From education to employment

The strength of compassionate leadership

Mark Solomons

Working in the education sector continues to be highly stressful and demanding and leading with compassion becomes even more essential. Leaders who model compassion are much more likely to build trust and create a more positive workplace culture, with staff wellbeing at its heart. As we begin the final term of the year, this will make all the difference to staff and students.

Compassion: ‘a sensitivity to distress, together with the commitment, courage, and wisdom to do something about it.’ The Royal College of Psychiatry (Cole-King & Gilbert, 2011).

As an educator and leader, how often do you reflect on your leadership style and the impact this has on those around you? Is compassion something you recognise and practise? It’s a powerful and transformative behaviour that will improve relationships, build a more inclusive working environment, and help foster greater wellbeing.

The good news is, being more compassionate does not add to workload and has both significant mental and physical benefits:

‘The giving and receiving of compassion has major beneficial impacts on human physiology, including on the immune and cardiovascular systems, neurophysiological pathways and even epigenetic profiles.’ (Seppälä et al., 2017)

What is compassionate leadership?

Compassionate leadership places the emphasis on both people and outcomes, encouraging high performance through empathy, understanding and support, and putting the needs and struggles of others on an equal footing to your own. This in turn, builds trust and can help reduce the likelihood of staff burnout. Staff who feel they can turn to leaders in times of difficulty or crisis, are also less likely to leave the profession, no matter how challenging it may become.

Becoming a compassionate leader

Compassionate leadership is a learnable competency and like any other skill or behaviour, is developed through consciously building everyday habits: the way you treat and talk to people, and the beliefs and values this conveys.

Specific areas for focus include:

  • Encouraging kindness: Being kind makes everyone feel better. Research by the Mental Health Foundation (2020) consistently highlighted links between kindness and greater feelings of happiness, wellbeing, and life satisfaction for people of all ages. Those on the receiving end of kindness are encouraged, while the person being kind experiences a boost in self-esteem.
  • Be present and caring: Being there when staff need you, matters. Making time can be a challenge, so plan availability into your calendar, even if it is a short time each day, it adds up. Check in with staff and ask how they are doing. Make a note of important information and follow it up – if a parent or child is ill and you ask after them later, it makes a difference.
  • Own your mistakes and shortfalls: Take ownership of your mistakes, show humility, and use these as learning opportunities.

In the current environment, reflecting on your approach to others isn’t always easy, with seemingly never-ending tasks hampering more proactive and strategic needs. You must also show yourself some compassion and be mindful of the importance of leader wellbeing and self-care.

Although there are significant benefits from being a compassionate leader, it is often misunderstood. Tough decisions still need to be made, poor performance addressed, but this can still be done with compassion.

Here are a few myths to bust:

Myth: Compassionate leaders are weak and simply take the consensus route rather than make tough decisions.

Truth: Compassionate leaders make tough decisions and in doing so consider the feelings and needs of others and what’s best for their organisation. They explain the ‘why’ behind decisions they take and actions that are taken.

Myth: Compassionate leadership does not encourage high performance.

Truth: Compassionate leadership encourages better and more consistent performance – staff who feel cared for, give greater discretionary effort and are likely to ‘go the extra mile’.

Myth: Compassionate leaders do not enforce policies and procedures.

Truth: Compassionate leaders use policies and procedures in a way that brings staff with them, evaluating the appropriate response in each individual situation.

A positive organisational culture Workplace culture experts, Great Place to Work, have identified 8 elements that help create a positive organisational culture, and sit at the centre of compassionate leadership:

Credibility: Staff know if the actions of leaders match their words.

Respect: Staff and leaders treat each other with respect and dignity.

Fairness: Staff believe that leaders make decisions fairly and without favouritism.

Pride: Staff and leaders are proud of where they work and what they do.

Belonging: Everyone feels they belong and that they have an important role to fulfil.

Effective leadership: Leaders are invested in their own development and in building a strong culture.

Values: All team members share the same values in how others are treated and how students are managed.

Innovation: Leaders and staff embrace innovation and the positive changes it can affect.

Leaders who consistently display an everyday interest in their staff, help ensure compassion and kindness are prioritised and foster greater staff wellbeing. Greeting people, checking in with them, relating with them before setting tasks or chasing outstanding work, showing you recognise their contribution, all make a real difference to individuals and the culture.

It also provides students with a lived experience of a caring and supportive environment, which will help promote compassion in the wider community.

By Mark Solomons, founder and CEO Welbee

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