cited by Harvard Business Review (HBR), employee loyalty is influenced less by the size of their salary than it is by the feelings of warmth and positive relationships that they experience in the workplace. What’s more, a study by New York University’s Jonathan Haidt found that employees are more loyal to leaders who they look up to, and who leave them moved with their compassion and kindness.
- A compassionate approach can reduce your employees’ stress levels – A study of workers from various organisations found that levels of healthcare spending for employees with high stress levels were 46 per cent greater than at similar organisations lacking such high levels of stress. In particular, connections have been made between workplace stress and coronary heart disease in studies not only observing past patterns, but also predicting future patterns.
How do you become a more compassionate leader?
One of the best descriptions of the importance and relevance of compassion from 21st-century bosses comes from Javier Pladevall, the CEO of Volkswagen Audi Retail in Spain, who has said that “Leadership today is about unlearning management and relearning to be human.”
Follow the below tips to ensure you are speaking to your employees in a human way, instead of treating them as if they are mere commodities:
- Become more self-aware. You’ll probably have heard the term ‘mindfulness’ come up many times in the last year or so, as it’s become a popular wellbeing practice. Effectively, it means becoming more self-aware, as was recommended by no less than the Dalai Lama in a recent article for HBR. In his words, “When we’re under the sway of anger or attachment, we’re limited in our ability to take a full and realistic view of the situation.” Keith Kefgen, CEO of AETHOS Consulting Group, has described it as a process of “getting comfortable with yourself”, adding: “One must have self-awareness before they can effectively lead others. The best leaders I observed were always analysing their strengths and weaknesses and surrounding themselves with people who filled the gaps in their own capabilities.” So, if mindfulness can help you to realise your own positive and negative attributes and management, you’ll be able to continuously improve for the benefit of both you and your entire team.
- Be selfless. If you’re aware of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you’ll know that it starts with self-preservation, but ends with self-actualisation – the latter described by Ann Olson Psy.D writing for Psychology Today as representing “growth of an individual toward fulfilment of the highest needs –those for meaning in life, in particular.” As the Dalai Lama has put it, “Once you have a genuine sense of concern for others, there’s no room for cheating, bullying, or exploitation; instead, you can be honest, truthful, and transparent in your conduct.” And if you can display these positive traits in your management, your employees will react positively to the integrity in the way you communicate.
- Think of your team members as if they were family members or friends. The likelihood is that the people who you are most compassionate towards in your life already, are your friends and relatives. So, for every decision you make that impacts on your employees, ask yourself: if your child, parent or good friend was employed at your workplace, would they appreciate this decision? Bob Chapman, the CEO of global manufacturing company Barry Wehmiller and author of Everybody Matters, practises this technique of turning any managerial decision into a personal question. It’s a simple step that helps him to avoid being blindsided by his status and power – which is obviously something that no manager who appreciates their staff would ever want to happen.
- Emphasise kindness over judgement. A leading researcher into self-compassion, Kirstin Neff, has cited “self-kindness versus self-judgement” as one of its main components. In other words, to be a more compassionate leader towards others, you need to learn to become more compassionate towards yourself, which includes acknowledging that you will sometimes get things wrong. When you can do that, it will become much easier for you to show kindness towards employees who may also make mistakes occasionally.
- Give yourself a break sometimes. It’s easy to imagine that becoming more compassionate necessitates setting softer goals or not striving for the very highest achievements – but this is not the case. According to coach and consultant Fiona English, “Research shows that people who practise self-compassion are equally as motivated. They just give themselves a break when they get it wrong. This helps preserve their ability to be resilient and supports their psychological wellbeing.” She added that self-compassion had “unsurprisingly” been linked to lower levels of burnout. And as you may already know, your own level of performance is going to impact upon that of your team, so keeping track of your own mental and physical limitations is also vital.
So, there is a strong body of research building that proves a compassionate approach beats a tight-fisted strategy every time. If you can reflect this in your own management style, remaining not only compassionate but also calm, controlled and approachable as often as possible, you can expect to develop a stronger bond with your staff at all levels.
What’s more, you can begin to work this way as soon as next Monday morning. A simple “Good morning, good weekend?” could be just what your staff need at the start of another busy week.
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