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Leading with empathy & compassion

Leadership is a choice, not a job title, but with so many leadership styles to adopt, what really makes a leader stand out?

What makes a great leader today?  If you look at the people you admire and the leadership qualities they demonstrate, they’re all likely have something in common – emotional intelligence coupled with empathy and compassion.

A new initiative, the “Leadership Collaborative” embraces the belief that leadership is a choice, not a job title, and that in hospitality we’re all collectively responsible for enabling the experience and fulfilment of our teams, our customers and the success of our businesses. ​

The Leadership Collaborative is an open hospitality community that provides peer to peer support, insight and learning to help leaders through reopening and beyond. ​

Our first #LeadershipCollaborative live session included Stella Amor MCIPD, HR Director at Royal Garden Hotel, Jo Meredith, HR & L&D Consultant, Teresa Chacon, Director of People at Strand Palace and Trafalgar St James Hotels and Jo Simovic, COO at Umbrella Training Ltd who shared unique insight on ‘Leading with Empathy and Compassion’.

What is leadership

Leadership is defined as the art of motivating a group of people to act toward achieving a common goal. In a business setting, this can mean directing employees and colleagues within a strategy to meet the company’s needs.

What defines a compassionate and empathetic leader?

Jo Simovic believes that compassionate and empathetic leaders have a combination of skills. “It’s important for compassionate leaders to listen and try to understand the experiences of the people they lead and the challenges they are facing, empathising and caring for them then choosing to make meaningful and relevant decisions.  Empathic leadership is about actively building relationships with compassion and trust for the good of all.”

Why is compassionate and empathetic leadership so important?

We asked Jo Meredith why it’s important for leaders to adopt a compassionate and empathetic leadership approach, especially now.

“Hospitality leaders have faced some challenging times with considerable changes and, whilst hospitality is used to change, we’re also used to being hospitable and accommodating.  We’ve gone through months of inactivity, with leaders demonstrating acceptance and innovation but now businesses have to implement new guidelines and the workplace looks very different.’ Jo commented.

“Looking ahead, sadly, the hospitality sector will have to address some redundancies. Employers know the statutory processes and need to humanise those processes with compassion and empathy. If not, it could have an impact on the reputation of their employer brand long term. If we don’t manage the next steps right, it’s going to impact on all the hard work that we’ve done, and people won’t want to come back into our industry when we need them in the future.”

The business benefits

Demonstrating empathy and compassion at work takes time but will that investment impact your bottom line?

Jo Simovic commented “There is a clear link between empathic leadership and increased sales, together with improvements in the way complaint handling and service recovery are managed.  Happy teams have a desire to do better. In relation to employment tribunal cases, organisations where HR directors, managers and specialists practice compassionate leadership spend fewer hours, and money, on performance-related issues.”

“It is crucial for brands to understand that their choice of leadership style now is going to make a difference to their brand equity, the way they are perceived by their guests and all their stakeholders.”

Empathetic leaders are more effective

“Empathetic leaders ask themselves ‘how can I make my team happy, how can I make their situation better’.  As an industry we do it for guests so must do it for our teams.  Empathetic leaders are more effective and have a strong desire to help.” Teresa Chacon commented.

“Listening is part of the process: listening is the starting point – you have to give yourself time to understand the situation and the person.  Actively listen with the purpose of understanding and taking action. There is so much you can learn from others.”

Leading with empathy and compassion makes difficult situations easier to manage. For example, delivering bad news, discussing performance or behaviour issues are easier for both the leader and recipient when approached with an empathetic leadership style. The balance is there between the company’s needs, the needs of the team member and the manager’s needs.  The process is already in place and stressful and unpleasant situations can be managed better.

Listening into action

A key element of empathetic leadership is listening.  We asked Stella Amor why she felt this was so important.  “As a leader it is important to genuinely listen and hear what your people have to say and acknowledge it. Leaders have goals to achieve, a vision and objectives and your leadership style will impact on how those decisions are made and how you achieve those goals.”

