Figures from a 2018 survey stated that we spent a staggering 11 hours a day watching, reading, listening or simply interacting with media on personal devices. We now know from the enforced ‘work from home’ directives, in response the pandemic, that no amount of screen time seems to contribute positively to wellbeing. In fact, the loss of physical and emotional connection with people that can only be experienced in-person has led to greater awareness of mental wellbeing.

Even before the pandemic impacted our lives, it could be said that ours is a distracted, often inward-looking society, and that we are all guilty of spending too long staring into screens and not enough looking over the top of them. For this reason, we are not always seeing and engaging with those around us. We aren’t connecting emotionally; and the danger is it’s making us less compassionate. 

At a time when the wellbeing agenda is front and centre for many organisations, the need for compassionate leadership has never been more important.

Empathy + Action = Compassion

Compassion, in essence, is about having better peripheral vision. It’s about ‘looking up and out’ and seeing others and helping them on their journey, whatever that journey may be. The ability to ‘see’ what others need is empathy but to be truly compassionate we also need to act. Recognising that someone is homeless and needs help is not compassionate until we take action to help.

The Dalai Lama explains the difference between ‘compassion’ and ‘empathy’ as: ‘Empathy is a desire to know the other person. Compassion is to act on that knowledge with positive intent.’ 

Therefore, we can say that compassion is empathy with positive action.

Manley Hopkinson, author of The Compassionate Leader, illustrates this point through a personal experience: ‘As I was driving recently in my home town, an old lady was trying to cross the road but the continuous stream of traffic did not see her. I stopped to let her cross; after all, it would have no negative impact on my journey for such a short time. But still the traffic coming the other way did not stop. Eventually, I held out my hand to stop the oncoming traffic and beckoned towards the lady. The drivers that had stopped on seeing the old lady, understood her needs and were only too happy to let her cross. It is not that we did not want to help the old lady: it is that we did not ‘see’ her!

Therefore, the first step in being compassionate is to see others and understand their needs. It is then that we can take positive action to offer support or provide for those needs. The challenge is how can we build more compassion, more often, into our daily responsibilities as a leader? 

What is Compassionate Leadership?

Manley Hopkinson states that the essence of leadership is to ‘get others to get things done’ but that compassionate leadership, whilst also being about results, is ‘to secure the best for, and the best out of, your people, your organisation, your stakeholders and yourself’. Or, to put more simply: if we can achieve the best for people, we’ll get the best out of people.

Manley also stresses the importance of permanency, ‘to secure something is more than just getting or obtaining itIt has to become something that is solid, dependable and firm’. If something is secure, he continues, ‘I can rely on it, lean on it, trust it’. But it takes effort to secure something and build trust. 

Therefore, leadership is not just about getting effort out of someone: it is also about putting effort into that someone. Simply demanding or managing that people ‘do their best’ is simply not a sustainable way of building a compassionate culture that people can rely on and trust. Indeed, ‘demanding’ and ‘managing’ might lead to compliance, but neither are unlikely to engender commitment and loyalty; in fact the culture you create will be one where people only do what it takes to be compliant and never really give their best.

Commitment not Compliance

Being compliant usually means that somebody understands the rules and can take instruction. But a compliant individual doesn’t always perform at their best or most efficient; compliant people are passive, they await instruction and do not use their initiative. They rarely share their ideas and they are unlikely to be emotionally invested. This can be hugely unproductive for both the leader and the individual.

On-the-other-hand, a committed person will always be better asset to the team. Commitment suggests that they understand the direction of travel, and they support the strategy or the vision and are willing to exert energy into achieving the goals. 

If this were a financial metric we would conclude that ‘investing in’ people who are committed, provides a greater return than only ‘demanding’ and ‘managing’ people. Compassionate Leadership, therefore, is about building relationships based on respect, trust and diversity of thought. 

When leading a team, think about people as individuals, and the team as a collection of diverse and complementary individuals with differing needs, wants and emotional responses. Relate to them. Be compassionate. Gain commitment.

