Magazine excerpt: The new world of compassionate leadership

Nicky Pharoah on the power of empathy and compassion in business.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feeling of another person or people, is a great thing. First of all, it makes us feel good! Neuroscientists have found that the pleasure centres of our brain literally light up when we experience empathy.

In addition, it reduces stress and improves resilience, trust, creativity, learning, confidence and our ability to connect with others. In the workplace, it can help us build relationships, diffuse conflict, enable collaboration and drive positive change.

But while empathy has incredible merits, I firmly believe that another quality closely related to empathy, compassion, is the real key to achieving great things in the workplace.

The Dalai Lama believes: “True compassion is not just an emotional response but a firm commitment characterised by action.” And that “compassion does not assume or expect reciprocity or an equal exchange; it means giving selflessly”.

A lack of compassion can also be due to relentless pressures for productivity and efficiency – if people are overloaded and overwhelmed, they are less able or inclined to respond in a compassionate way.

The eminent Tibetan scholar Thupten Jinpa, the long-term Englishtranslator for the Dalai Lama, further defines compassion as “a mental attitude, associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility and respect” and having three components:

  • Cognitive: I understand you.
  • Affective: I feel for you.
  • Motivational: I want to help you. 

So while empathy enables us to understand someone’s feelings, then compassion guides us to not only understand people, but also to act with respect and kindness towards that person, and take responsible action to alleviate their concerns and for the greater good.

It’s this taking of action, building on understanding and empathy that makes compassion really powerful, as it represents a shift from “your problem” to “let’s resolve this together”. 

So why is it that many people find it difficult to be compassionate at work? Sometimes it’s because of the culture of the organisation; if it’s felt that compassionate behaviours are a sign of weakness, or that compassionate behaviour is not valued and encouraged, then compassion generally isn’t displayed.

A lack of compassion can also be due to relentless pressures for productivity and efficiency – if people are overloaded and overwhelmed, they are less able or inclined to respond in a compassionate way. 

Our coaching clients tell us that sometimes leaders are not easy to work for and that the organisational culture is not supportive. Leaders can be demanding, expecting people to work long hours, be ‘task’ rather than ‘individual/ team’ focused, and often don’t prioritise personal development.

By not taking into account the impact of their behaviour on others, these leaders are lacking in empathy and compassion.


Although unfortunate, this is hardly surprising. At the top, for far too long, leadership and compassion haven’t ‘gone’ together. Leaders’ prevailing management style has been to put business first – to lead with heads, not hearts.

From boardrooms up and down the country, to mainstream TV series watched by millions, the popular perception of a leader is someone who’s decisive, results-driven, directive, tough – often to the point of being ruthless.

Thankfully, this is changing as, to quote Theodore Roosevelt, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” Fortunately, businesses are increasingly realising that great leaders are those that, among other traits, cultivate and display compassion.

And that while being results driven and task focused can mobilise action in the short term, long-term power is actually in the hands of leaders who inspire people with purpose, belief, optimism and energy because they are compassionate, and able to empathise and connect – leading with the power of love as opposed to the power of fear.

Most employees rate a caringboss higher than how much money they earn. There is also no shortage of research proving people can’t perform to the best of their abilities if they’re harbouring strong negative emotions.

For example, if people perceive a lack of compassion, this can give rise to dissonance, which ignites and amplifies toxic emotions such as resentment, anxiety or even anger, which can diminish the value they contribute, damage mental health, and even lead to time off work or unwanted leavers. 

However, compassionate leaders understand the needs of their employees and provide them with the support they require to succeed. In doing so, trust is formed, which strengthens the relationships they have with their employees and consequently, overall employee relationships, leading to greater collaboration, and improved engagement, productivity and retention. 

In fact, a Gallup study of 10,000 people between 2005 and 20081 found that if their supervisor or someone at work cared about them, they were significantly more likely to stay with companies, have much
more engaged customers, and be substantially more productive and profitable.

So, far from being an altruistic ‘nice to have’, compassion delivers tangible business benefits.


Abour the author

Nicky Pharoah is managing director of TLC  and will be one of the speakers on the June #TJwow webinar asking: Can Empathy Deliver Business Performance and Results? To register click here

This is a piece from June’s edition of TJ magazine. For a free three month digital subscription trial of TJ magazine click here


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