“You have to establish those common aims because you might have a direction for a company or have to make tough decisions.  If you are listening, not just today but constantly as part of your organisation’s culture, when something like COVID19 comes along you are better equipped to manage it with your team.  Listening is a constant part of the employee journey so that your team’s opinions matter and they should feel like they have a voice.

Walking the Talk

When dealing with a customer service issue, organisations strive to adopt a compassionate and empathetic approach.  They want to resolve the complaint through listening, acknowledging and providing a knowledge-based solution.  Empathetic leaders do the same for their employees with work-related issues, walking the talk to reach the right outcomes.

“Compassionate leadership is a balance between humility and ambition for the benefit of the greater good.  It is not a weak leadership style. It is a conscious decision that we’re going to achieve what we want to achieve with humility, with the ambition to better ourselves to better the business. It’s also a mindset and a habit.” Jo Simovic stated.

Overcoming the fear barrier

It can be challenging to lead with empathy and compassion. We asked Jo Simovic what are the barriers, and can empathy and compassion be trained in, or learned?

You have to be vulnerable to be an empathetic leader, you can’t be a hero, and you must work with your team and recognise your limitations.  The biggest barrier is fear.  The fear of being seen as vulnerable or a ‘soft’ leader. It takes a huge amount of trust to lead with empathy and there is fear in that too and sometimes leaders have to make tough decisions.”

Jo continued, “During the toughest of the times being a compassionate and empathetic leader shows that you are human, that you do understand, that you are listening.. The biggest barrier to us not just being successful as leaders, but to our organisations achieving success, is the absence of trust to be able to be vulnerable as a leader.”

Stella Amor agrees, “If you are a compassionate and empathetic leader people will respect and remember you, even when they no longer work with you.  Take opportunities for your own personal development and of how to become an empathetic leader.  Once you have those skills, you can share them with your teams and other managers, creating an empathetic organisation in the process.”

Delivering excellence is a group effort

Those who lead with compassion and empathy know that achieving their personal and business goals can never be accomplished alone.  Delivering excellence is a group effort, especially in hospitality where if teams are to succeed, they need leaders who support and guide them, especially when times are challenging.

Compassionate leaders bring their people together to work as one. They provide a foundation, through listening, acknowledging and actions that give their teams the best opportunities to succeed. These leaders will step up when their teams need them and happily step aside to allow them to flourish on their own.

Becoming a compassionate and empathetic leader takes time but ultimately it is time well spent when you, and everyone you engage with, benefits.


How to Lead with Empathy & Compassion

Becoming an empathetic leader doesn’t happen overnight and building trust within your organisation takes time. The benefits of compassionate and empathetic leadership can be clearly seen and will benefit you as an individual, the people you manage and the goals and objectives of the organisations you are part of.


1. Revisit your values. Remind your teams what they are and how they can live them. Values give people a sense of belonging.  Job descriptions are more than a piece of paper and whilst empathetic leaders are busy people, investing development time will ultimately benefit your employer brand in the long term.


2. Be honest. Address the elephant in the room. Tell your team what your plans are moving forward.  Reassure them that you will keep them informed of both the good and bad news


3. Give your people their voice. Let your teams have the confidence to ask the hard questions and don’t duck the answers. Hard news, delivered with empathy and compassion, will be more positively received and give you an open platform for further discussions.


4. Effective empathetic leaders have high emotional intelligence. Take time for some self-reflection on how to you manage your emotions, how socially aware are you, how emotionally intelligent are you?


5. Reflect on your leadership style. Consider the impact of what you say and how  you say it.  Be brave and step outside the process to look at how you could do things differently, more compassionately. Let go of fear and invest in trusting your people. Full empathy isn’t possible because we are all different so understand your limits and respect what you don’t know.

Watch the full conversation here