Compassionate leadership is good for you

Have you noticed that when you are kind to someone, you feel good? 

I’m confident that you answered yes to that question because it is a fact that being kind makes you feel good; and there is a scientific reason for that, as there are scientific reasons why being a compassionate leader is good for you. 

Being a compassionate leader is good for your brain function, your health, and your emotional wellbeing.  It is good for your career advancement because being a compassionate leader will generate better business outcomes.

To understand the science, we need to understand a little bit about hormones and neurotransmitters and their effect within the human body.  While somewhat complicated, I’ve condensed (perhaps over-simplified) the science down to bare basics so that this won’t take long.

Hormones are natural chemicals/molecules produced by our endocrine glands.  Once secreted, they move around our circulatory system communicating between our organs and tissues[i].  This information exchange is responsible for the regulation of bodily functions such as digestion, metabolism, respiration and behavioural activities such as mood manipulation[ii][iii].

Hormones influence our behaviour; for example, the hormone oxytocin promotes social bonding.  We want to bond with people when our body releases oxytocin.  Additionally, our behaviour and our environment can influence hormones.[iv]  For example, Laughing, patting a dog and listening to someone sincerely increases the secretion of oxytocin.[v]

Neurotransmitters are also natural chemicals/molecules and act in the same way as hormones.  The main difference between hormones and neurotransmitters is that hormones travel through the body via the circulatory system (blood), whereas neurotransmitters are produced in the brain and travel around the body via the nervous system[vi].

Neurotransmitters such as serotonin influence our behaviour by stabilising our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness; and is associated with learning and memory. Serotonin also helps to decrease our worries and concerns[vii].

Science has shown that performing acts of kindness causes the production and secretion of the hormone oxytocin and the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and endorphins[viii][ix]

Oxytocin – increases your levels of confidence, optimism, happiness, and trustworthiness; while decreasing your risk of illness.

Listening sincerely to your staff is both a demonstration of compassionate leadership and increases your oxytocin.  Oxytocin is produced by the body in response to feelings of human connection and the byproduct of this chemical moving around your body is greater confidence, optimism, and happiness while at the same time reducing fear and stress[x].  Fear and stress contribute to illnesses such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and obesity and therefore taking the time to really listen to your staff are good for your health and happiness.

Studies by Dr. Paul Zak have shown that oxytocin levels impact empathy which helps us connect with and help others.  Dr Paul Zak’s also found that oxytocin increases trust and causes trustworthiness[xi].  Your levels of oxytocin are therefore increased when you trust your staff, and the oxytocin levels in your staff are increased when they trust you.  This means that staff will be more willing to help you if they trust you.

Leaders demonstrate that they trust staff by exhibiting the following examples of compassionate leadership:

  • Inspiring staff to want to stretch themselves
  • Empowering staff to stretch themselves
  • Leaders demonstrate that they are trustworthy by exhibiting the following examples of compassionate leadership:
  • Act with integrity
  • Investing time in staff
  • Communicate to convey and receive understanding
  • Addressing underperformance quickly and kindly

The production and release of oxytocin in the body are impeded in high-stress situations or in people who have the characteristics of sociopaths.[xii]  Leaders are measured on the outputs of their teams and this can be stressful. Unmotivated and underproductive teams working in suboptimal work cultures of fear and mistrust will not produce the outcomes needed for their leader to be recognised as successful.

A leader who has not learned how to develop and motivate others will likely model their leadership style on what they have seen.  If they have been educated in an authoritarian school system and have learned leadership practices from people who think leadership is about issuing commands, highlighting mistakes, acting with superiority and impunity, being in control and being right.  Not only is this toxic for the poor souls forced to work under such a leader, but it is also terrible for the leader who is under the mistaken belief that she or he must know the answer to every conceivable question and possess superhuman abilities.  In such circumstances, oxytocin production is inhibited and all those wonderful benefits such as increased confidence, optimism and happiness are not enjoyed.

Leadership is much easier when leaders understand that their role as a leader is not about knowing everything but everything about growing others.

Serotonin – increases your happiness, cognition, learning, and memory.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter well known for its role in producing feelings of well-being and happiness.  It is also responsible for other biological functions including cognition, reward, learning, and memory.[xiii]  Therefore finding ways to increase your serotonin should be a business imperative, however, if better brain functioning is not reason enough, consider the alternative; negative moods generate negative outcomes such as increased hostility, increased irritability and increased mortality.  This sounds dramatic but again, it is a scientifically supported truth.  The Nun Study (A continuing longitudinal study focuses on a group of 678 American Roman Catholic sisters that begun in 1986 to examine the onset of Alzheimer’s disease) found that people who reported negative emotions before 22 years of age died on average 10 years earlier than those who reported positive emotions[xiv].

