How managerial compassion can boost performance

By David Donaldson

Tuesday January 22, 2019

Group of business people discussing something near big window. Office concept with employees

A new study suggests managers showing compassion for staff can prevent burnout and even improve citizen satisfaction.

In the world of public administration, there isn’t often room to discuss emotion — public policy is meant to be rational, efficient and unbiased.

And when we do talk about things like compassion, it’s generally reserved for the beneficiaries of policy.

But public servants are people too — people whose own emotional life has an impact on how they do their work.

After all, not only do public servants frequently have to contend with inadequate resourcing and work overload, those on the frontline need to deal with tough and demanding clients. Both factors are major contributors to burnout.

Indeed, the frequently overlooked element of compassion in the workplace may be more influential than previously realised, if a recently published paper is any indication.

Having a compassionate manager improves public servants’ engagement at work and reduces the likelihood of burnout, according to a study conducted in Israel.

Being shown compassion also improved willingness to take on voluntary commitments within the workplace, and led to increased information sharing with colleagues.

It appears compassion is particularly impactful in service-oriented workplaces, which are likely to have emotionally exhausted employees. Customers even reported a bump in compassion in their own interactions with staff who had themselves been shown compassion.

Boosting trust in government

This “contagious” effect may be a useful tool in improving responsiveness to citizens and trust in government, thinks the study’s author.

“One of the benefits of this study is in positioning compassion as a possible contributor to a high-quality, service-oriented public system, which may increase civilian trust in public service agencies,” says Eldor.

“This contribution is important as research indicates that quality of service is the main factor in citizen satisfaction with public services, improving the image of public service organizations in the eyes of citizens, and promoting trust of the public in public sector agencies.”

Public service managers should therefore be mindful of their capacity to improve performance by showing compassion to staff.

“The strong positive impact that receipt of compassion from supervisors has on all the employee work performance behaviors explicitly indicates the empowering effect public service managers have on their employees’ functioning and effectiveness,” writes Eldor.

“Receipt of compassion may emotionally re-energize public service employees, allowing them to cope with stress caused by demanding service interactions with citizens and provides them with the cognitive tactics necessary for effectively mitigating administrative workload conditions.

“These findings are fundamental for public administration managers and policy makers given that previous research has indicated how the constant experience of stressful conditions among public sector employees is likely to increase burnout and decrease responsiveness and sensitivity to public needs.

“Public service managers therefore need to recognize their influential role so as to not only diminish the negative effects of public service stressors, but acutely buffer and explicitly cope with it.

“Our findings clearly indicate that managerial expressions of affective feeling such as affection, tenderness, caring, and dignity, (i.e., compassion) to employees can serve as antidotes to common public service stressors.”

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