Being self aware

Compassionate Leadership starts with you. It begins with acknowledging and understanding the impact you have on the people around you. This is often referred to as having ‘emotional intelligence’. To understand your emotional intelligence ‘score’ is quite daunting because you are literally putting a mirror up to assess how others experience you. There are numerous tools to assess how you are seen and thought of – asking for 360 feedback for example – but a great starting point is to look at yourself. Ask yourself:

  • How tolerant are you? 
  • How much do you know about your team?
  • How confident are you as a communicator?
  • What is your leadership style?
  • What is your attitude towards coaching and mentoring?
  • What visibility do your team have of you?
  • How do you ‘show up’ to your team – fun, serious, demanding, open, closed…?

This is not an exhaustive list but you can start to build up a picture of how others see and experience you, because all of the above influence how you behave. You can then ask yourself whether that is how you would like to be experienced and whether you are successful at building trust and commitment that gets the best out of people. 

Leading is influencing

As a leader you can only truly influence anyone when the team or individual allows himself or herself to be influenced. It’s been shown that people are more likely to be taken ‘under the wing of’ and to ‘trust leaders’ who are able to demonstrate a dynamic range of behaviours or skills to help build a stronger, deeper, influential relationships.

Social psychologists, John French and Bertram Raven believe that influence comes with power, but that power is given to them by their team – it does not come as a part of the job title. Just like respect, you have to earn it. 

French and Raven state their research defines five power bases that leaders use, and all have different effect on how people respond and why:

  1. Reward
  2. Coercion
  3. Expert
  4. Referent
  5. Legitimacy

The first two power bases, reward and coercion, have a similar effect. These are essentially about incentives and/or punishments – getting a bonus or not getting a bonus. Both are more likely to lead to compliance, but they also encourage silo mentality and a focus on self-interests rather than the team or organisation.

An expert power base describes the knowledge and expertise that teams believe the leader to have. If you can demonstrate knowledge they will give you the power base of being an expert, which means they are happy to be influenced by you because they trust your judgement.

Referent is similar to expert but describes the positive way that people refer to you in their conversations with each other. This is essentially behaving and role modelling in such a way that people buy-in to your identity and aspire to be like you, perhaps even mirroring your behaviours. This leads to commitment and you, as a leader, are a motivator. The CEO of a hospital doesn’t have to be a surgeon to gain commitment from clinical professionals.

The last power base that leads to influence is legitimacy that is earned over time as people realise that your judgement and decisions have been proven to be correct. This adds legitimacy to what you are saying and therefore makes influencing easier. Of course, it also means that if you are deemed to make poor decisions then your ability to influence will suffer.

Be compassionate

  • Compassionate leadership is something only you can provide for your team. 
  • It starts with a desire to want to secure the best for people, in order to get the best from people.
  • It is about obtaining commitment rather than compliance, and commitment is based on trust and a willingness to be influenced.
  • Influence is directly linked to power as defined by French and Raven, and power is given by the people based on actions and style.

The need for compassionate leadership has never been greater. A great place to work is one where leaders are trusted and people are happy to be led. Compassionate leadership is not simple and it requires self-awareness and openness.

Being a compassionate leader means:

  • Having good peripheral vision and seeing others around you and noticing how they are
  • Acting positively to support individuals and teams when you can see they have a need
  • Being aware of how we come across and better understanding our impact on others
  • Building a deep and dynamic power base of skills and behaviours that will let others be influenced by you
  • Developing a team of committed individuals, rather than compliant, passive individuals.

The words we choose to use send signals about us – about how we are as people, leaders and as organisations. The way we express ourselves is how people will ultimately ‘see us’ and what we stand for, so it is important that we choose our words carefully and with clarity. Our words can have real impact but they can also sink us too. 

Where to start?

Writing is a creative activity – or, at least, it should be – and it can be a very public one too. As a leader, what you write will be read, re-read, scrutinised and, if it’s good, it will be remembered and acted upon. Whether that is a letter or a report, a brochure or an email, when you’re faced with a blank screen and a deadline, it can be hard to know where to start.

