Compassion – a compass for business leaders, cultures and outcomes

17th February 2021 Posted by

Compassionate leadership is a concept that’s been debated and advocated for at least a decade now. Despite inevitable scepticism in a ‘cut-throat’ world of competition, many in both the private and public sectors have been won over by the appeal of a style of management which fosters humanity. And now, as we work through the pandemic, the need for compassion in leadership is resonating more widely than ever before.

On 26 February SUEZ recycling and recovery UK is hosting a webinar, where we will share insights on compassionate leadership from Dr Rachel Duffy, an expert in Board and Leadership Development. We think colleagues at all levels of our company can learn and benefit as the principles are relevant, whether you lead a business, department, small team, or just in everyday dealings with your peers.

So, what does it mean exactly? There are slightly different definitions. “Compassionate leadership consists of treating those you lead with compassion in all situations and creating a culture of compassion that supports the flourishing of everyone within that culture,” according to the New York-based Center for Compassionate Leadership.[1]

Or, it’s “The ability to take yourself, individuals, teams and organisations to a higher level of performance and well-being in a safe and stimulating way when tensions occur,” as Jan Vermeiren, author of a book, The Compassionate Leader, puts it.[2]

The UK’s Roffey Park Institute, a long-time champion, emphasises that “compassionate leadership is more than just being a compassionate individual and caring for a colleague who is in pain. A compassionate leader, as well as being a compassionate person, encourages compassion and caring in the wider organisation.”[3]

Implicit in all these perspectives is a fundamental challenge to traditional ideas of leadership. Rather than start with the goals of the organisation and then set out how to move towards them, the leader makes compassion the primary goal, on the basis of trusting that those outcomes will follow.

There are at least three important insights to be drawn.

  • The model of the strong implacable leader – inspiring fear and motivation to work hard, in equal measure – is outdated, if it ever held true. Today’s employees, and millennials in particular, expect constant feedback, training and development opportunities, and managers interested in their career growth.[4] And, we should add, interest in them as individuals and their wellbeing. Management researchers have also shown that individuals perceive compassionate behaviour as being leader-like.[5]


  • There is no trade-off between the goals of the business and compassion. Those who lead in this way have been shown to achieve better outcomes in customer satisfaction, financial returns and employee engagement. The latter is probably key. Engaged and committed employees significantly outperform those who are lacking this motivation, according to Gallup. Its meta-analysis of three decades’ research (spanning 2.7 million employees in 276 organisations across 54 industries and 96 countries) found that the top quartile on employee engagement outperformed the bottom quartile on many performance outcomes, including: absenteeism (81% lower), staff turnover (43% lower, in low-turnover organisations), and profitability (23% higher).[6]


  • Compassionate leaders seek to create cultures that are attentive and responsive to the troubles of employees, and also address their root cause where these are work-based. This empathy and action cascades through the organisation and creates a supportive work environment whereby colleagues look out for and support each other. It encourages openness with peers and managers about wellbeing.

Such a leadership philosophy and workplace culture can help avoid burnout and promote mental wellbeing, trust and engagement – all topics previously discussed in previous blogs.

When I worked in the NHS, compassion was then, as now, a core value, and over the last five years or so the King’s Fund has been advising on how compassionate and inclusive leadership can produce the best outcomes for patients, staff and the effectiveness of the organisation as a whole.

The charity’s lead research authors attack as ‘myths’ any lingering views that compassionate leadership will mean losing commitment to purpose and high performance; tough conversations will be seen as bullying; or that consensus and the status quo will prevail. On the contrary, they argue that compassionate leadership creates the conditions that allow tough and honest conversations to happen, and the openness, creativity and collective focus needed for innovation, change management and high performance.

They also make another point central to healthcare but also pertinent to waste management and other industries. In compassionate organisations employees enjoy a ‘psychological safety’ that frees them to talk openly about mistakes and near misses, as well as incompetence, work overload, mental health or bullying. This is something for every manager of teams at risk from injury on front-line operations to ponder.

Finally, a parting thought on the times we’re living in and two possible exemplars of compassionate leadership.

Covid-19 has shown employees whether or not their employers are truly trustworthy, and compassionate. Impressing on its managers why compassionate leadership matters now more than ever, the NHS quotes New Zealand prime minister Jacinta Ardern: “One of the criticisms I’ve faced over the years is that I’m not aggressive enough or assertive enough, or maybe somehow, because I’m empathetic, it means I’m weak. I totally rebel against that. I refuse to believe that you cannot be both compassionate and strong.”

 As its advocates attest, compassionate leadership is what the global reset now underway demands.








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