Jess Baker is a business psychologist and leadership coach

In case you’re put off by the title, please know that you don’t have to be managing a team in order to consider yourself a leader. For several years I’ve been running personal leadership programmes for clients; there should always be a strong emphasis on developing your own emotional intelligence as only then will you understand other people better.

Empathy – and the related concept of compassion – has a vital role to play in the workplace, but it requires courage to be an empathic leader. When we empathise, we share what someone is feeling by putting ourselves in that person’s situation; compassion takes that a step further in that it is accompanied by a strong desire to help.

Over 20 years of research data tells us that being more compassionate to yourself and others has many benefits for both you and the recipient. In his 2010 book The Compassionate Mind, clinical psychologist Paul Gilbert described compassion as creating conditions that facilitate openness, caring, safeness, acceptance and tolerance. He was referring to the therapeutic relationship between counsellor and patient, but business psychologists have subsequently demonstrated the benefits of compassion in the workplace. The evidence shows a direct link to enhanced health and wellbeing, which results in higher staff retention, positive customer service, and increased effectiveness and productivity.


Empathy has a vital role to play in the workplace, but it requires courage to be an empathic leader

Emotional weakness?

So why aren’t we already more empathic in the workplace? Well, until recently, displaying or talking about emotions has been perceived as weak or inappropriate. In some more traditional organisations, it still is.

The biggest barrier is the cultural and societal standards that dictate how and when (if at all) we show emotions at work. For example, it’s okay to celebrate winning a new customer, but it’s not okay to have a commiserative cry when you lose one.

We each have personal preferences when it comes to expressing emotions. While some people display their emotions openly at work and invite colleagues to do the same, there are other people who don’t want to, or feel they don’t have the capacity to effectively manage their own or others’ feelings in the workplace environment.

Equally, it’s not always appropriate to express how we feel. I spend much of my time coaching people to stop justifying their decisions based on their feelings. For example, they may say ‘I feel really strongly about X,’ when instead they could strengthen their argument by saying ‘Here is the data that shows X.’ Yet, I spend just as much time helping others to develop their emotional intelligence and increase their capacity for engaging with emotions at work.

Another barrier is the assumption that you can’t be a nice person and have a productive team. My most empathic clients do find it more challenging to manage conflict or to facilitate difficult conversations than people who are more task-focused. However, they do have the capacity for developing the skills and confidence to be both.

Compassionate leadership

A compassionate leader has many characteristics and I want to highlight just some of those key attributes here:

  • empathy – they can tune into how other people are feeling
  • curiosity – they take an authentic interest in others; ignoring preconceived ideas of people (ie unconscious bias) helps everyone to feel included
  • connectivity – they develop healthy relationships with colleagues and clients
  • contribution - they consider their work meaningful and understand their role in delivering outcomes, cooperating fully with colleagues, and committing to the result
  • courage - because the right decision is not always an easy one to take

Culture of compassion

Because an organisation is made up of individuals who do have agency (whether they feel it or not), below are suggestions from the perspective of the organisation, the manager, and the individual employee on cultivating a culture that embraces empathy and compassion.

To what extent does the organisation:

  • give people a time and place to vent if they need to (employee assistance programme, in-house coach etc)?
  • promote values that are aligned to a compassionate culture?
  • seek to understand the workplace stressors affecting employees?
  • work to reduce the workplace stressors affecting employees?

To what extent do managers:

  • ask how people are feeling and really listen to their answer?
  • make time for informal conversations or meet-ups with direct reports to get to know them?
  • help to reduce the workplace stressors affecting their direct reports?
  • feel valued and involved in decisions that affect them and their direct reports?

To what extent do individual employees:

  • take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing?
  • take an interest in their colleagues’ health and wellbeing?
  • understand the value of their work in relation to outcomes?
  • feel valued and involved in decisions that affect them?

Seeking to change a workplace culture or run compassionate leadership programmes can be an investment of time and effort, so start small by focusing on yourself. It is much easier to be compassionate towards others if you can be empathic, kind, respectful and non-judgmental towards yourself first. That is a huge task, let’s be honest, but there are many benefits in being kinder to yourself, in both your professional and your personal life.