What is Compassionate Leadership and How Do I Learn It?

Avatar by Chelsea Olson Published Feb 22, 2021 Last updated Feb 8, 2021

Being a leader in the workplace or with your digital team is about more than just being in charge. In fact, natural leaders often rise to the top with or without an official promotion. Team leads become leads with work experience, but also because they naturally step up and lead the team. Whether you are a natural leader or teaching yourself the skills of professional leadership, soon we learn the importance of being more than just capable and in-charge. In leadership, we must also be compassionate.

It’s important when a team relies on you to consider each person’s needs and capabilities when making decisions. When leading, your actions and reactions will set the stage for the whole team. When even one person relies on you, compassion is what creates both harmony and synergy in your ongoing workflow. When we consider one-another, we perform better as a team.

What is Compassionate Leadership?

We all know what an uncompassionate leader looks like. This is a person who charges forward giving orders and annihilating tasks before them. They might be effective, friendly, and even fun to work with but time and again, leadership decisions disadvantage those around them. A leader who lacks compassion might drive the team to work late without considering that some have after-work obligations. A leader who lacks compassion might heap tasks on a team member who is already on the path to burning out.

A compassionate leader is someone who strives to avoid these common leadership mistakes. Compassionate leadership is when someone takes change by considering the capabilities and needs of every member on the team. A compassionate leader can make a team feel uplifted instead of pressured and can help a team cover each other’s weaknesses instead feeling like a competition for top-performer. Today, we’re spotlighting the steps you can take to become a more compassionate leader.

Consider How Decisions Might Impact Others

Before you make a leadership decision, look at the situation from all angles. Consider how your decision might impact the rest of your team and others connected to the project before you set something in stone. Let’s say you have a deadline coming up and want to ask the whole team to stay late for a few days this week. Who can stay late? Who has family obligations, classes, doctor’s appointments, or medical conditions that might get in the way? Instead of asking the whole team to stay the same extra hours, a compassionate choice might be to suggest flexible extra hours that could happen in the morning or even remotely from home.

Consider who has a heavy workload and who is eager for new challenges. Consider who works well together and how assignments will impact that team synergy. Make a habit of always considering each decision from your team’s points of view to stay compassionate to their unique needs.

Be Supportive of Others’ Ideas and Professional Growth

Striving for professional leadership can, ironically, result in too much self-focus. While you work on making yourself a better leader, remember that a leader’s role is also to uplift the team. Make an effort to be supportive of your colleague’s ideas and their contributed work – even if you have disagreements. Most importantly, support your colleague’s professional growth. If someone is poor at a team skill, encourage them to practice, get training, and compliment improvements. Support your team in career-development both officially and through simple skill-building/sharing during team efforts.

Give Colleagues the Benefit of the Doubt

As a leader, you may need to judge why something has gone wrong. Always start by giving your colleague(s) the benefit of the doubt. This means assuming the best before any nefarious motives are revealed. For example, you may have a team member who shows up late every day for a week, who are then unfocused and not very productive during the day. The benefit of the doubt is that they are having a very hard week and need support, not a reprimand.

Approach problem situations with compassion. Ask what’s wrong instead of accusing someone of being the problem. Until more nefarious motives are revealed, assume everyone is still trying their best and results may vary.

Address Problems Gently and Privately

If there are problems that need to be addressed with a colleague, do so privately. As leader, you could call someone out during a team meeting but no one enjoys this experience. Instead, pull your late-and-tired colleague aside in a private conversation. Then gently ask them what’s changed in their life to cause this sudden change in punctuality and performance. Learn the reasons – or learn that it’s so private as not to be shared. Then move straight on to solutions rather than lingering on the issue.

In the private conversation, you can ask if your colleague needs a schedule change, more coffee, a new desk location, or maybe a focusing meeting at the beginning of each day until whatever-the-situation-is calms down and normal productivity can be resumed.

Avoid Spotlighting Shy or Struggling Colleagues

Leading a team officially or casually, it can be fun to spotlight the good work of your coworkers. You might want to congratulate your designing team-member on a beautiful graphic they just completed. Or you might want to start an of-the-month tradition for team recognition. This can be fun for extroverts, but compassion means remembering everyone’s preferences – not just being generically positive.

Before you spotlight someone, make sure they want to be in the spotlight. The very shy may not be comfortable. Those who are succeeding in the face of great difficulty may not want their struggle to be shown-off, even if they’re doing great work. Never surprise someone with a spotlight event unless you’re certain they will enjoy it.

Rally Around a Colleague in Trouble

If someone on your team is in trouble, you can be more than a personal friend. To be a compassionate leader, rally the rest of the team in support as well. If one colleague is about to miss the project deadline, pull everyone together to make the project right. If one person is falling behind on their work due to personal troubles, lead your team in divvying up the overflow. If one colleague is out sick on presentation day, lead presentation with their team stand-in while still recognizing all the hard work they did up to that point.

Your team members will greatly appreciate that their worst days are the days when the team most pulls together. With a strong and compassionate leader, no one has to be the weakest link because the group stays strong as a team.

Create Opportunities for Others to Shine

Last but not least, create opportunities the same way you select holiday gifts for friends. If you get the chance, direct assignments to the colleagues who will benefit from them most. Give your new team members an opportunity to learn and grow. Shoot the tough cases to your experienced colleagues who will shine in their smooth expert handling.

Suggest your team members for promotion, write positive recognition and recommendations whenever possible. Give out assignments that align with each team member’s natural talents and encourage your team to apply for better positions when their skills, expertise, and attitude are ready to move forward.

Being a compassionate leader is all about considering the experiences of those you lead. From considerate scheduling to compassionately approaching workplace problems, you can lead by example while helping the whole team to shine.