Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Showing emotion at work: Why compassionate leadership can have many faces

These articles have been written by the latest cohort of the Practice Makes UnPerfect programme – a course that helps women find and finesse their public voices

By Nekquai ( Kai) Adeniyi, Creative Marketing Assistant at Studio Pi

Scrap what’s old. Build it, new.

The best thing the marketing world ever did was change its approach to advertising, using the hard sell. Baking emotional connections into creative ideas is the key to effective communication – any ad professional will tell you this. So what happens when we take this commitment to building campaigns with feeling and apply it to the way we treat those working to get projects over the line? 

“Showing compassion in leadership can’t come at the expense of wisdom and effectiveness. You need both.” –  Harvard Business Review, 2020

In 2019, I stepped into the corporate space and learned that compassionate leadership can have many faces… seeing care as a way of building better connections has the potential to enrich company culture – transforming the work environment into a place of safety for all, even in hard times.

When the pandemic hit in the middle of my apprenticeship, there was pressure to learn quickly. Amidst screams of anguish on TV and calls for justice on my Instagram feed, my home became a place where I was exposed to trauma, daily. Trapped in an endless cycle fueled by anxiety, Corona was spoiling my plans for career growth and this scared me. Seated in front of my laptop in daily meetings and catch-ups, at times I observed things quietly. During this period I had two managers and worked on various brands and accounts. Most days, the pressure to be present was consistent, even when my mind had wandered off.

I can’t breathe – I had an exam approaching, a detailed portfolio to complete and clients to please, yet those three words kept circulating around my mind. Over the months, I forced myself to keep turning up, keep speaking up and not giving up but the hustle hard culture I’d adopted so eagerly was taking its toll. Mentally and physically, I gradually became a different person. My headscarf would cover the curls and coils of my hair – now a frizzy mess, courtesy of restless nights. Sometimes I’d have my camera off because I lacked the energy to smile.

But I was here. I was fine. That’s all that mattered.

According to Forbes, teams where people feel free and safe to express their emotions, fears, and concerns are more innovative and productive. Things changed when one of my line managers encouraged our team to speak openly. Some of my colleagues mentioned they weren’t feeling great and their mental wellbeing was suffering. Immediately, I felt a sense of being able to relate. Privately, I later shared with both of my managers that I had been struggling and a plan of action followed. Colleagues from both teams stepped up to help me revise for my exam and stay on track. Regular team catch-ups were agreed upon and put in the diary. I felt supported. I felt seen and over time, my worries about being vulnerable at work lessened because I realised I was not alone.

Being led by two people with very different management styles could have been confusing, but I saw improvements in my productivity which elevated my desire to keep progressing. Working alongside another team for a very different brand, I was supported by a manager who engaged the side of me that loved a challenge. As account people, we were superhumans that attacked decks with vivacity. We dazzled clients and had thought-provoking group sessions. In short, we cracked on when the going got tough. Following the ways of each team, I was both pushed to do great things and allowed to rest and recuperate.

If this time taught me anything about leadership in corporate environments, it’s that managers can still be effective by using wisdom to make important decisions.

So, for the seasoned chaps in the corporate space who think the word “compassion” implies a heavy dependence upon ideals over rationale… I say, just like in advertising, people are the power behind the business, and yours wouldn’t run without its emotional employees.