Engage: Dispelling the myths of compassionate leadership

Chronic staffing issues, low retention rates, high sickness rates and low morale. The challenges facing us in health and social care continue and things simply must change.

The way for us to respond is through genuinely radical innovation, underpinned by a new approach to leadership. Innovation drives improvement and we know it thrives when teams work effectively together in an environment that supports and encourages continual learning; where we are not afraid to speak up and share our ideas; where we have a voice and we are heard without fear of blame or judgement.

We need to release people from command and control and hierarchical power-based leadership systems, creaking under the weight of bureaucracy. We know autonomy, belonging and contribution are key to our sense of wellbeing at work, and how it feels when our work is recognised as contributing to the whole, when we are part of something and we have some control.

Whilst there is a plethora of research to suggest leading with compassion is the vital cultural element for innovation, myths still circle around.

Let’s dispel a few of these myths:

MYTH #1: Compassionate leaders take the easy way forward rather than putting people who access care and support first

TRUTH: Compassionate leadership is absolutely focused on performance in the interests of people and communities served by care systems. Compassionate leaders don’t gently and softly sidestep issues, rather they keep a very clear focus on the purpose of their leadership. Compassionate leaders listen and attend. They identify performance problems, listen to those involved, find an understanding of the causes, empathise and then find ways to support. They remain focused on the overarching vision at the same time as attending to individuals they lead – the two are not mutually exclusive.

MYTH #2: Compassionate leaders will avoid tough conversations

TRUTH: If we are to manage performance effectively we need to be curious and to seek to understand what often sits behind performance issues, maybe competing goals, poor communication or lack of role clarity. Managing performance benefits from compassionate coaching and truly listening. Compassionate leaders draw attention to and celebrate effective performance, rather than only providing feedback when there is a problem. Ultimately, compassionate leadership means having the courage to focus on difficulties and to have honest, open and necessarily difficult conversations in a compassionate way.

MYTH #3: Compassionate leaders want to keep people happy and will not challenge the status quo

TRUTH: Don’t we all want people that we lead to be happy? As compassionate leaders, this doesn’t mean we avoid innovation and change. Quite the opposite. Compassionate leaders foster a culture of learning, where risk-taking (within safe boundaries) is encouraged and where there is an acceptance that not all innovation will be successful. People feel safe to fail. Evidence of a clear link between psychological safety and innovation is deep and convincing. In a psychologically safe team everyone feels included, cared for and valued. There is a strong sense of interpersonal trust and mutual respect. Team members feel comfortable being themselves.

MYTH #4: Compassionate leaders will be ignored by people who misuse or abuse their power

TRUTH: Compassionate leaders have an empathic response, mirroring the other’s feelings diminishing power distinctions. Promoting continual learning and giving and receiving feedback, consistent with a coaching model, is key to changing behaviours and to leading with compassion. It takes courage and empathy to feedback effectively, to have open, honest and probing conversations. Leading with compassion is not a soft approach nor one which can readily be ignored.

MYTH #5: Individual leaders may behave compassionately but it doesn’t mean organisations will change

TRUTH:  The culture of an organisation is shaped by every interaction of everyone in that organisation every day, with a spotlight on leaders. What leaders pay attention to, what leaders focus on, what they monitor and their own behaviour tells us what is important to them. It tells us what it is they value and what the values of the organisation are. All leaders must recognise that compassion is also expressed in the way organisations operate and behave with each other.

What does this mean for you?

Compassionate leadership requires courage. It requires a commitment to be the best that you can be at the same time as being comfortable to admit your own fallibility. If, as leaders, we can own up to and demonstrate how we’ve learned from our mistakes, it paves the way for others. In listening and attending we connect with others. Modelling the behaviour we want to see in our teams, and organisations, we can normalise vulnerability, we can promote learning cultures, cultures where innovation and change are encouraged, embraced and celebrated.

About The Author

Sarah-Jane Dale is a Director at Skills for Care – the workforce development charity for the 1.5 million people who work in adult social care in England and the strategic delivery partner for the Department of Health and Social Care. Sarah-Jane (pictured) also leads Affina Organisation Development (AOD) – a subsidiary of Skills for Care and the national specialist in team-based working.

Based on the research of AOD co-founder, Professor Michael West, the AOD Compassionate Leadership Programme gives participants the opportunity to explore the evidence base and develop their knowledge and practice in this area.

This article is adapted from’ Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care’ (2021) by kind permission of Professor Michael West.

Picture (c) Skills For Care.