One of the easiest ways to increase your serotonin without prescription drugs is to practice kindness at work.  Refraining from gossip and complimenting others can boost serotonin and thereby boost your self-esteem, inner strength, confidence and sense of purpose[xv].  All these qualities enhance your leadership qualities and therefore it is in your best interest to test this for yourself.  Next time you are feeling a bit low in the office, spend a few minutes drafting and sending a specific and genuine thank you email to a staff member has who has recently done a good job.  Measure your mood after this is done. 

Sunlight and exercise can also increase the production of serotonin and therefore, consider holding one on one meetings with your staff by taking them to walk in a nearby park.  The serotonin boost will increase cognitive capabilities in both of you.

Endorphins – for stress relief and a feeling euphoria

The word endorphin comes from the words “endogenous,” which means “from the body,” and “morphine,” which is an opioid pain reliever.  Endorphins are neurotransmitters that relieve pain and can produce a feeling of euphoria.

Research has found a link between low levels of endorphins and depression and chronic headaches[xvi].

It is widely known that exercise can increase endorphins level and thus the term runner’s high.  However, scientific studies have shown that laughter and being kind also increases endorphins.  Research involving advanced brain imaging machines (fMRI), showed similar activity in the pleasure-related centres deep in the brain when participants donated money, received money, or saw money go to a good cause.[xvii]  In the work context, rather than giving money to your staff, giving your time and being kind has the same effect.

Additionally, it is also scientifically accepted that endorphins are secreted by laughter.  Laughter therapy is effective and scientifically supported as a single or adjuvant therapy to treat stress and depression[xviii].  If you find yourself unhappy or stressed at work, find ways to increase the level of fun and laughter in the office.  Far from being a frivolous distraction, it is a scientifically proven way to increase your endorphin levels. 

Dopamine – the great motivator

Dopamine is commonly believed to be produced when we achieve success and therefore is associated with reward.  Research has also shown that dopamine is associated with motivation and learning.[xix]  Decades of experiments measuring the effect of dopamine in animals have shown that higher levels of dopamine lead to greater exertion of effort, more sustained task engagement and is instrumental learning  Low levels of dopamine are associated with procrastination, low levels of enthusiasm and fatigue[xx].  Therefore, as a leader, it is in your best interest to increase the levels of dopamine in yourself and your staff.

Increase your dopamine levels by setting, achieving and celebrating success.  You will also release dopamine by recognising and celebrating the successes of others.  This is the basis for the current movement of gratitude journals.  If you have not already noticed, gratitude journals are currently on-trend and if you have not seen them in every second shop that you enter yet you will now that I have brought them to your attention.  Each time we think about the things that we are grateful for, we increase our dopamine level and we are in turn rewarded with more enthusiasm and motivation, the lack of both being major contributing factors to depression.  Furthermore, your staff, when rewarded with your praise will be motivated towards greater exertion of effort and more sustained task engagement.

The call to action

The chemicals produced in your body by practising compassionate leadership reduce stress, anxiety, and depression and will help you enjoy a calmer, healthier and happier life.  Furthermore, for all the reasons that your body produces dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins; so too will they be produced in your employees, thus improving their cognitive ability, motivation, health, and well-being.  The increased productivity of your employees will be good for you given that it is your job to optimise the performance of your employees.

There is a correlation between kind leaders and happy workplaces.  Happy staff work harder, are more engaged, motivated and productive, take less unscheduled leave and are more likely to stay with their employer. 

A culture of unhappiness is catastrophic for productivity and an epic failure of leadership.  This failure is either a consequence of the leader failing to understand the importance of positive culture or being incapable of achieving it.

The most common reason that people in leadership positions do not become compassionate leaders is either ignorance or narcissism.

Ignorance is usually the result of inadequate education about the role of a leader.  All new leaders must understand that the day they are promoted to a leadership position is the day they become responsible for the output of others.  The title leader bestows the following responsibilities:

  • an obligation to cultivate a high-performance culture in which staff want to collaborate
  • an obligation to cultivate a high-performance culture in which staff want to achieve the organisation’s goals
  • an obligation to be the best leader that individual can be
  • an obligation to understand that the most important asset of any organisation is its people, if, and only if, those people are productive
  • the responsibility for the wellbeing of others
  • an obligation to cultivate a healthy and safe work environment where the basic and psychological needs of staff are met

Ignorance about the role of compassionate leadership can be overcome with learning. 

Narcissism is more challenging as narcissists tend to be unaware of the need to change.  The day a staff member is promoted to a leadership role, is not the day they are given license to be a narcissist. The title leader does not bestow a right to yell or bully. The title leader does not transform a human into a God who, from that moment forward, is always right. The title leader does not exempt a person from the need to listen, consult and learn.  The Golden Rule does not just apply in the world outside the workplace. The principle of treating others as you want to be treated is just as applicable to the leader as it is to the staff member.

Disengaged staff do not produce.  Disengaged staff either leave; or stay and sabotage organisations.  Statistical research firm, Gallup estimates the cost of replacing an individual staff member is between one and a half to two times the staff annual salary.  It is, therefore, a financial imperative to keep staff engaged.

