Leading with Compassion

By Cyndy Murrieta

What we all want most as humans in this uncertain world is to feel heard and understood. That is certainly true in our personal relationships, but it can be just as significant in our workplace.  We are fortunate to voice the importance of humanity and core universal values in business.

In 2019, Forbes wrote that “Businesses that position humanity first, speak to the hearts and minds of people, help fulfill their hopes and dreams and ultimately foster meaningful human connections.”

A year later, life changed, and a global pandemic made it that much more evident. Let’s get rid of the “positive vibes only” mindset and appreciate and respect that there are many days when our employees might be struggling but still trying their best. That empathy and compassion in leadership – especially in the workplace – are more important than ever. In the months and now years following the pandemic, people have been experiencing much higher levels of anxiety and stress in both their personal and professional lives. And are now, in turn requiring connection to those critical universal values from their employers and managers to feel more engaged and happier at work.

But now that we are here, what is the difference between empathy and compassion in leadership? Though both are important, empathy takes the ability to feel what your team members are feeling, while compassion takes that to the next level. Compassion allows us to recognize their feelings and care for them, in a way that can help them get to a better place. You can’t have true compassion without empathy. But empathy without compassion can sometimes lead managers to become preoccupied with their own issues and become mired in sad or anxious feelings. Compassion, on the other hand, increases the ability – and likelihood – to take action to help.

There was a time when hiring a leader was all about finding the absolute strongest, toughest, most knowledgeable person in their field; someone who could lead with domination and drive productivity with those traits. Unfortunately, compassion and caring were considered mere “soft skills,” seen as nice-to-haves, at the expense of hard skills, which were valued much more. Now, smart organizations are recognizing the imperative importance and business benefit of emotional intelligence.

The same Forbes article mentioned that a study conducted by Gallup over 40 years “supports the idea that people who feel genuinely listened to and who feel important, respected and cared for stay longer at employers, work harder, produce higher-quality outcomes and products and are happier and more fulfilled in their jobs.”

As A Partner for Good, we at Paradise have taken that notion to heart. That makes me proud to be one of the company’s leaders. We’ve made a company-wide commitment to connect each and every one of us – personally, professionally, and as part of the communities we all serve.

We strive to impact and improve the lives and communities we serve with everything we do, every day – both internally with our team and externally with our client partners. Being this type of leader, or partner, requires sensitivity and understanding around each employee’s social identity, neurodivergence and mental health needs. This enables us to prioritize psychological safety to create an inward and outward culture in which people feel free to be their authentic selves at work every day without judgement. With empathetic AND compassionate leaders, employee performance will improve and they’ll be happy to go that extra mile — because they know we would do the same for them.

As leaders, we can achieve this with a few core ways:

Take the time to really listen to your people. Understand their life circumstances and have willingness to tailor expectations, work arrangements and priorities as needed.

Advocate for them; help them believe that you value them and will go to bat for them so they can reach their full potential in your organization.

Show vulnerability yourself. This is perhaps most important – don’t try and always be strong and pretend everything is always fine. Seeing their leader sharing authentic vulnerability empowers them to speak their truths, which makes them feel a part of something bigger. Vulnerability is not weakness; it is a show of strength in comfort with sharing yourself with others.

Be willing to help an employee with personal matters. Wait, what? Aren’t we as leaders supposed to keep a line between ourselves and our team members? Actually, yes and no. Truly empathetic and compassionate leaders understand that our people are actual dynamic individuals who have lives that are likely not perfect. When a valued team member is going through a hard time, that’s when we should recognize that part of our role is to support them when they need it the most. None of our colleagues are defined by their traumas or challenge they may be facing. Every human is complex.

Be willing to use your influence within the organization to try and create a more even playing field for others. Move beyond lending an ear to help them solve problems by taking productive actions, such as looking for ways they can get help and reduce their anxiety.  You won’t always be able to affect the change you want. But trying and being willing to take meaningful action to advocate for change is a key skill of a truly compassionate leader.

One amazing benefit from being an empathetic and compassionate leader is that you will see it paid forward exponentially among your team members. They will be more compassionate about their colleagues’ needs and concerns, not only on your team but also across the organization. One of my proudest moments as a leader was when I saw someone on my team encourage her colleagues to reach out to individuals in another department for support and compassion.

Leaders who are perceived as compassionate help their organizations ensure loyalty, tenure, and internal collaboration. Organizations should prioritize these skills and ensure you are working for good within your organization. It will show to others outside your organization, and benefit not only your own team, but clients and partners as well.