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Why Compassion Is a Critical Business Skill

Megan Jones Bell

Chief Science and Strategy Officer, Headspace

Compassion has been top of mind for me lately, especially in light of all the political and civil unrest happening all over the country. Compassion is one of those traits that is often dismissed as a “soft skill” — hard to quantify, and therefore often relegated as a lower priority on the spectrum of business leadership traits. But especially as the world suffers and our mental health continues to be significantly impacted as a result, it’s never been more critical as leaders and as teammates to respond and support each other with care and compassion — both for ourselves and for those around us.

As leaders, we have a unique opportunity to help support our teams, our communities, and ourselves through challenging times. Right now, we’re going through a global pandemic and that’s clearly bringing a lot of mental health issues to the surface. But the truth is that even before this global crisis, stress and anxiety levels were already rising dramatically. So how do we use compassion through the lens of mindfulness to help us be better leaders?

One way I like to define mindfulness is “the ability to be present, free from distraction, with an open mind and a kind heart.” That last part about openness and kindness is key. I wrote recently on the topic of resilience, because behaviors seen in leaders are likely to have a ripple effect on those around us — for better or for worse. Healthy, happy cultures start with us, as leaders. This is about you being healthy and your most resilient. According to report by Harvard Medical School, 96 percent of leaders are experiencing burnout.

Caring for yourself

Self-compassion, in particular, can help. We can put on the proverbial oxygen mask to be more compassionate to ourselves and be more aware of the thought patterns and behaviors we fall into. If you could listen into your own internal dialogue, does that talk track sound impatient? Critical with yourself? And if it is, is it possible that some of that may also affect how you interact with others on a daily basis?

Learn more about Headspace: mindful people, healthier business.

We recently ran a study looking at the key trends and challenges affecting workplace mental health, and the results were pretty alarming:

  • Forty percent of younger workers suspect they suffer from anxiety and depression, but haven’t been diagnosed or seen a professional.
  • Fifty-one percent of workers say stress generated by their jobs affects their personal relationships.

Leading by example

Leaders spend a significant amount of time with the people they manage. How you show up in the world each day has a direct impact on your teams. Compassionate, authentic leadership — though it can easily be forgotten or dismissed — is a critical business skill. It builds legitimacy through honest, open relationships with employees, valuing the input of others, and demonstrating a strong ethical foundation. 

Authentic leadership is mainly about self-awareness, transparency in relationships, taking account of different perspectives, and an ethical attitude. This study has actually shown that mindful leaders are perceived to be more authentic, and that Headspace helps increase authentic leadership. This type of leadership style has the potential for myriad positive outcomes, like employees feeling less stress and anxiety, feeling more motivated and engaged, and having high levels of trust and confidence in you as a leader and the company as a whole. 

Practicing mindfulness is a great way to help hone leadership abilities. The more we can cultivate the skill of mindfulness and being present, the better we can understand how we feel. That greater sense of awareness gives us more control over how we choose to respond. We become better listeners and can be better equipped to respond to others in a skillful, thoughtful way.

If there’s a silver lining with everything that’s been happening recently, it’s hopefully that we’re all becoming a bit more aware of our own needs and can feel more empathy of the needs of those we interact with. My hope is that with that awareness, we can all learn to be a bit kinder to ourselves and others.

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