People are productive when they are engaged in the work they are doing.  When they understand or are motivated to understand the what, why and how to achieve the mission of the organisation.  When these productive people produce, organisations prosper.

In the same way that the body’s natural pleasure chemicals, dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, increase the effectiveness and wellbeing of leaders when they behave with compassion; so too are they released in staff when they are on the receiving end of compassion.  Oxytocin is produced by your staff through human connection and trust.  When staff feel heard, when they trust you and when they trust each other the oxytocin produced will increase their confidence, optimism, happiness, and trustworthiness; while decreasing their risk of illness.  As such, they will be happier, more productive and take less sick leave.  Serotonin, which increases happiness, cognition, learning, and memory is stimulated through positive feedback and accomplishments.  Endorphins, the body’s natural stress relievers are produced in response to laughter and kindness so for a healthier and happier workforce, leaders should be cultivating a fun and joyful work environment.   And finally, dopamine, the body’s great motivator, is produced when your staff achieve success.  Dopamine is known to be associated with increased physical or mental effort, maintained interest and learning.  Leaders can increase the dopamine levels in their staff by recognising and celebrating the successes.

It is essential that leaders not only understand their role in building and maintaining a healthy, vibrant, warm, welcoming culture but that they understand how to build it.  Fortunately, science has shown us how.  We know that staff who feel valued and cared about produce chemicals that will contribute to their output and it is this output that determines the success of the business.  It is, therefore, a financial imperative that leaders know what matters to their staff, what they enjoy doing and what they find frustrating.  With this knowledge leaders are better able to provide a workplace where staff can operate at optimum capacity.

Compassionate leaders must not only meet the psychological needs of their staff, but they should also attempt to provide environments for staff to self-actualise.  This means creating a space where staff are highly skilled, highly absorbed, have a sense of ownership and control and are challenged to grow.  When this happens staff, work ceases to be work becomes a pleasurable activity worth doing for its own sake.  This state of ecstasy at work leads to the production of more happy chemicals and the cycle continues.

[i] Shuster, Michèle (2014-03-14). Biology for a changing world, with physiology (Second ed.). New York, NY. ISBN 9781464151132. OCLC 884499940

[ii] Neave N (2008). Hormones and behaviour: a psychological approach. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press. ISBN 978-0521692014. Lay summary – Project Muse.

[iii] “Hormones”. MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine

[iv]  Garland, Theodore; Zhao, Meng; Saltzman, Wendy (August 2016). “Hormones and the Evolution of Complex Traits: Insights from Artificial Selection on Behavior”. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 56 (2): 207–224. doi:10.1093/icb/icw040. ISSN 1540-7063. PMC 5964798. PMID 27252193.

[v][v] Michael Unks “Oxytocin-How to Increase Oxytocin, the LOVE Hormone, in 13 Natural Ways” 1 Nov 2016

[vi] Randy J. Nelson, Hormones & Behavior, The Ohio State University

[vii] The best natural ways to increase serotonin. Brain Health January 20, 2019, BrainMD Life

[viii] Nigel Mathers. “Compassion and the science of kindness: Harvard Davis Lecture 2015”, British Journal of General Practice 2016; 66 (648): e525-e527. DOI:

[ix] Dariush DFARHUD, Maryam MALMIR, and Mohammad KHANAHMADI4, Happiness & Health: The Biological Factors- Systematic Review Article, Iran J Public Health. 2014 Nov; 43(11): 1468–1477

[x] Dariush DFARHUD, Maryam MALMIR, and Mohammad KHANAHMADI4, Happiness & Health: The Biological Factors- Systematic Review Article, Iran J Public Health. 2014 Nov; 43(11): 1468–1477

[xi], Dr Paul Zak. Trust, morality and oxytocin, 1 November 2011

[xii] ibid

[xiii]Young SN (November 2007). “How to increase serotonin in the human brain without drugs“. Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience. 32 (6): 394–9. PMC 2077351. PMID 18043762.

[xiv] Danner DD, Snowdon DA, Friesen WV. Positive emotions in early life and longevity: findings from the Nun Study. J Pers Soc Psychol 2001;80:804-13. [PubMed]

[xv] Devashish Chakravarty, Boost these hormones to succeed as a leader at work.  The Economic Times India Times. December 10, 2018

[xvi] Medical News Today, Endorphins: Effects and how to increase levels

[xvii] US Department of Health and Human Services Brain Imaging Reveals Joys of Giving, June 22, 2007,

[xviii] Yim J. Therapeutic Benefits of Laughter in Mental Health: A Theoretical Review. Tohoku J Exp Med. 2016 Jul;239(3):243-9. doi: 10.1620/tjem.239.243.

[xix] John D. Salamone and Merce Correa, The Mysterious Motivational Functions of Mesolimbic Dopamine Neuron Review, volume 76, Issue 3, p470-485 November 8, 2012

[xx] ibid