Well, the good news is that there are a number of simple steps we can take to help make our writing more relevant, more engaging and more memorable, and it all starts will knowing who your audience is.

Who are you talking to?

It is always important to begin any writing assignment by considering your target audience. It could be that your audience is internal or external; they may be very familiar with your business, or they may completely new to the sector. 

From the CEO to part-time employees, from customers to suppliers, from the press to recruitment, the myriad of potential ‘readers’ means that, as writers, we need to paint a vivid picture in our minds of whom we are writing to. In order for your message to really hit home and have an impact, you need your writing – your words – to be as relevant as possible to the people who will read them. You need to tailor your writing, so ask yourself the following questions about your readers:

  • Who are they and what do they do? – It’s basic, but it is surprising how we often just see our audience as one large, homogenised ‘lump’. Try to see the individual person and understand their role and what they do. Write to them. Write for them.
  • What do they know and don’t know? – Don’t assume everyone has the same knowledge of a subject as you do. You may need to do some explaining to set the context of your message.
  • What are their challenges? – What is happening to them now, in their working lives, that present the biggest challenges, and why?
  • What are their fears? – What worries them and why, and how will your words help to solve their worries and fears?

What are you going to write?

Of course, the reasons behind what you write and why you are writing will vary, and will depend on many factors. That said, every piece of communication needs effective content and we need a method or approach to help us identify what this effective content might be. 

Copywriting is a balance between what you want to say, and how you want to say it, the tone of voice, if you like. What’s the tone of the voice that is appropriate for this piece of writing?

Before beginning any writing task, it is essential that you define your key message.  The key message is the single piece of information your want our reader to retain after reading your communication. 

A key message should:

  • Be a single thought or idea
  • Include a benefit or ‘call to action’ for the reader
  • Be expressed in a few words as possible

It is all too easy to bury your key message under the weight of other thoughts, so how can you condense your proposition into a single sentence? Try the elevator test. Imagine you are in an elevator and that someone from your target audience joins you. You are both only travelling six floors, so you only have a few seconds to deliver your message. What would you say? How simply can you distil your key message down, so that you can clearly express it and it is understood? What is absolutely necessary and what is padding? 

How are you going to write it?

1. Get to the point – When writing, get your point – your key message- across to your reader as clearly and as soon as possible. Don’t make them read more than is absolutely necessary. 

Many of your readers are not likely to read the entire piece – especially if you’re composing a long newsletter or report – so make sure that your key message appears within the body of your heading, or sub-heading, or within the first paragraph. Always lead with the most important information, as this allows your reader to scan the opening and decide whether it is relevant and keep reading.

2. Break it up – When readers scan communications, they look for signposts to help them to find the information they need. Long, word-dense paragraphs are off putting and hard to read, so it helps if you do the following to help:

  • Provide clear, explanatory & short headings
  • Write meaningful sub-headings describing the content that follows
  • Set out simple, short paragraphs, each one highlighting only one idea
  • Give information as bulleted lists

3. Say what you mean – Always use short words and sentences. Simple clear language will help understanding, and prevent readers having to stop and ask, ‘What does that mean?’

  • Don’t use a long word where a more-common, simpler and short word will do as well:
    • Harder to read: We will commence the restructure when…
    • Easier to read: We will start the restructure when…
  • Don’t use six words, when you might use two:
    • Hard to read: The guidance that we are now providing…
    • Easier to read: Our guidance…

Jargon, technical language and acronyms should be avoided wherever possible. Even if the communication you are writing is aimed at a specialist audience rather than a general reader, you should not assume prior knowledge. Doing so might exclude readers and disengage them. 

4. Be Human – The language we use plays a big part in forming peoples’ perceptions about us and it should reflect our values; in short, our language should be as human as possible. Three simple rules to keep in mind:

  • Be personal and engaging
  • Be compelling
  • Be accurate

A personal and direct style will help to engage the reader. A good rule of thumb is to imagine you are talking directly to the reader whilst you write. Use the active, personal voice rather than a passive impersonal voice whenever you can. 

