Compassionate Leadership: A Call to Action
This resource was created by The Kings Fund in partnership with Health Education and Improvement Wales (HEIW).
The Latin root of the word ‘compassion’ means ‘suffering with’.
Taking this seriously in the context of how we provide health and care services comes down to moving from doing things dispassionately to people – staff, patients and clients – to something much more collaborative.
For many leaders, this may represent a significant shift away from more traditional ideas about leadership and management. These ideas tend to place leaders somehow outside the systems they lead and suggest that small groups of experienced people are able to direct what others do, as though those others aren’t important as people in their own right. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many leaders are still being pressured into producing strategy after strategy and action plan after action plan, those they lead are treated as boxes on an organisational chart, and patients are referred to by their bed number or disease.
The irony is that the caring professions have ideas of compassion at their very core, so how is it that being deeply involved with others in solving the problems people in the health and care system face every day has come to be seen as something strange or surprising? For in the end, focusing on compassion amounts to treating each other as human beings trying to navigate a complex and challenging world together, where everyone has value and something to contribute. Importantly, this way of thinking leads to a different set of leadership actions.
Over the past decade, the concept of compassionate leadership has emerged through the work of Lancaster University’s Professor of Work and Organisational Psychology, Michael West, as a touchstone for understanding the kind of leadership behaviours that will best enable high-quality care. West’s work draws on the work of many scholars and practitioners including Paul Gilbert’s research on compassion in the UK, and research into the impact of compassion on health care outcomes by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton , and Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli.
In this work, compassionate leadership amounts to much more than a simple call to ‘be nice to each other’ or to avoid difficult conversations as is sometimes thought. In reality, it means leaders specifically focusing on four things as they work with those they lead.
ATTENDING:being present with and attending to those they lead and making it easier for those they lead to be present too
UNDERSTANDING:appraising the situations the people they lead are struggling with, ideally through dialogue and perhaps reconciling conflict, to arrive at a measured understanding. This needs leaders to be inclusive of a diverse range of people and perspectives, some of which they may be inclined to avoid engaging with.
EMPATHISING:going beyond understanding, finding a way to share the feelings those they lead are experiencing.
HELPING:taking thoughtful and intelligent action to help those they lead to deliver the high-quality, compassionate care they want to provide.
None of this does away with ideas of responsibility, accountability and goal-oriented performance. Rather, compassionate leadership reframes those activities as being best achieved with others. This is a world away from telling others what to do and leaving them unsupported to get on with it, or judging or treating people harshly if they haven’t ‘performed’.
Instead, it requires humility, vulnerability, and an openness to the perspectives of others as a means to creating commitment towards a clear vision, alignment around short-, medium- and long-term goals and clarifying individual and team roles to achieve them. All of these can contribute towards organisational performance and there is now a significant body of research and evidence that shows that organisations that are more compassionate in these terms are likely to have better outcomes.
No one would try to argue that this kind of leadership is easy, nor can it ever be regarded as a kind of ‘silver bullet’ – experience shows that the world is too complex for that. It may, however, offer a way – and some hope – that everyone in the health and care sector might be able to find meaning and fulfilment as they work with their colleagues, and provide the high-quality health and care services that people deserve
References/ Further reading:
Gilbert P (2009). The compassionate mind. London: Robinson.
Trzeciak S, Mazzarelli A, Booke, C (2019). Compassionomics: the revolutionary scientific evidence that caring makes a difference. Pensacola, FL: Studer Group.
Unwin J (2018) Kindness, emotions and human relationships: the blind spot in public policy. Dunfermline: Carnegie United Kingdom Trust. Available at: www.carnegieuktrust.org.uk/publications/kindness-emotions-and-human-relationships-the-blind-spot-in-public-policy/ (accessed on 17 June 2020).
Worline M, Dutton JE (2017). Awakening compassion at work: the quiet power that elevates people and organizations. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
West M, Collins B, Eckert R, Chowla R (2017). Caring to change: how compassionate leadership can stimulate innovation in health care. London: The King’s Fund. Available at: <a href = "www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/caring-change"target = "blank">www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/caring-change (accessed on 17 June 2020).
West MA, Chowla R (2017). ‘Compassionate leadership for compassionate health care’, pp 237-57 in Gilbert P (ed), Compassion: concepts, research and applications. London: Routledge.