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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

Compassionate Leadership in Social Impact: Challenging the blind spots




There is a tendency in organisations that are purpose-driven and mission led for leaders to believe they already are compassionate. This is a dangerous blindspot.

Tina Ajuonuma


In this conversation, Tina Ajuonuma shares her thoughts about compassion through an organisational lens. We dive into the need for compassionate leadership in organisations, what this might look like in practice and the drivers required to put this into action. We touch on the Black Lives Matter movement as well as the blind spots to compassionate leadership in the purpose-driven and social impact space.


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This article features in a series of interviews where I explore how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.


 

Tina Ajuonuma is a practitioner and researcher in organisational development and behaviour with 18 years’ experience in the social impact space. In 2020 Tina founded The Better Org, an organisational development consultancy practice that supports non-profit and social impact organisations build internal competencies to support the areas of strategic development, culture change, and organisational learning and impact measurement.


Tina holds an Executive MBA from Warwick University, and is a certified Psychological Safety Index (PSI) Practitioner. She also serves on the working group of The Racial Equity Index, a collective of Black, Indigenous, People of Colour working in global development, advocating for greater racial equity and racial justice in the sector, and is a board member for 64 Million Artists, a social enterprise that creates programmes that facilitate using everyday creativity to create positive social change.


 

SJ: What do you find interesting about compassion?


TA: There is a lot of talk about empathy and other great things but less so about compassion. Considering the year that we have all been through I think we need more of it in organisations and in leadership. I feel we lack a conversation about it — especially as it relates to leadership.


I am also interested in understanding and promoting “authentic” compassion. I have observed people in wider society demonstrating compassion in a more transactional manner where “compassion and support” is offered if a set of conditions and criteria are met. This — to me — defeats the purpose of compassion.


SJ: What is compassion for you?


TA: Compassion for me is understanding and acknowledging what someone is feeling or what someone is going through and then making a concerted effort to help or support them. It has to be the two things.


Compassion has to be “I am going to hear you, I am going to see you, I am going to acknowledge everything you are going through” as well as “…and I am going to use whatever tools I have at my disposal to try and help”.

It is not enough to simply acknowledge the hurt. This is where I feel some of the challenges lie around compassion.


SJ: What is a concrete example for you around this challenge?


TA: In the Black Lives Matter movement for example, many leaders have expressed how wrong and terrible they find the situation to be — and how they sympathise with the African American community or employees — and then that is it. They are not using the power or the influence that they may have to try and shift and change things, even in the slightest way.


When you have staff that is hurting in a particular way and leadership steps up to say all the right things in an organisation — but then nothing happens — it feels really discouraging. In some ways I personally feel worse because now I see you — and I know that you know I am hurting — but you are not utilising the power that you have, to do anything about it.


SJ: What do you think is preventing the link between acknowledging pain and concrete action in leadership?


TA: I think it is mainly fear. Not necessarily the fear of doing the right thing but fear of how people are going to respond, which are two different things. Secondly, I also feel there is a skill set in compassion that some leaders and managers may need to develop. They may simply not know how to move from acknowledgement into doing something.


Some managers and leaders may need to be taught that the “action” element of compassion is also at the heart of their duty and responsibility.

SJ: What would it look like for you to be in an organisation that displays this kind of compassionate leadership?


TA: I think it would be a space where there is trust and where inclusion and belonging are lived values rather than just words on a poster. It is a space that would be open and vulnerable where leaders share their learning from their failures too. This honesty would make people less afraid to move from acknowledging pain and into action to do something about it, because there would be room to fail and learn in that process too.


In my mind, if you are doing compassion “right” it is about vulnerability and being open.

SJ: What are some of the ways you would see this incorporated in an organisation?


TA: We would need something to move forward those values and principles to encourage changed behaviour and have supporting systems and processes in place. A very simple thing might be to introduce an approach to 1:1 meetings between managers and staff which leans into those principles of trust, honesty and vulnerability.


You might also introduce an approach into the organisation where you reward risk-taking and innovation. In my mind, risk-taking and innovation relate to vulnerability, so this could be one way of increasing people’s comfort levels with this.


SJ: These are some great examples, and they support the idea that compassion works best in organisations when it is embedded in existing routines, processes and every-day problem solving. The temptation is big to only look at how compassion can be developed once all the urgent tasks are handled, which then defeats the purpose.


TA: Absolutely, compassion has to be normalised because then people are more likely to act. This also supports overcoming the fear, because if it looks and feels normal doing it then people are less likely to be scared of it.


SJ: What do you feel is standing in the way for leaders to look at defining compassion and embedding it as a lived value in their organisations?


TA: Number one is definitely time — we are too busy especially in a pandemic context. Connected to that, however, I think there is a particularly dangerous blind spot in the non-profit sector and social impact space, which I have observed.


Because these organisations are purpose-driven and mission led there is a tendency for leaders to believe they already are compassionate so they do not need to pay particular attention to it.

They think they know what compassionate leadership is, so they do not necessarily seek a full exploration or understanding of it.


SJ: What do you think could be done to challenge this blind spot?


TA: If you want to introduce any change there needs to be a driver for that change — be it internal or external. Ideally the driver for this would come from a place of genuine curiosity and wanting to do better.


I do think that there are organisations who have been forced to revisit the role they play in the wider eco-system. This has been accompanied by reflecting on the competencies they hold as an organisation as opposed to technical ability. They would be open to look at compassionate leadership because it links with competencies.


However, this is not enough. The organisations who have created space and time to consider these elements are also organisations who do not need to worry about other things — such as funding.


One of my bugbears is around the fact that not enough funders are providing organisations with the support to be able to look at these things. Funders who do give resources for this purpose do so only to existing grantees and not others, so already there is a rather significant ‘barrier to entry’ for organisations who might not already have access to existing funder networks.

I think an external driver could come from funders, who recognise that organisations must build up competencies like compassion to survive in an ever-changing environment. This also means that organisations would report on their lessons learned in this area to funders, thereby helping them realise the value in supporting organisational development in this area.


SJ: In addition to the more top-down approach through funders, do you have any thoughts on what more bottom-up initiatives around compassion could look like in an organisation?


TA: There is an important piece around making compassion real for people in an organisation and how compassion integrates into the day-to-day work and connects to external work and external impact. Some thinking would need to go into defining how compassion is lived and demonstrated.


I also think there is something about being able to expect certain behaviours from others whether it is from peers or leadership. It could be something as straightforward as tweaking a 360-degree performance assessment to include compassion-related questions.


SJ: What concluding thoughts do you have on this topic?


TA: I am interested in learning about others who have tried to introduce compassion in an organisation and what the learning was. I think it goes back to the fear and understanding what could potentially happen when we start to talk about compassion. It would be interesting to see if the fear we have is real — and investigate the gap between what we think will happen when we introduce or talk about compassion in an organisation and what actually happens.


SJ: Absolutely. This makes me think about the importance of creating “compassion networks” within an organisation. Connecting employees in different parts of the organisation who may want to explore and introduce compassion in the work environment can create a safe and supportive space to overcome the fear or work through any push backs that there may be from other colleagues or managers.


TA: That is so true because you need that support to reinforce you.


As a compassionate individual it is important to know you have other like-minded people who you can rely on.

When you see more people embodying that value it also starts to shift the culture of the organisation and how people inside of it perceive compassion and experience it.


 

To contact Tina or for more information on The Better Org please visit www.thebetterorg.co.uk or email hello@thebetterorg.co.uk.


 

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