Who would have thought an episode of ‘Undercover Boss’ would lead to this article about compassion in leadership. I suppose it is not to far-fetched to make the connection.

What I learned from an episode of ‘Undercover Boss’Undercover Boss - Compassion

The episode which started me thinking about compassion was one where Jessica Herrin, the CEO of Stella & Dot (US-based jewellery company) went undercover.

Jessica met and worked with one of her most successful regional salesperson. This salesperson exposed the ‘undercover boss’ almost immediately because she knew and had encountered her before. She recognised her despite the disguise.  Being exposed so early in the piece ruined the storyline but did allow for a 1:1 moment with the CEO and a frank discussion on the woes of the company culture.

Kudos to Jessica that she was willing to invite and encourage the feedback from one of her people.

Her salesperson with some emotion said that ‘none of the management team had every asked her about herself, her family or how she was going’ (I am paraphrasing here from memory).

What this person was telling Jessica and all other leaders was that what was missing in their management of others was ‘compassion’.

Jessica clearly was a leader with compassion as demonstrated throughout this episode but somehow this hadn’t been felt by her staff. Jessica in part attributed this to being busy and the growth of the business.

There will always be excuses but we must grasp the nettle and build moments for compassion into our working life. Not convinced – please read on.

What do we mean by compassion in leadership

Leadership with compassion
Image – Pixabay
Compassion is often used interchangeable with terms such as empathy, distress, sadness or love.  This confusion often sees compassion being viewed as an emotion rather than a distinct set of behaviours that involve listening, appraisal and physiological responses.

Compassion has been defined well by the Tibetan scholar Thupten Jinpa, who sees it as

Compassion is a mental state endowed with a sense of concern for the suffering of others and aspiration to see that suffering relieved

For Aristotle there were five linked social virtues, of which one was ‘compassion’. He believed that compassion consisted of three cognitive elements the belief

a) that a persons suffering was serious,

b) that the person doesn’t deserve the suffering, and

c) one’s possibilities are similar to those of the sufferer.

Being a compassionate leader perhaps most of all requires mindfulness. You need to be aware of and open to the distress of your colleagues. Mindful meditation is seen as one pathway to enhancing your capacity for compassion.

In one repeatable experiment on the use of mindful meditation compelling results were demonstrated of the impact of this meditation on the behaviour of participants.

Using the ‘waiting room’ experiment the researchers were able to demonstrate that despite the bystander effect (tendency to ignore if others are ignoring) the percentage who helped went from 16% among non mediators to 50% among meditators.

Thupten Jinpa believes

Meditation based training enables practitioners to move quickly from feeling the distress of others to acting with compassion to alleviate it.

For a more comprehensive review of compassion please review Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review

The business case for compassion

Business case for compassionate leadership #leadership
Image source – Pixabay
Having compassion is not just an altruistic goal it can also reap rewards in the workplace.   Research by the Schwartz Center in the US reported that CEO and senior leaders of hospitals and health care saw benefits in

  • lower staff turnover,
  • higher retention
  • recruitment of more highly qualified staff
  • greater client loyalty (reduced stay)
  • lower readmission rates and
  • better health outcomes

It is also clear that workers are looking for happiness at work. Research out of the UK demonstrates that workers value the work environment and the rate relationships as more valuable than a salary increase.

Leading with Compassion

Australian research by Christina Boedker found that the attribute which has the greatest correlation with profitability and productivity of a business are “to understand people’s motivators, hope and difficulties and to create the right support mechanisms to allow people to be as good as they can”.  Other research has identified the impact of leadership behaviour on worker health and stress levels and while this research doesn’t single out compassion there is a strong argument for its inclusion as good leadership behaviour.

Others suggest that through coaching with compassion, leaders themselves reap rewards that ‘restore the body’s natural healing and growth process, thus enhancing their sustainability’. Other studies have clearly established the link of leadership behaviour to worker health and wellbeing.

That we are looking for connection and compassion has been identified by Annie McKee and Richard Boyatzis in their book, Resonant Leadership, where they assert

“Leading with compassion can favorably impact the bottom line while enabling leaders to sustain their effectiveness for longer periods of time: . . . It is not only that the use of compassion leads to …development of more people as leaders, higher committment, responsiveness to customers and a sense of shared community and social responsibility … The most compelling argument for compassion may be this: to sustain one’s effectiveness as a leader …, the experience of compassion ill set in motion restorative mental., emotional and physiological processes.”


“Research shows that positive emotions such as compassion have a decidedly constructive effect on neurological functioning, psychological well-being, physical health and personal relationships.”

Compassion doesn’t equal Weakness

Don’t think that being compassionate equals being a weak leader. Compassion is not the abrogation of management’s responsibility to get the job done to the highest standards rather it is confronting any performance issues with compassion.

As a soft skill compassion might be thought to be of a lesser value than hard skills but the Center for Creative Leadership has demonstrated that there is  a “direct correlation between the long-term success of an organization and the degree to which its leaders practice soft skills”.

How to build a culture of compassion

Building a culture of compassion
                            Image – Pixabay
The same research by Schwartz Center also identified some practical and cost-effective ways to building a culture of compassion, that included

  • the employees experience drives the customers experience
  • involve your customer and their families in improving your services,
  • recruit for compassion and train and induct staff to extend and embed compassion – using simulation and modelling conversations and interactions.
  • build a culture of experimentation and model compassion
  • Provide for ‘whole of team’ approach to customers
  • Commit to transparency – capture, share and make public you customer feedback
  • Don’t get hooked up to complex strategies – sometimes the simple is enough.

Some of the simple strategies identified for building compassion included

  • supporting and enabling staff to have more time with their customer/clients,
  • Assign equal weight to the customers story as to results and records,
  • allow staff to extend sympathy or condolences to mourning families,
  • involve all staff in key briefings and reporting.

This work of the Schwartz Center has led to the development of 7 Guiding Commitments to Compassion

These are a Commitment  to

  1. Build compassionate  … leadership
  2. Teach compassion
  3. Value and reward compassion
  4. Support caregivers
  5. Partner with patients and families
  6. Build compassion into … delivery
  7. Deepen our understanding of compassion

Listening, coaching and modelling builds compassion in leadership


Listening with compassion
Image – Pixabay
According to Annie McKee and Richard Boyatzis it starts with listening in your interactions and also building a culture of compassion through personal example. This could include the introduction of compassion in the organisational value statement shared with all staff.

The use of coaching with the purpose of developing the person, rather than to achieve a organsiational purpose, is also another valuable vehicle to develop and build compassion in the workplace is also highlighted as a powerful strategy.

Related reading or sites

Why we need kind and compassionate leaders

Six Ways to Lead with Compassion

Midnfulness as a context for cultivation of compassion

The Schwartz Center for compassionate healthcare & Building Compassion into the Bottom Line (PDF Download)

Book – Leading with Kindness

Book – Leadership Beyond Good Intentions

Book – Ethics of Compassion: Briding ethical thero and regligious moral discourse