Topic Commissioning 4

Compassionate leadership

Published: 10/12/2019

Author: Dr Trish Halford-Letchfield

How can we be compassionate in our approach to leadership and how we can embed this in our practice to inspire and nurture leadership in others?

Being compassionate relates to the way in which we support each other. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. We know that people who are treated with compassion themselves are more likely to be compassionate to others.

People working in adult care services demonstrate many excellent examples of what it means to be compassionate in our approach to others. Care can also transform the culture and environment in which it is provided, and not least make an enormous difference to people’s lives. A Department for Health and Social Care policy paper highlighted compassion being a part of all health and care services, making quality of care as important as the quality of treatment.

At the same time there are many challenges that can reduce our capacity for compassion that we may not always be conscious of. This can include time pressures and the many demands on resources, as well as a natural desire to avoid painful issues and feelings associated with our work and some of the challenges faced. Being proactive and making space for an honest and in-depth discussion about what compassion means in the context of our work, and how to best provide support for each other, however may be time well spent.

There are also challenges and examples of people encountering care that falls short of what they have a right to expect, sometimes by a long way. Opportunities to support people to keep well, connected and healthy are sometimes missed, and we need to have the self-confidence to acknowledge these realities.  

Thinking about compassion from a leadership perspective is also important for those of us who have the potential to influence and support our colleagues and people with lived experiences. Either as someone in a formal leadership role or as someone who can model and encourage the knowledge and contribution of others. Compassionate leadership can be fostered at many different levels and through many different roles in an organisation. A roundtable report from the Department of Health and Social Care shares examples of good practice and the challenges of working in a strengths-based way. It also explores what strengths-based social work with adults, individuals, families and communities really means for practitioners and people using services.

Research in Practice for Adults has published a new briefing aimed at supervisors in adult social care, exploring the concepts and literature associated with what we understand to be involved in being a compassionate leader. The guide builds on relationship and strength-based practice already embedded in relevant professional frameworks and their underpinning values. It also explores what particular models of leadership lend themselves to compassion and the specific role and contribution of supervisors in promoting these.

At a time of increasing dialogue about ‘compassion fatigue’ and the need for ‘resilience’, this briefing also provides practical tools that supervisors can draw on to enable more flexibility in management and leadership style.

We also need a professional commitment to demonstrating compassionate approaches. This might include meeting people’s emotional needs, allocating work in-line with their interests, investing in their knowledge and skills, and creating an authentic culture that invites challenge, debate and feedback for improvement. Examples include drawing on the concepts of curiosity and hypothesising from systemic theory, which help us to take up multiple positions in relation to what is going on in the organisation or team. Another is the use of four lenses and levers adapted from work done within the NHS, for determining the conditions for compassion and engages with mind-set, values, capabilities, practices, systems and structures in care settings.

These for example invite questions for supervisors and staff around self-awareness and self-compassion and can be used in individual or group supervision and/or used by individual staff to foster and encourage compassionate leadership in their own practice.

Trish Hafford Letchfield (Crop)

Dr Trish Halford-Letchfield

Dr Trish Hafford-Letchfield is Professor of Social Work at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. Trish has written and researched on how to engage people in change impacting on the way we provide services.