The compassionate leader: Enhance employee loyalty and engagement

“In separateness lies the world’s great misery, in compassion lies the world’s true strength.”

— Buddha

Recently, it was reported that Green Bay Packer’s Head Coach Mike McCarthy is focusing on creating stronger relationships among team players. His theme for the year is: Protection, Connection and Reflection, and he believes that the potential success for the team will be enhanced as they build personal relationships with one another.

While the 2011 and 2012 football teams were highly skilled, some suggest that the missing piece in their success was a sense of camaraderie among the players. This is not unlike the evolution that has been happening in business during the last few years. There is a growing awareness that when employees appreciate one another and build strong relationships, their efforts in the workplace are strengthened and business benefits.

So often, however, the focus in business is on technical competencies. Employees are expected to be good project managers, great sales people and effective technicians. Leaders are expected to be strategic thinkers, business planning experts and strong negotiators. Like football, the emphasis is on functional competencies. While that is certainly an important emphasis for business and football success, the difference in great businesses and great teams are the relationships that people build with one another in order to do their best work.

Compassion in business

Bill Cropper, director of The Change Forum wrote an article in 2009 entitled, “The Compassionate Leader.” In it he writes, “Most leaders are still trained to lead with their heads, not their hearts. They’re conditioned to put business before benevolence. The public profile of a good leader espoused in the press, for instance, routinely includes attributes like tough, decisive, hard-nosed, quick-to-judge, ultra-rational and results-driven.”

Thankfully, this perspective is slowly changing. There is more emphasis on the people side of business with an increased appreciation for developing emotionally intelligent leaders, a workplace that supports effective teamwork and an environment that motivates employees to perform at their highest level.

Without diluting the importance of traditional business acumen, most leaders are aware that increasing their self-awareness and their awareness of how they interact with others will make a significant difference in the success of the business.

Where is the proof?

In 2008, The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine was founded with the explicit goals of promoting, supporting, and conducting rigorous scientific studies on compassion and altruistic behavior.

Likewise, in research conducted at Emory University, neuroscientists concluded that responding with compassion triggers activity in portions of the brain that also fire up when people experience pleasure. Helping others, then, offers the same pleasure we get from the gratification of personal satisfaction and personal reward.

According to the latest research “a more compassionate workplace, where helpfulness and forgiveness are part of the business model, is a more productive and efficient place to work. In businesses where compassion is emphasized, employees are less stressed and more satisfied with their jobs, and turnover is lower,” researchers say. Compassionate organizations also have more employee loyalty and engagement…” (Brooke Donald, Stanford News).

Compassion and Emotional Intelligence

As we continue to learn more about the science of the brain and the impact that compassion has on our well-being and on our relationships, we are struck by the similarities in our work with leaders engaged in developing their emotional intelligence. One of the primary characteristics of Emotional Intelligence (self-awareness and awareness of others) is empathy, which is so closely aligned to compassion.

We have had the privilege of witnessing leaders respond with empathy (I feel what you feel) and compassion (I feel what you feel and I am prepared to act.) They have a high level of self-awareness and they are keenly aware of the other.

In his article, Cropper identifies compassionate leaders:

What is your experience with compassionate leaders?

What difference has it made in your work environment?

As for our beloved Green Bay Packers? Perhaps Coach McCarthy will consider developing compassion among his players as they focus on developing their relationships with one another.

Karen Vernal is the president of Vernal Management Consultants, LLC, a Milwaukee-based leadership and organizational firm dedicated to “igniting the spirit and skills of leaders.” The company is one of two firms in the nation to be certified in Emotional Intelligence through the Institute for Health and Human Potential. For additional information, visit

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