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Two months after Russia invaded the Ukraine (February 24, 2022), you may be viewing events with a sense of helplessness but also overwhelming compassion for the Ukrainian people.

Whilst the war may impact your business, through economic downturn, global supply issues and other aspects of the macro-environment, your main concern is probably for human life.  If so, (and if you are not already this), you have all the makings of a compassionate leader.

Compassion is powerful in life and in the workplace.  The Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.  If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”  It’s a give and get thing.  The more kindness and compassion you show to others, the more you will receive, to foster your own wellbeing.

It’s natural that compassion should be aroused by the Ukrainian war.  Cassell, in 2009, said we can only feel compassion if the troubles that spark our feelings are grave, imposed on the sufferers and not self-inflicted, and if we can imagine ourselves in the same predicament.[i]  Watching war reports surely leaves most of us with heightened levels of compassion.  Just look at how many homeowners applied to take in Ukrainian refugees.

Practising the same compassion in the workplace can be hugely beneficial.  Compassion is strongly linked to empathy, which we know is powerful, which is why Space2BE trains leaders in emotional intelligence.

Experts such as Peters and Calvo (2014) say better resilience can be built through exercising compassion – in fact, perhaps we have seen that during the pandemic, as leaders better connected with staff and there was a mutual drive to keep organisations focused.

When talking about compassion, the CIPD quotes Kanov et al (2004, p 810), “Organisational compassion exists when members of a system collectively notice, feel, and respond to pain experienced by members of that system.”   In this sense, it is about mutual understanding and appreciation, shared values and beliefs, the norms within the organisation, the quality of relationships, and leaders’ responses to employees.

The CIPD also states compassion is vital for inclusive workplaces and the fight against racism and inequality.  It says we have never had a greater need for compassionate leadership, but that the conversation about workplace compassion is still in its infancy.

The good news is that compassion can be learned.  Thupton Jinpa points to three pillars of compassionate leadership.[ii] The first is the Cognitive Pillar, understanding employees’ problems and situations and supporting the team.  The Affective Pillar revolves around being able to feel and identify emotional distress in the workplace and better solve underperformance.  The third pillar is Motivation  – ensuring the professional development of all employees is always top of the agenda.

To be a compassionate leader, you need a thirst for both learning and listening, strong awareness and observation skills, robust ethics and values and the ability to guide and support teams and individuals.  You need to understand the art of persuasion and influence, rather than ruling by edict.  You must be a problem-solver.  You must communicate your gratitude and appreciation to staff and provide uplifting and motivational feedback.

However, you also need to exercise self-compassion.  As Kristin Neff, author of ‘Self-compassion: the Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself’ says, a pre-requisite of compassionate leadership is keeping your own well-being top of mind.

The benefits of compassionate leadership can be reaped through better employee retention, higher performance and outputs, enhanced communication and stronger teams, better workforce wellbeing and reduced stress and sickness.  Not showing compassionate leadership, on the other hand, can exhaust workers, according to the authors of ‘Awakening Compassion at Work’, Monica C Worline and Jane E Dutton.[iii]

Notably, America is ahead of us on this.  Seattle-based organisation, Brighton Jones, lives and breathes compassion and caused a stir when appointing a Director of Compassion.  Its co-leader of its Mindfulness-Based Emotional and Social Intelligence (MESI) programme, Bonnie Gerlaugh, has said, “I care about decreasing suffering … anxiety, depression, burnout, the need to control and other toxic ways we show up at work.”[iv]  Brighton Jones focuses attention on things “above the line” – self-awareness, empathy, a growth mindset, curiosity and self-management – fighting things “below the line” (fear, criticism, defensiveness and insecurity).

You are most likely angry about Putin’s need for control and the toxicity of the Kremlin.  There is little you can do about that.  But you can use all the compassion you feel in a positive way, by igniting your employees’ curiosity in ways that make you mutually stronger. You can use the compassion generated from a bad situation and ensure it has good outcomes.  You can, if you need help, use our services and train your leaders in powerful compassion.

In the meantime, pray for Ukraine.