Passive: Preventative measures that should have been taken were not actioned

Active: I didn’t ensure that the necessary preventative measures were actioned

Active sentences have a strong, direct, and honest tone, and give a clear sense of ownership.

5. Be imaginative

Never settle for the first thing that comes into your mind when you begin writing. Never just settle for the satisfactory. Use your imagination and play with your ideas, words and phrasing.

Does your writing surprise? If your communication reads like it is on autopilot when you wrote it, then who will want to read it? Think of ways to surprise… ask questions, use repetition (power of three), tell stories and use imagery to surprise and create engagement.

Trust your subconscious. Sometimes it can be beneficial to take time away from your writing and let things ‘digest’ in your subconscious. Looking at your ideas afresh a few hours later can sometimes open up new channels of thinking. 

Embrace the new. Writing and design are often married together to increase attention and engagement. Just think of all the memorable posters you’ll have seen over the years that combined imagery and text to make their point. So, when you see a new format or image think about how you might marry them with your key message. Keep a scrapbook of things you have seen or read and find ways to use new ways of communicating.

Summary

Writing should be enjoyable and creative, but it must also affect and engage:

1. Know your reader – always write with your reader in mind; know their role, their challenges and fears 

2. Keep your content relevant, simple and to the point – you should have a clear goal or ‘call to action’ in mind. What do you want your reader to think, feel or do after reading your piece? 

3. Write in short sentences – no one likes to sit in front of a page of heavy text, especially if that text has come from their boss or a company they work with. 

4. Be human – write to a person, not an audience.

5. Find ways to engage and surprise – Think about what types of writing affect you and why?

The decisions you have made in the past have got you where you are today. The decisions you are making today will impact you and your organisation in the future.

How can you ensure these outcomes are always what you intend?

Well, the truth is you can’t.  

But there are things you can do to set yourself up for the best possible outcome.

Effective Decision Making, Andrew Cameron

Remember that you’re biased

Just because you’ve had some good outcomes from the choices you’ve made in the past doesn’t mean you always made the right decisions.

After all, we have very little actual control over outcomes. Environmental changes, economic uncertainty, luck and personal bias all play their fair share is shaping how our decisions really play out. 

And yes, your biases can get in the way of good decision-making.

Now this observation isn’t meant as a criticism because in reality we are all biased. Our life experiences have hardwired our brains to think in certain ways based in the experiences we’ve had in the past, either directly or indirectly.

Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow has demonstrated through research that our innate biases mean that our brains are set up to reach conclusions quickly, thereby prohibiting the potential for further consideration.

Kahneman states that we have two cognitive systems that he calls System 1 and System 2.

System 1 takes over your thinking when your instincts signal that you understand the situation or question being posed. System 1 thinking operates on association – “I’ve seen this before…I’ve done this before…therefore I know the answer!” Two plus two always equals four, so we literally don’t need to think about it. System 1 is a short cut, it saves energy and it is fast, but is also responsible for stereotypes, selfishness and lack of innovation. 

Kahneman is clear about System 1’s pitfalls:  “Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favourable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be.” 

In short, System 1 can – and will – trip us up and our firmly held beliefs can lead us to failure.

System 2 thinking, on the other hand, requires us to slow down because we don’t have the associative element – the ‘experience’ – that enables us to jump to the answer we are seeking. We are forced to slow down and think much more methodically; the effort required means that we can only apply System 2 thinking to a few issues at any one time and if System 2 is ‘cognitively busy’ then that is when we defer to System 1 thinking – and that’s when our biases kick-in. System 2 thinking is hard work…and we all have an innate desire to avoid that! Indded, Lab tests have shown that people who had to apply System 2 thinking to mental problems had reduced glucose levels – it’s not coffee you need, it’s chocolate!

Gleb Tsipursky, author of Never Go With Your Gut, states that we often seek out information to reinforce our biases rather than consider other potential options or scenarios. This trait can be detected in leaders who fail to acknowledge their mistakes, which suggests they have learned nothing from the decision making process and will continue to make decisions based in their own biases.

