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How to lead with compassion in times of crisis

Compassionate leadership in times of crisis

In this COVID-19 Learning Series webinar, host Dr. Jillian Horton talks to Michael West, professor of organizational psychology at Lancaster University Management School and senior fellow at The King’s Fund in London. For more than 30 years, Michael’s research has focused on organizational culture and effectiveness, particularly in health services.

Michael shares his advice on compassionate leadership models and how they can help organizations overcome some of the hurdles they’re facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

tweetable: “It would be a tragedy at this time if organizations didn't value that core commitment to compassion — it’s the most powerful intervention we know of in health care.” — Michael West


How did you become interested in this specific field?

  • In his 20s, Michael was working on his PhD in the psychology of meditation when he ran out of money.
  • He decided to work in a coal mine and was astonished by the impact teams can have on our safety and well-being.
  • He became very interested in researching teams and organizations, including how their structures and processes affect people’s performance, safety and happiness at work.
  • His research led him to start working with health care organizations in the 1980s.


What are health care leaders in the United Kingdom telling you about the challenges they’re facing right now?

According to Michael, medical staff are reporting facing the most stress they have ever experienced since the beginning of the National Health Service in 1948. As a result, health care leaders are facing enormous challenges. Here are the top four he hears about:

1. Staff shortage: Before the arrival of COVID-19, England’s health care system was already facing pressures related to a staff shortage of 100,000. This shortage has been exacerbated in the pandemic because staff are falling ill or need to self-isolate.

2. Access to personal protective equipment: The demand for PPE has gone up 5,000% in the last few months. Some staff are being asked to do their job in risky work conditions, which is upsetting for everybody involved in health services.

3. Testing for staff: Many staff have to travel very long distances to get tested for COVID-19. In some cases, they’re unable to get tested at all.

4. Extraordinary demands on staff: Health care providers are dealing with unprecedented situations and pressure — the emotional demands are huge. There’s a high level of fear: staff are afraid of dying, infecting their families, etc.

tweetable: “I was talking with an ICU nurse last week who had experienced nine or 10 deaths one night in an ICU where they would normally expect one or two per week — at most.”

How can a compassionate leadership model help address some of these challenges?

Compassionate leadership is a concept that means four things:

1. Listening/ attending: Leaders who are present with their staff, attend to them and listen with fascination.

2. Understanding: Leaders who seek to understand the challenges their staff face — not by imposing their own understanding, but through dialogue.

3. Empathizing: Leaders who have empathy for the difficulties staff are experiencing.

4. Helping: Leaders who help staff do their jobs effectively by removing obstacles or acquiring resources for them.

In these conditions, where staff are under enormous pressure, it's especially important that leaders manifest those behaviours.

tweetable: “Our health care staff is probably the most motivated and skilled workforce in industry. We should be listening to them, learning from them, utilizing their knowledge, their skills, their abilities and their motivations to be compassionate and caring so that we manage our situation more effectively.”

To describe elements of compassionate leadership, you use the ABC acronym — autonomy and control, belonging and competence. What do leaders need to understand about these three needs?

Michael says to lead effectively, it’s important to understand the needs of the people in our workplace.  Research tells us people have three core needs to maintain well-being and motivation in the workplace:

1. Autonomy and control: The feeling that you have a voice and can influence how the work you need to do is done, and that you're not being coerced or directed. It is also linked to having some control over basic workplace factors, such as access to hot food during night shifts or a place to rest or the ability to get a drink when needed.

2. Belonging: The feeling that you're part of a team where others care for you and you care for them, and that you’re a part of an organization with a culture of compassion. People want to work in organizations where those who lead them share these values.

3. Competence: The feeling you can do your job well and can provide the quality of care needed. This means ensuring that obstacles to performing effectively are removed, that you’re not dealing with an excessive workload and that you’re getting the training you need.

During this pandemic, the excessive workloads that health care staff are facing, combined with a very low sense of control, can form a deeply toxic combination. Michael says it’s more important than ever for leaders to listen to staff and seek their input in solving the problems that arise.

tweetable: “We know the most important skill of a leader is listening. And the most important task of a leader is helping people to do their jobs effectively. In other words, helping them feel competent so they don't have a profound sense of moral distress from not being able to provide the care they wish to provide.”

Are there practical ways leaders can put the principles of compassionate leadership into action right now?

  • Research from other sectors in past crises has shown that many leaders tend to revert to a model focused on directing, commanding and controlling people.
  • Leaders should mindful they don’t slip into that model by taking the time to listen to staff, to consider their feelings and to understand the challenges they're facing.
  • Leaders should also exercise self-compassion — to have the resilience and the ability to support staff, you must also take care of yourself.

tweetable: “There’s a level of courage and sacrifice that we have to honour, not just during this time, but after we get through this pandemic. And we must create new institutions that are appropriate homes for these people who have made such sacrifices, saved so many lives and inspired us all.”


This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule.  Feel passionate about this topic? Please connect with us at

About the author(s)

CMA Joule supports physicians and medical learners in the pursuit of clinical excellence. As a subsidiary of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), we support the profession with continuing education and other learning opportunities as well as leading evidence-based clinical products and research.