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The business case for compassionate leadership

Compassion can often be thought of as ‘fluffy’ and not of relevance to business performance. However, much of the research around compassion suggests otherwise
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One might think that sufferers are the only ones who benefit from compassionate leadership. This is not true. The positive effect of compassionate leadership on people reaches way beyond the sufferers. Compassionate leadership has a clear influence on clients, employees who witness the compassion act and those who are involved in the actual act of compassion.

Benefits to the sufferer

The first group to benefit from compassionate leadership are sufferers. Compassion helps them to manage and move forward from their difficulties. Compassionate leadership enables the sufferer to openly express their loss and to share their painful experience.

One CEO introduced a new initiative that allowed employees to express compassion to each other on a regular basis. As a result of this initiative, staff turnover in the organisation dropped by more than 60% in just six months

Emotional support, working flexibly and other forms of support can feature strongly as part of a compassionate response, helping the individual to get through the grieving process and enabling them to recover from their painful circumstances faster (Lilius et al. 2011).

Benefits to employees, their organisation and its clients

Compassion affects the relationship between the sufferer and the person who is providing the support in the following ways:

  • Experiencing compassion at work connects co-workers psychologically and results in a stronger bond between them (Frost et al. 2000)
  • Those who experience compassionate leadership at work are more likely to report affective commitment to their organisation and to talk about it in positive terms (Lilius et al. 2008)
  • Supervisors who perceive that their organisation values their wellbeing are more likely to show supportive behaviour towards the people they manage (Eisenberger, 2006)
  • Compassion breeds compassion. Individuals who provide compassion or those who are on the receiving end of it are not the only ones that benefit. Those who receive compassion are subsequently better able to direct their support and care giving to others (Goetz et al. 2010). This is critically important in caregiving organisations. Working in a compassionate caregiving organisation reduces the chance of compassion fatigue and burnout in caregivers (Figley 1995). This also provides them with the much needed emotional resources that they need to care for their clients (Lilius et al. 2011)
  • Studies also show that compassion improves the wellbeing and health of those who are involved in the act of compassion. A study by Dunn et al. (2008), demonstrates that the act of giving seems to be as pleasurable as the act of receiving. In Dunn’s study, participants received a sum of money. Half of them were instructed to spend the money on themselves and the other half were asked to spend the money on others. Findings from the study showed that those who had spent their money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent the money on themselves. Providing help to a colleague who is in need has the same positive impact and could in fact be even more rewarding.
  • Compassionate leadership could influence employees’ perception of their colleagues and organisations. Studies show that employees who believe that their leaders care about their wellbeing are more satisfied with their jobs and show higher organisational commitment (Lilius et al. 2011)
  • Compassionate leadership and experiencing compassion at work strengthens the relationship between employees. This reduces employee turnover and increases organisational citizenship (Lilius et al. 2011)
  • Studies (Fredrickson et al., 2000; Gross, 1994) show that experiencing positive emotions lowers heart rate and blood pressure. It also decreases employees’ psychological distress. Therefore compassionate leadership can be seen as a way not only to improve employee wellbeing – it can also contribute positively to the lowering of the incidence of sick leave and absenteeism in organisations

Call centre organisation Appletree provides a good example of how compassionate leadership can reduce staff turnover (Fryer 2013). In call centres, employee turnover can be high due to the nature of the work. Inspired by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the CEO introduced a new initiative that allowed employees to express compassion to each other on a regular basis. As a result of this initiative, staff turnover in the organisation dropped by more than 60% in just six months (Fryer 2013).

Most people agree that compassion is an important part of our lives and we need more compassion to help reduce suffering in the world. However, few prioritise building compassion in the place where we spend a considerable part of our life. Of course, compassion is a humane act and that should be sufficient for being compassionate at work. However, I hope the empirical evidence will help engage a wider group of leaders and managers and provide them with a more convincing business case for compassionate leadership in their organisations.


Meysam Poorkavoos is a researcher at PS Brand partner Roffey Park Institute

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