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Jeremy Cox

9th June 2021

Having a background in engineering and studying for an MBA was hardly an auspicious start for someone building a career in Compassionate Leadership.  But awareness that much of what was being taught about leadership on MBA programmes was lacking in evidence base was the trigger to take a closer look at what was really important in relationships in the workplace and the building blocks necessary to achieve this, explained Jeremy Cox at the June meeting of the ABP.

The extent and reach of Compassionate Leadership are demonstrated by some of his projects which illustrate the theme include:

  • An NHS project in the North East focusing on mental health services, funded by a review of systems constrained by suboptimal funding arrangements
  • A project in Flanders for jobseekers funded by European Social Fund aimed at empowering local agencies to better target local needs
  • A Wealth Management Fund in the Midlands which are concerned about ensuring that their growth will not result in bureaucracy and limit staff autonomy and initiative.

So what is Compassionate Leadership?   It is more than just being a compassionate individual and caring for a colleague who is in difficulties.  A compassionate leader is one who is caring in the wider organisation to the extent that they motivate others and create the conditions for the organisation to get the best out of others and thrive.

Jeremy has spent his working life helping organisations evaluating what makes them function and looking at the drivers behind bringing people to deliver positive outcomes.  Two of his most successful influences which have delivered change are the great US industrialist William Edwards Deming who helped to rebuild Japan after WW2 and Alfie Kohn, whose work in the education sector resulted in his controversial book “Punished by Rewards” which spotlighted key issues on motivation and engagement.

What these two, and indeed others, have highlighted is that a slavish devotion to budgets and functions above other actions is inhumane.  What leaders should be doing is helping people to do good work, but getting the best out of them by pushing against established organisational structures.

Compassionate leadership is about shared endeavours and a systems approach which enables a view of what gets in the way of a changed approach.  Technical / study design can highlight what is important.  A breakdown/reintegration of work can enable it to be repackaged and a clearer “Check-in” “Check out” system.

Why bother?  A visit to a Call Centre demonstrates immediately the extreme pressures placed on people in an oppressive environment.  These places breed a command and control culture and are simply depressing places to work, as demonstrated in the Whitehall studies.  It is unsurprising that they are riddled with recruitment problems and high levels of absenteeism.  It is a simple business imperative that a more scientific approach will make these organisations more efficient, effective and humane, producing better business results.  The sad fact is that an early 20th Century approach to management (Taylorism) still pervades most organisations with its almost exclusive focus on budgets and functions.

There are however encouraging signs that new approaches are taking hold.  A “Human Learning Systems Approach” is being pioneered at Newcastle Business School and research establishments such as Roffey Park are focusing efforts and recognising trends in this area.

Jeremy was clear on what to do and how to change approach.  We need to create working environments where employees have some degree of control and autonomy, where people can collaborate and undertake work which has meaningful content and is interesting.   There needs to be a shared attitude towards “control” elements in an organisation, with a sense of purpose and clarity, with a recognition that systems are only viable when they are coherent and relate to the reality of complex models and structures.  This means that the organisation needs to be better at score keeping around these models, and become more “learning orientated”, and constantly evolving.  In other words, it needs to be smarter and have a more evidence based integrated “end-to-end” approach which employees can relate to, based on not just a humane attitude in the workplace but linked to a more scientific approach to organisation and planning.     In short there needs to be a “Social” proposition running alongside a flexible approach to “Systems”, breaking down elements of work, reintegrating them and repackaging the whole.

Jeremy uses a 2×2 matrix which maps degree of power/control against the way leaders exercise that control.  What this illustrates is the extent to which leaders exercise “score keeping” or “sense making”, and what emerges is a pattern of leadership which addresses shared processes of sense making and change.  This relatively straightforward model can act as guide for improvement and an indicator of the effectiveness of good leadership.  No model is a perfect answer, but Jeremy links this into some research by Chris Argyris on single and double loop learning and maturing behaviours, and the results are invariably positive.   A further example:

In Manchester ten local authorities in the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, as part of a place based integration project, decided that they would try to become more efficient by introducing shared services.  A number of services were piloted and lots of people were pushed into new positions with new KPIs and inadequate attention given to flow of activity and desired outcomes.  The unsurprising result was a deteriorating position over time with few of the desired outcomes being achieved.  A change in systems combined with a more targeted approach to needs by individuals and families had a transforming effect on the efficiency and effectiveness of the service.  It also resulted in professionals, such as nurses and physios, actually doing the work they were trained to undertake.

A change to a systems based approach whereby teams collaborate and work together has been successful.  An emphasis on structure has been replaced by one with a focus on systems, which are psychologically informed and more systems friendly to use: a key feature was that the organisations could evolve more easily and learn as they evolved.

Much of this work is indeed common sense when looked at dispassionately, but the most challenging element is that leaders have to change and give up some established behaviours.

A success story relates to successful introduction of changed processes in GP’s pathology services.  Recognition of a problem in process flow resulted in an overhaul of the social and technical processes which resulted in a 40% reduction in costs with no detrimental effect on lab performance.  The message here is that it is important to focus on what really matters in the system using the evidence: this is a good example of compassionate leadership because it involves leadership structures in two organisations collaborating to solve a seemingly intractable problem.

Aviva Financial Services found that they could re-engage more effectively with staff and clients.  Out of a sample of hundreds of calls, it was found that 80% could be processed more straightforwardly instead of a “one size fits all” approach which involved a disproportionate use of time spent on less important criteria.

Over time Jeremy has found it possible to review changes in patterns of demand for services offered by his clients and map these onto interesting customer journey templates.  Time after time he has found that a “social” approach to staff and customers, recording and analysing the evidence, has enabled a more dynamic review and implementation of systems.  Some may refer to this as a form of “Horizontal Accountability”.

Unfortunately Taylorism is still mainstream in many organisations.  However different approaches are emerging with evidence based people friendly systems environment providing the basis for genuine Compassionate Leadership.  Some honesty is required: in meetings conditions need to be set: everyone needs to agree to approach agenda items on “what needs to be true”, with the result that there stands a greater chance of “what is clear” at the end of the meeting.

In short, establishment of left shifting “shared sense“ can lead to agreement on underlying patterns which make it easier for right shifting and satisfactory desired outcomes.  In the end, this approach has consistently yielded better organisational performance.

Jeremy Cox is collaborating with Newcastle Business School as a Visiting Fellow to help link their research to practical application on the ground. He is also leading another “Kinder” Festival in Leeds in September which explores through workshops and events elements of Compassionate Leadership.

Further information can be found at Home – The Kindness Revolution at #KinderLeeds



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