I have written and spoken many times about how I struggled as a manager within a culture that valued a command and control approach to leadership. A culture that sees empathy and compassion as weak. This is a stereotypical masculine paradigm, the one that says the expression of any emotion in a work setting is weak. Emotion has only one place and that is within a female paradigm in the domestic setting, when caring for children.
What is really depressing is that I was a nurse! And not just a nurse caring for adults but a children’s nurse! How can it be that a profession whose primary function is to care for the most vulnerable, did not value these very qualities in their managers. This view of kindness and compassion being weak was widespread throughout the hospital, I would even say throughout society.Now this was a decade ago, things have moved on, haven’t they?
There has been some progress with plenty of research showing that a compassionate leadership approach, creates a productive, efficient, and importantly a happy work environment. There is even research that shows that compassionate leadership has a direct impact on the care delivered to patients. Compassionate leadership creates safer healthcare! That is the bottom line.
The issue is the 4th word in the paragraph above. SOME! The thing is, listening to and paying attention to the emotions of the individuals in your team is not easy. It does not come naturally. We have been conditioned that management and leadership are masculine roles. When I asked future leaders to describe and even draw leaders, they will invariably default to masculine descriptors. Our culture defines masculinity as strong, aggressive and protective. Winning and dominating are paramount, nurturing and compassion, and empathy are feminine are weak and have little place outside of the domestic setting. They are fine for the nurses on the ward but not for the charge nurse/sister, and anyone above them. They have to operate in a masculine world and must therefore learn to not show weakness. If you want to succeed as a leader you have to be the best and beat those around you.
This is our default setting, this is the route that comes easily for many of us, even though, the results of this approach are at best patchy and at worst create a toxic environment. This command and control approach to leadership in any setting creates fear and stifles innovation. As mentioned previously all the research shows that a positive, optimistic approach improves productivity and engagement.
So how do we change our default setting. Like any change, you have to start with the desire, the motivation to change. You have to be clear what you want from your team in the future. This vision of the future must be compelling enough to bring you back to it when you falter and slip into your old ways.
That is the starting point, the next thing to do is to collect the tools that help you create a compassionate culture. There are plenty of books and courses that offer instruction and tool kits. The vast majority of them are very useful. 3 books that I would recommend to start with are Dare to Lead by Brene Brown, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, and SUMO by Paul McGee. Also look out for leadership courses. Many large organisations either run their own or outsource to training companies. The other option is to employ a coach who will support you through this transition period.
Once you have the tools, you have to master the approach, the only way to do that is practice, practice, practice. The only way you can adjust you default settings is to create new habits. the only way to create new habits is to practice. The more you practice the sooner you will create a new habit. This is why having a coach can be helpful. It is not easy to keep up the practice when you are busy, and you need to get things done. Having a coach gives you the time to reconnect with the reason why you a moving away from your old ways. Stick at it, you will reap the rewards.