Louis Armstrong (Source: Wikimedia Commons). Armstrong and His Orchestra recorded ‘Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive’ in 1945
Ideas for Leaders #283

Accentuate the Positive – the Art of Coaching with Compassion

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Key Concept

Coaching with compassion creates positive emotions that affect the health and well-being of individuals in the workplace. Not only will they perform better as individuals but the ripple effect of such coaching can filter down through teams, departments and the organization as a whole. It helps develop a more caring culture, a more effective workforce, and a business that is more open to change.

Idea Summary

What distinguishes good leaders from great leaders? This research suggests that the key lies in the way they approach the task of leadership and coaching, inspiring others to achieve their best rather than instructing them to do so. The notion of ‘coaching with compassion’ hinges on leaders making a strong positive connection with those around them, using their emotional intelligence to tune in to others’ needs and helping them change in ways that are sustainable.

In much the same way as doctors successfully interact with patients, teachers with pupils, even parents with children, effective leaders will coach with an attitude that is aimed at people changing because they want to change, not because they are being forced to. (Note that the term ‘coaching’ need not be restricted to formal learning during pre-determined sessions. It can also occur in other environments – in the office, walking to meetings, even in the staff canteen.)

This research considers ‘compassion’ in its wider context, in which empathy for a person in need stands alongside empathy for a person seeking to grow or develop. In other words, it is not simply about feeling sorry for someone in distress, indeed, compassion can be felt towards someone who feels they need more specific training or a chance to voice their concerns about their role.

Coaching with this type of empathic concern invokes a positive psycho-physiological state that allows the coachee to be open to new possibilities and ways of learning. It contrasts with coaching for compliance, that is, being told to do what the organization wants, or deficiency-based coaching which focuses on failings. These approaches can create negative emotions and thoughts which in turn are likely to produce defensive behaviour, and ultimately, stress.

The hallmark of coaching with compassion is to get the individual to focus on their Ideal Self, a vision of who they would like to be, and what they want for the future. Positive visioning like this has been to shown to create hope, increase performance, and guide future behaviour. To illustrate the notion, imagine yourself telling an employee they have been underperforming in a particular area of their work and asking them what they are going to do about it. The body language arising from such confrontation might involve the arms being folded defensively, possibly leaning back in a chair, eyes averted. Imagine asking the same employee about their ideal life, what they really aspire to, and you will see them lean forward, open up, and talk with animated enthusiasm.

Triggering positive emotions in this way makes a person conducive to cognitive openness, and performance. They can literally put themselves in a better frame of mind for learning new ways of doing things and considering new possibilities they might have previously ignored.

And the effects of coaching with compassion can be felt in a wider context. An ‘emotional feedback loop’ occurs, whereby the positive emotions felt by the coachee relay back to the coach, and in turn to other employees with whom the coachee interacts. And as the coaching is enabled by the organization, the coachee feels more valued and therefore more committed to the organization as a whole.

Business Application

Look back over your career to date and assess which leaders have inspired you more than others, and how/whether they helped you change in a sustainable way. Did their coaching create a lasting impression on you? Model your approach on those who have inspired you.

Understand that compassion means not only paying more attention to others’ distress, but also recognizing when they have goals they want to achieve. If you are coaching someone, help them take stock of their current situation, and identify what they need to change, looking at strengths before considering weaknesses. Get them to articulate a compelling personal vision, make a realistic plan, listen to them when they encounter problems, and encourage them to persevere. The more supportive you can be, the more successful they will be.

Research has shown how people show closer attention to the emotions of their leaders, so if you are the one being coached, remember how beneficial its effects can be not only on yourself but on all those working for you. Coaching with compassion creates opportunities to change organizational culture by allowing leaders/coaches to cascade the benefits of the coaching they have received down to their direct reports, who in turn can coach their reports and so on. Look at HR practices and internal communication platforms to see how coaching benefits can be shared with a wider audience.

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Idea conceived

  • June 2013

Idea posted

  • December 2013

DOI number



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