This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.
If the pandemic highlighted one issue, it was the realisation of the importance of leadership communication and connectivity with employees. Providing information at the start was critical. But as the crisis unfolded, gratitude and empathy focused around employee wellbeing became increasingly important (Ruck and Men, 2021).
As we reflect on that period, it is time to consider going beyond well-established leadership models, such as transactional and transformational leadership, that may be a better fit for an uncertain world and changing workplace dynamics.
For example, alternative leadership models, such as servant leadership, focus more explicitly on listening to employees. As Mahon outlines, ‘The servant leader will seek out and use as many opportunities as they can find to listen to employees, they embody a deep respect for employees and demonstrate this by listening respectively to opinions, ideas and supporting supervisees feelings and worries’ (2021, p.204). The emphasis on ‘seeking out’ here distinguishes the approach from more passive attitudes towards listening.
Compassionate leadership includes a similar emphasis on listening and empathising. West (2021, pp.66-8) highlights the following leadership capabilities:
Attending – listening with fascination
Understanding – withholding blame
Empathising – tune into feelings of concern
Helping – taking tangible actions that address the roots of suffering.
Compassionate leadership capabilities also include responding empathetically and taking thoughtful and appropriate action to help, while progressing equality, valuing diversity and challenging power imbalances (Hewison et al., 2019).
In Sweden, Johansson at al. (2014) highlight the example of the Volvo Group where communicative leadership has been practised since 2002. Amongst other principles, it includes dialogue, explanation of purposes, knowledge sharing, and involvement in decision-making. This has crossovers with other leadership concepts such as humanistic communication, leader–member exchange (LMX) leadership theory, and relational leadership. A humanistic approach emphasises the importance of equality where communication is a ‘dialogical process between equals…rather than a one-directional instructional statement that appears not to ask for feedback other than behavioural compliance’ (Werder, 2017, p. 5). LMX leadership theory focuses on relationships between leaders and employees and the ways they are associated with trust, which ‘requires that we are true to our word and that we act accordingly or as others expect us to’ (Wilson and Cunliffe, 2022).
Consolidation of these concepts into an all-embracing communicative leadership model that challenges the orthodoxy and communication limitations of other, more established approaches, looks like a fertile space for further research and knowledge building.
Hewison, A., Sawbridge, Y., and Tooley, L. 2019. Compassionate leadership in palliative and end-of-life care: a focus group study. Leadership in Health Services, 32(2), 264-279.
Johansson, C., Miller, V.D., Hamrin, S. 2014. Conceptualizing communicative leadership, Corporate Communications: An International Journal. 19(2), 147 – 165.
Mahon, D. 2021. Can using a servant-leadership model of supervision mitigate against burnout and secondary trauma in the health and social care sector? Leadership in Health Services, 34(2), 198-214.
Ruck, K. and Men, L.R. 2021. Special Issue: Internal Communication during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Journal of Communication Management, (25)3.
Werder, O. 2017. Toward a humanistic model in health communication, Global Health Promotion, 26(1), 33-40.
West, M.A. 2021. Compassionate Leadership: Sustaining Wisdom, Humanity and Presence in Health and Social Care. UK: The Swirling Leaf Press.
Wilson, J. A., & Cunliffe, A. L. 2022. The development and disruption of relationships between leaders and organizational members and the importance of trust, Leadership. 18(3), 359–382.
Kevin Ruck, Ph.D., is the co-founder of PR Academy, the U.K.’s largest Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) accredited teaching centre. His interests are leadership communication and listening, strategic internal communication planning, and measurement and evaluation.