5 ways managers can lead with compassion to boost morale and productivity

  • Compassionate leaders use empathy to boost morale and build stronger connections with their employees. 
  • Practicing the three pillars of compassionate leadership — cognitive understanding, affective understanding, and motivational connection — can help you build a more united and productive team.
  • Managers can start by actively seeking feedback, practicing mindfulness, using humor, and cheering on their employees. 
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In a world of bottom lines, virtual meetings, and ever-changing technology, it's key to show your humanity, especially as a leader. Managers at all levels of businesses can use compassion to effectively lead. The philosophy of compassionate leadership was pioneered by psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, who found that pairing these two traits helps reduce stress and improve organizational performance.

Compassionate leadership uses empathy to connect with employees on a deeper level and bring out their best work while also boosting their morale, an in-depth 2011 study from the Australian School of Business found.

Here are five ways you can practice compassionate leadership.

Embrace the three tenets of compassionate leadership

According to the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, a global online training platform, there are three pillars of compassionate leadership: cognitive understanding, affective understanding, and motivational connection.

Cognitive understanding is having a firm grasp of the problems, situations, and decisions that your employees face. From bereavement leave to new parent leave, make sure your benefits address the realities of your workers' lives.

Affective understanding is keeping your pulse on how your team feels emotionally. Are they stressed? Are they bored? Are they engaged in the projects they're working on? Ask them questions, and be aware of their moods and behaviors.

Motivational connection is demonstrating to your team that you want them to succeed and that you have their best interests at heart. Really look for ways you can help them accomplish their career goals.

Combined, these three behaviors will enable you to create a team that's united around a shared mission.

Lead mindfulness exercises

Kabat-Zinn is a big believer of mindfulness, a type of meditation where you focus intensely on what you're sensing and feeling in the moment — and studies show mindfulness can reduce aggression, anxiety, irritability, and anger. Practicing mindfulness with your team can also decrease burnout.

The Mayo Clinic offers three structured mindfulness exercises that you can lead your employees through:

  • Body scan meditation. "Lie on your back with your legs extended and arms at your sides, palms facing up," the clinic's website said. "Focus your attention slowly and deliberately on each part of your body, in order, from toe to head or head to toe. Be aware of any sensations, emotions or thoughts associated with each part of your body."
  • Sitting meditation. "Sit comfortably with your back straight, feet flat on the floor, and hands in your lap. Breathing through your nose, focus on your breath moving in and out of your body. If physical sensations or thoughts interrupt your meditation, note the experience and then return your focus to your breath."
  • Walking meditation. "Find a quiet place 10 to 20 feet in length, and begin to walk slowly. Focus on the experience of walking, being aware of the sensations of standing and the subtle movements that keep your balance. When you reach the end of your path, turn and continue walking, maintaining awareness of your sensations."

Become self-aware

Compassionate leaders don't just guide their employees — they lead by example. That means being receptive to feedback on your own performance, measuring up to the standards that you set for your team, finding meaning in your work, and building meaningful relationships with your coworkers. Carrying out these actions will show your team how to follow in your footsteps.

Lead with humor

Showing that you're a human being, and not just a boss, will help your employees relate to you and recognize your compassion. You can do that using humor.

In a study by the Bell Leadership Institute, employees asked to describe the strengths of their senior colleagues mentioned "sense of humor" twice as much as any other phrase, along with "work ethic." That aligns with a study published in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal that found employees who said their manager "makes us laugh at ourselves when we are too serious" or "uses humor to take the edge off during stressful periods" were more likely to trust their boss and feel a sense of belonging at work.

Be a cheerleader, not just a coach

Compassionate leaders praise their employees on a regular basis. "Most managers only give feedback when it's negative or corrective, but they don't give out the good stuff nearly as much as they think they do," organizational psychologist Karlyn Borysenko told Monster. Her advice: "Give at least three pieces of positive feedback for every piece of negative feedback."

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