Skills for Care

Why compassion matters in leadership

12 Jun 2023

5 min read

  • Culture and diversity
  • Leadership
  • Wellbeing

Sarah-Jane Dale, Chief Operating Officer, AOD and Director of Development, Skills for Care discusses what compassionate leadership is and how it benefits both leaders and teams.

Isn’t it true to say we all want to feel valued and supported in our jobs, enabling us to feel our best and do our best work? As leaders we want the same for members of the teams we lead. We want to support people to reach their full potential.

Compassionate leadership goes hand-in-hand with compassionate care, but with all the pressures upon us, it can be incredibly difficult to give compassion the headspace it deserves.

Do you find yourself offering solutions just because you want to help? Do you get involved with every problem because you don’t want others to feel isolated? Do you place a low priority on your own health and wellbeing? If this sounds like you, read on.

Compassion comes with the territory for those working in health and social care, but taking time to understand the evidence behind compassionate leadership and practice our skills can really help us to improve the way we interact.


What is compassionate leadership?

Compassion had been defined as “a sensitivity to suffering in self and others with a commitment to try to alleviate and prevent it”.

It follows that compassionate leadership simply puts that principle into action, with a focus on compassion in the context of leading others.


Compassionate leadership in practice

What could this look like in your day-to-day work? In his book Compassionate Leadership, Professor Michael West explores four elements of compassion.

  • Attending – being truly present with others; notice their suffering, challenges, and difficulties. Time pressures and/or chronic work overload often distract us from noticing suffering at work.

An example of this element given by participants at AOD’s Compassionate Leadership Footprint programme is: “I am trying to be attentive and present with all conversations at work.”

  • Understanding – developing a shared understanding through listening and getting to the root cause of the problem or issue. Cultivating more generous interpretations, not blame, when things don't go as planned.

“I am checking in and out with others especially at meetings, making more of an effort to get to know teams and what is important to them.”

  • Empathising – not merely sympathising, but a motivation to help using the skill of empathy. It's not about fixing, solving or intervening but tuning into feelings of concern to hear others’ perspectives.

“I am trying to become a better listener by actively listening and empathising without wading in trying to help and sort their problems out.”

  • Helping - removing obstacles; helping to ensure people have the resources they need (staff, equipment, training) to do their jobs even more effectively. Address the root cause of the suffering rather than take easy superficial actions.

“We have set some short term objectives and are trailing a form of team delegation, to check in around workloads.”


Benefits of compassionate leadership

Research into compassion at work is attracting more and more interest. The evidence suggests that compassion makes a big difference to outcomes for those accessing care and support, and protects the wellbeing of those providing it.

Compassionate leaders have been shown to increase staff engagement and satisfaction, resulting in better outcomes, including improved financial performance4, increased retention and loyalty.

A 2022 study shows supportive and compassionate leadership is also associated with lower work pressure on staff and more influence over decisions; both in turn are linked to higher levels of service user satisfaction.

The good news is that compassionate leadership can be nurtured, learned and practised in any organisation.


This blog includes participant feedback from the AOD Compassionate Leadership Footprint programme – a virtual, hands-on learning experience for team leaders in social, health and integrated care settings.


Find more information and support for creating a positive workplace culture with our #PositiveWorkplaceCulture spotlight.


This article was originally published in June 2022. It was reviewed and updated in June 2023.

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