This article is more than 1 year old

Reckoning with the barriers to compassionate leadership in higher education

Leading with compassion strengthens higher education institutions. Helen Rimmer discusses why it can be easier said than done
This article is more than 1 year old

Helen Rimmer is Head of Library and Archives Service at the University of Westminster

We hear a lot about compassion in higher education and its importance for the wellbeing of staff and students.

The benefits of compassionate leadership can be seen in the fact that a recipient of compassion will have positive emotions and a stronger attachment to the workplace, which helps our organisations grow, our students be happier and us to retain talent. In addition to feeling satisfied at work, compassionate leaders are perceived as strong and intelligent, meaning they build better, happier teams. When compassion is absent, people may feel unvalued. All this explains why leaders especially must practise compassion, although it may not always come naturally or easily to them.

Still, we could be more naturally compassionate. To overcome this, we must be aware of the barriers that may hinder us, including bystander syndrome, self-interest, and the ability to cope with the complicated feelings that accompany compassion.

Putting up barriers

Understanding compassion’s multiple forms is the first step toward getting it right. Strauss et al’s five elements of compassion provide a comprehensive taxonomy of compassion that goes beyond a traditional dictionary definition. It includes recognition of the suffering of others, a shared understanding of the humanity of suffering, an emotional connection to the suffering person, a tolerance of difficult feelings, and a willingness to act to help. It is a broad definition that acknowledges the importance of compassion in all aspects of prosocial behaviour.

A feature of university leadership is that leadership or management is seen as an add-on to the core work of roles. People who excel at their core job are given leadership roles – rather than because they are good leaders – and this can create a barrier to compassion, as they are unlikely to model compassionate behaviour. Likewise, it is difficult for leaders to act compassionately when others in an organisation don’t, especially when peers or senior colleagues are not compassionate.

There is also the “diffusion of responsibility” – when people wait for someone else to act rather than take the initiative – which can be attributed to the bystander effect. This suggests that people look to each other for cues on how to react to an event, and it can inhibit people from intervening against negative behaviour at work, such as incivility.

Entrapment and burnout

There can be psychosocial costs to compassion because of a perceived burden from tolerating the difficult feelings of compassion. In higher education leadership roles, similar experiences occur as there is a duty to care and pressure to be compassionate.

Feelings including resentment, overload and feelings of entrapment – all identified as burdens in caregiving context – can occur in leadership roles. This is especially the case in areas such as higher education, where people often become leaders after pursuing a career in other fields, and because they need to take on leadership as part of promotion rather than because they have the desire to lead. With this can come resentment, feelings of entrapment or being out of their depth, not unlike the feelings of caregivers who don’t choose the role.

The burden of compassion is closely connected to compassion fatigue, or the inability to feel compassion because of exhaustion or burnout, which can lead to increased absenteeism. It’s been suggested that compassion fatigue is associated with other factors around caring, including the loss of the person they are caring for and the financial stress of caring rather than compassion itself.

While university leaders have different burdens than kin carers or people where caring is central to their role, the pressures of other aspects of their position, including compassion for students, may lead to compassion fatigue similar to other professions with a duty of care.

Minding the gap

Mindfulness interventions have been shown to positively combat the bystander effect in general populations, although more research is needed specifically for leaders. The body awareness and attention regulation which come with mindfulness may increase the connection with another’s suffering, and this can help overcome the social influence aspect of the bystander effect, and mitigate against the diffusion of responsibility. This underpins three of Strauss et al’s components of compassion: “recognising suffering in others, understanding the common humanity of this suffering, and feeling emotionally connected with the person who is suffering.”

Compassionate leaders create compassionate higher education organisations which support staff and students also to become compassionate individuals. However, leaders aren’t necessarily naturally compassionate and need to be aware of the possible barriers, being mindful that they need to overcome bystander syndrome and self-interest and sit with the complicated feelings that arise from being compassionate.

In turn, this will help to close the compassion gap, but there needs to be an active investment in training, recruitment and promotion that values compassionate leadership with it being valued as highly as other skills.

3 responses to “Reckoning with the barriers to compassionate leadership in higher education

  1. Compassion needs to be a lived experience in the people, spaces, culture, and policies that constitute the University. I get a sense that our understanding of mainstream leadership seems be the issue more.

Leave a Reply