Leading with Compassion vs. Leading for Compliance

Leading a workforce is more challenging than ever before because it’s multigenerational, multicultural, and at many companies, globalized. New workforce demographics require a new leadership style. Historically, managers have led for compliance vs leading with compassion, assuming a focus on setting rules and issuing orders meant to ensure operational requirements are met. In this scenario, employees are responding to positional power.

Leading with compassion is better suited to today’s workforce in which transparency and empathy are leadership traits needed for organizational success. “Compassion” and “empathy” aren’t vague or identical terms. Empathy is the ability to understand how someone feels or the person’s perspective. Compassion is awareness of another person’s distressful feelings coupled with a desire to alleviate them. They are both based in the cognitive science of Positive Emotional Attractors (PEA) versus Negative Emotional Attractors (NEA).

Moments of Emergence Lead to Change

To understand the relationship of PEA and compassionate leadership, we need to go back to school for a moment. Dr. Richard Boyatzis, Professor of Organizational Behavior, Psychology, and Cognitive Science at Case Western Reserve University has done extensive research on PEA/NEA and their impact on leadership. According to Dr. Boyatzis, people experience change as moments of emergence, rather than as a continuous process. PEA are the triggers for positive change, while NEA leads to people closing down.

Traditionally, managers have conducted performance evaluations to highlight the infamous “areas needing improvement.” Dr. Boyatzis describes it as the manager approaching the employee with the perspective, “Here are your weaknesses, and I can fix you.” Unlike leading with compassion, leading for compliance involves managers doing things like issuing orders to ensure adherence to laws and regulations, company policies and procedures, and directives.

Neither of these leadership behaviors inspire employees, excite their imagination or open up new possibilities. Instead, they enter a state of NEA which is defined by emotions like anxiety, stress and resentment, leading to negative thinking, feeling and behaviors. In other words, NEA harms, rather than builds, employee engagement and creates a workplace culture based more on fear than vision.

Triggering PEA Through Leadership

What if your managers triggered a state of PEA instead of NEA in each employee? Remembering that change consists of moments of emergence, your leaders would approach employees with an entirely different perspective – one of compassion and empathy. Your managers would focus on the positive in employees, and serve as inspiring role models. People are most likely to remember moments when they aspired to do something or saw the possibility of doing something they weren’t sure they could achieve. PEA contributes to developing a strong employer-employee shared vision, necessary for business success.

Leaders who want to change employee thinking and behaviors shouldn’t order compliance, arousing NEA. Instead, they should lead with compassion and arouse PEA by focusing on employee possibilities rather than problems. They should be optimistic rather than pessimistic; hopeful rather creating fear; and nurturing rather than ordering. Their focus isn’t on weaknesses which forces people to defend themselves. It’s on the strengths that employees possess, inspiring them to grow and improve based on their talents. Employees are drawn to expressing their potential through creativity, increased participation on project teams, volunteering to mentor new employees and giving the highest performance possible. Leaders slow down and spend more time understanding what people are thinking and feeling, expressing appreciation and asking questions rather than making assumptions.

Nurturing the Best in People By Leading With Compassion

HR consulting company DDI did a study involving 400 leaders, and the results found that empathy is the leadership skill that is most consistently and strongly connected to employee performance. Leading with compassion plus empathy will elicit positive employee performance. Applying this knowledge in your leadership development programs enables your compassionate and empathetic managers to drive organizational productivity and efficiency in a nurturing and positive manner.

PEA and NEA are both important states because humans are complex systems of emotions and thinking. NEA drives people to do what they need to do for personal security, like keeping a job. PEA drives people to change in a good way as they strive to reach the ideal self. The catch is that NEA or negative emotions are stronger than PEA or positive emotions. To promote positive change, says Dr. Boyatzis, leaders should overemphasize PEA to overcome NEA.

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