Real Leaders

Use it or lose it- Why it’s time to strengthen our compassionate leadership muscle.

Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash

Have you noticed the pace of change is getting faster and faster?  

Would it surprise you that the ‘pre-historic’ part of our brain is struggling to cope?

Are you wondering why absenteeism caused by mental health illness is rising?

 If the answer to all of these questions is ‘yes’ then read on.

I love Ruby Wax and in particular, I personally recommend her podcast appearance on ‘Happy Place’ .  During the podcast,  Ruby talks about the brain and in particular a pesky part of it called the amygdala .  In all seriousness, the amygdala does have an important function, if you are being chased by a bear.  When the amygdala becomes stressed, it sends a distress signal via the hypothalamus to communicate a signal to the rest of the body that it needs energy to fight or flee.  This is handy if you are in real danger.  Due to the modern fast based and aggressively competitive modern day world however, our amygdala is mis-firing and giving out distress signal when there is no imminent danger.  Ruby believes we can temper the amygdala in part by acknowledging that mindfulness based cognitive therapy – which she studied extensively at the university of Oxford-is a practice that teaches you to observe rather than react to your emotions.  In essence you observe the mis-fire as if it is happening to someone else but you can catch it in progress and say ‘aha that is anxiety’. Labelling it is thought to lessen its effect.

How can we try however to avoid the amygdala mis-firing in the first place?

The sheer intensity and impact of the constant contact culture through social media and the ‘I want it now’ amazon culture means our brains are mis-firing faster than we can catch it.  This is literally changing the brain for the worst as MRI scans show.  Mindfulness helps beef up the amygdala to respond but the continuous hyper-vigilant state we end up surrendering to, causes anxiety to become chronic and mental health illness becomes more prevalent. ‘In a world of distraction’ as Ruby describes it, we need to dial down the impact on our amygdala and reduce its signaling.  That way the toxic effects of too much cortisol can’t wreak havoc on the system and cause us to be ill.

Post pandemic, however what do you do though when everyone around you is burning out and we are on the tipping point of a mental health pandemic?

A lot of mental health training focuses on the ‘self’ which whilst effective at building resilience and helping others on the approach to crisis, does not tackle what you do if you are on a burning platform nonetheless, due to your organisational culture.

Compassionate Leadership is not a panacea per se, but the evidence of its success is pretty compelling.  This leadership tool promotes going beyond empathising with each other to taking action by signposting, effective and attentive listening and calling out bad behaviour whilst offering support.  The Harvard Business review undertook research as part of the potential project and found that of 350 CEX and CHROs across 15K leaders and 150K employees in 5K companies across 100 countries including involving some big players such as Netflix, Yahoo, Lego and KPMG and produced these key findings:

Those who exercised compassionate leadership were:

-promoted faster

-were double less likely to quit

-14% higher performance

-Greater job engagement 

Hougaard, R; Carter J. (2022) Compassionate Leadership, How to do hard things in a Human Way. 

With this evidence as my momentum, I set about understanding what it meant to be compassionate in a practical way that Middle and Senior management can use.  This lead to the creation of the ELEVATE model.  The model is predicated on the assumption that humans are naturally capable of compassion and therefore this is available to everyone as a bolt on to an existing leadership style.

Before anyone claims this is too time-consuming, think about how many pointless grievance processes or painful tribunals your organisation has attended and think again.  In addition, for anyone who thinks it is too soft and fluffy- This does not avoid the tough stuff.  To the contrary it is engaging with the challenging themes of organisational life in a human way. The beauty is,  it can also be used to look at systemic leadership across the whole employee journey from attraction to exit.  This can be a stress preventative strategy as revisiting policies that often are parental in their nature and re-designing them to focus on the 2% that may underperform rather than the 98% that perform just fine through culture building.  Utilising this tool helps to create a culture of understanding which in turn builds psychological safety, inclusion and a sense of belonging.  Working in environments of safety naturally lowers stress and drives performance so, why would you prefer to do anything else?

Before anyone gets excited though, this takes work. Fear and insecurity often breeds the reverse type of behaviour and that isn’t going to stop people behaving badly. Some persistent perpetrators may even fake it in public but covertly practice the opposite e.g. bullying.  This is a very real issue in the UK press right now.  Creating a compassionate culture however enables people to feel confident to call out this behaviour and therefore dilute its impact.  This may diminish the use of soul-destroying processes like grievances and disciplinaries that are drainers of valuable time.   

So where do you get started?

Compassionate leadership workshops are a really positive way of raising awareness of the need in the first place.  Working through the ELEVATE model and providing business statistics to support its success can help gain the relevant buy in and trust to change culture for the better. This may give you the edge,  rather than cost you time in a competitive and challenging environment as a healthy team is a happy team.

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