Our NHS People

What it means to lead with compassion

In the King’s Fund briefing paper “Caring to change”, Michael West and Regina Eckert describe compassion as “the core NHS value” and itemise four components – attending; understanding; empathising and helping – which they describe as integral not only to patient care and staff engagement but also to the capacity for change and innovation.       

So how might these facets of compassion contribute to effective leadership and management in the Covid-19 context?

Attending – paying attention to accounts of challenges and problems experienced by staff.  West and Eckert describe how “active listening establishes the caring and compassionate connection necessary for strong and lasting bonds among leaders and employees.”In a pressurised context, it will feel counter-intuitive to slow down and take the time to explore specific difficulties with staff members.  Often however, this kind of investment will pay off, developing trust and confidence in the team.   There is good evidence that NHS teams with a culture of taking time to listen perform well on key indicators around the quality of patient care and minimisation of error rates.
Understanding. Compassionate leaders work with staff to help them make sense of the challenges they face. This calls for a collaborative (non-hierarchical) approach where judgement is suspended, and individual perspectives are valued.   In a diverse workforce this is particularly important, with proven benefits for the enhancement of self-efficacy and self-worth in teams.   Conversely, where staff experience disempowerment or discrimination, they invariably describe an environment where they have not been understood or valued. During crisis and recovery situations, it is to be expected that staff will sometimes feel ill-equipped for the complexity and moral difficulty of the challenges they face.    This is precisely why the quality of their managers’ attention and understanding is so critical.   But seeking to understand is not the same as micro-management.  Leaders who adopt a coaching style recognise the value of structured conversations which help team members work through complex situations, reconciling internal conflicts and discovering their own solutions.
Empathising.  For the leader, this may mean allowing yourself to experience some measure of the frustrations your team members are feeling.  This could feel exposing and uncomfortable, but it is well understood that proper acknowledgement of pain improves the chances of doing something about it. The coronavirus pandemic has provided ample evidence that an empathetic style can go hand in hand with effective and efficient leadership.  Quite simply, leaders who show they care are repaid with loyalty.
Helping.  This is the active component of compassionate leadership.  Listening, understanding and empathy have less value if the leader does not take “thoughtful and intelligent action to help”.   Helping is not the same as taking on the burden yourself.  It may be as simple as following up to ensure a staff member did take the action you agreed, taking time to connect them with the right person or resource, or taking steps to take away a barrier preventing them from working effectively.