Even when presented with overwhelming evidence against the decision a poor decision maker will focus on the very small amount of evidence in support of their own argument. ‘When you follow you gut, you pay attention to the wrong things in the wrong manner at the wrong time.’ Tsipursky writes.

It’s not all about the big decisions

When we think about ‘decision-making’ as a subject we might confine our thinking to the big strategic decisions that every organisation has to face, but that would be to under-value the impact of ‘small’ decisions.

Organisations are essentially multiple teams and individuals within teams learn from each other. In their book, The Importance of Small Decisions, the authors (Michael J O’Brien, R Alexander Bentley & William A Brock) state that we learn through ‘social learning’ and ‘individual learning’, where individual learning is acquired through trial and error, and social learning involves emulating the behaviours of others. In an organisational context this means that a ‘small’ decision to change behaviour in one team could eventually be adopted by the whole organisation. This could be viewed as a benefit or a drawback.

In the early 2000s a publishing company held a conference with 150 people during which a phrase was used to describe the culture of the organisation. It caught-on with some delegates, in this case middle managers, who returned to their offices and ordered mouse mats and mugs with the phrase printed on them. Soon others, who had not been at the conference, did the same and before long thousands of people were describing the culture of the company using a phrase that wasn’t in any official documentation, induction or training material. It all seemed harmless until the phrase was used against the company as part of a grievance process – the first question that was asked: ‘Who ordered the mouse mats?’

Five things to consider when ‘deciding how to decide’ 

1. Are you going to solve the right problems with your decision-making? 

In other words, are you making a decision that will tackle the root cause of a problem or merely alleviate its symptoms?  In a business context it might be a more sensible use of time and resource to make the decisions that can solve systemic failings, rather than constantly acting to plug gaps and fix mistakes arising from them.

2. Are you framing your decision-making in the most appropriate way?   

Looking at the possible outcomes of a decision from only one perspective may blind you to other equally important and possible outcomes. Look at a problem from a regulators point of view or that of a competitor’s or a customer’s, in order to see a broader context. Be willing to re-examine your understanding of a decision and its possible repercussions to appreciate how it will impact others. Always consider a range of perspectives to give proper balance and judgement to your deliberations.

To help with this the author Steven Johnson recommends using decision maps to lay out a series of choices and options for the most important choices you make. These “influence diagrams” could help you see the “chain of effects” of your potential choices much more clearly. To enable yourself to build an accurate map, Johnson urges you to identify the issue or problem accurately and to get multiple perspectives.

3. Are you making the right assumptions? 

Every decision is based on certain assumptions, but are those assumptions justified?  There are four ways we should consider the reliability of what we assume to be the case before we act:

  1. What do we know but can’t prove?  
  2. What do we know but haven’t questioned?
  3. What can we know for sure?
  4. What are the gaps we are filling in for ourselves?

Listing the extent and limits of our current knowledge can be a good exercise in judging our ability to make the right call.

We don’t really like to admit what we don’t know. Leaders and charismatic people will often tell stories to fill in the knowledge gaps, which can rapidly become a new and dangerous ‘fact’ based on nothing but supposition and a fear of saying ‘I don’t know’.

Sometimes we confuse the outcomes of luck with the outcomes of skill and judgement. Correlation between good outcomes and the decisions that preceded them is not the same as causation, but the gifted storyteller can make them seem so.

4. Turning the decision into action

The way in which we intend to solve a problem is the bit of decision-making that is usually neglected, but it can have a huge impact on outcomes. Ensure that the implementation of a decision is not hampered by lack of buy in or understanding by the people who will need to enact it. 

5. Read case studies

We shouldn’t assume that there is no precedent for the business choices we are facing. Case studies are a valuable resource and they don’t have come from the same industry or even the same historical epoch to be instructive.  It’s worth considering how different leaders in the near or even distant past have approached the kind of problems that we are trying to solve right now.