Photo by J W on Unsplash
Photo by J W on Unsplash

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Compassionate Leadership in Crisis4 min read

We are in a difficult time right now. People are suffering and dying from the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic, people are quarantining in their homes to help prevent the spread of the virus, and businesses are suffering as a result. Leaders within organizations have to make tough choices to help their companies survive. Now more than ever, we need compassionate leaders to be able to step up and demonstrate how to lead with compassion during a crisis.

Compassionate leadership, as I define it, starts with the belief that the reason organizations exist is to support their employees’ ability to contribute to a cause greater than themselves and more significant than what they could accomplish on their own. As a leader, your role is to help others grow and develop as people and as leaders so that they can make a meaningful impact. Compassionate leaders strive to increase the fulfillment and growth of their employees and to help them deal with and work through difficulty. To do this, leaders must help their teams through the stress and suffering that can come in these uncertain times.

David Rock proposed the SCARF model to understand how and when people experience a threat or reward response, and these factors can be vital in helping to manage the stress of your teams when working through this crisis. The five factors of SCARF are Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness, and Fairness. By answering the questions I pose around these five areas, you can find ways to be sure that you are compassionately supporting your team.

Status is the relative importance an individual feels towards those around them. Being in a position of relatively high status creates positive feelings while being in a place of low status can create a stressful response. Things like giving advice can highlight the status difference between you and your team and trigger this stress response.

Questions to consider:

  • How can I lower my status to help others feel like they are on equal footing?
  • How can I elevate the status of others?
  • How can I share my experience in a way that allows others to find their own solution instead of giving advice?

Familiar situations provide comfort, and unfamiliar situations create stress. Right now, uncertainty is all around us. This entire situation is a unique experience, and it is unclear what will happen next. People are unsure what will happen next in their communities with the pandemic, and as the economy suffers, many are afraid for their jobs as well.

Questions to consider:

  • What can you do to continue familiar habits, events, or rituals to provide familiarity for others?
  • What new habits, events, or rituals can your establish to create a new familiarity for people?
  • What information can you share, even bad news, to give more certainty to what is happening in your organization?

In Drive, Daniel Pink describes autonomy (along with purpose and mastery) as one of the strongest intrinsic motivators. The flips side of autonomy as a motivator is that a lack of autonomy can create stress. Having choices of how people control their work and their day can give them a sense of autonomy that can decrease stress.

Questions to consider:

  • What choices and freedoms can you make available for your team?
  • How can people have choices in how they do their work that can increase their feelings of autonomy?

When we feel a part of the same social groups as others, we feel a sense of connection, and this connection is vital for people. Michael Bungay Stainer refers to this as “Tribe,” which I think nicely captures the idea of community that is part of relatedness. Connecting with and sharing openly with your team can increase the sense of relatedness.

Questions to consider:

  • What can you do to create a feeling of connectedness for your team?
  • How can your leadership team be more relatable to the organization?

People want to know that you will treat them fairly. They want to see that there will be a consistent set of rules applied to everyone. Fairness, like status, is relative and requires empathy to understand how other people see the issue. When you are transparent, not just with the choices that you make, but the process behind those decisions, people will see the process as fair.

Questions to consider:

  • How can you clearly show how you are making decisions?
  • How can you share the burden of the sacrifices you are asking of others?
  • How else could other people see the situation, and what would be fair from their perspective?

Being a compassionate leader does not mean coddling people or keeping the truth of the situation from them. It means being real, authentic, and empathetic; it means understanding the situation that others are in and doing what you can to support them. Be aware of the impact of SCARF and ask yourself what you can do to make a difference.


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