Workplace Compassion: What It Is, Why It’s Missing, and How It Contributes to Organizational Success
Should we expect to find compassion in our workplaces – or should we check our emotions at the door in order to be more productive at work? Is workplace compassion a “nice to have” bonus at work – or is it an organizational imperative for innovation and profitability? According to recent research, compassion may be the key to innovation, learning, and adaptability in a constantly changing world.
Compassion: What It Is (and Isn’t)
Compassion is defined as not only our caring response to another person’s suffering, but also to our attempts to help alleviate that suffering. It is a hard-wired trait in humans – but one that many people feel is lacking in not only our personal relationships, but at work as well.
Workplace compassion is found in the interactions between employees. It’s displayed in our willingness to help one another. To understand that there might be reasons for a sudden change in performance. To recognize that employees are human beings with lives outside of work.
In other words, compassion – whether it is in our personal or professional lives – is the resulting emotion of being conscious of another’s suffering or distress AND being willing to help them alleviate it.
Compassion is, therefore, not just a feeling but also an action.
And, according to many researchers, compassion can be learned.
Why Compassion Is Missing in Most Workplaces
In general, there are three causes that deter compassion in the workplace:
- The belief that professional and personal lives should be kept separate.
- The fear of appearing vulnerable and weak.
- The confusion surrounding how to offer support.
There is a long-held belief that emotions should be “left at the door” when we enter the workplace. Whatever is going on in our personal lives should be compartmentalized in order to be “dealt with” when we leave work.
That may have worked when most of us worked a standard 40-hour work week and were essentially unreachable outside the office or work site. But all that changed with the onset of technology.
While technology has been a great boon to many businesses and its workers, it has come with a price: the 24/7 eLeash. Today we are constantly accessible at any time of the day or night by email, text messaging, or even the “old-fashioned” phone call. Workers often are unable to resist the technological call even if they are on vacation or celebrating a holiday with their families; some workers will “check in” even if they are hospitalized (but still conscious).
Because compassion requires the conscious acknowledgement of another person’s pain or suffering, it requires an emotional vulnerability that many workers are afraid to display in professional situations.
But this lack of compassion has deleterious consequences. The employee who is attempting to balance a heavy workload with a family health crisis might be afraid to ask for help due to fears of being labeled as someone who “can’t handle” the demands of the job. The resulting high stress levels negatively affect not only their performance, but also their emotional well-being and physical health.
Similarly, the manager who has excelled throughout his career may fear being labeled as “weak” if he responds compassionately (rather than autocratically or “by the book”) to a coworker’s need for some scheduling flexibility due to child demands from a recent divorce. After all, wouldn’t this “softness” be transmitted through the office grapevine – with the result that he will be “taken advantage of” in the future?
If employees fear asking for some organizational help (or a little “slack”) when they are experiencing major challenges or changes, then they are more likely to become disengaged, unproductive, and burned out.
While the lack of workplace compassion is most frequently viewed as occurring between managers and their subordinates, it is also lacking in the interactions between colleagues and peers.
If the workplace culture is characterized by an obsessive compulsion to “win” and an aversion to “loss,” then employees tend to view providing any kind of compassionate assistance to their coworkers as an action that could undermine their personal ability to succeed. In such an environment, even authentic offers to help may be viewed with suspicion: what do they really want in exchange for this help?
Regardless of their formal structure of the workplace relationship, many people are uncomfortable when they are faced with someone who is hurting, in pain, or in desperate need. How to offer support becomes a tricky undertaking: would my offer to help make them feel that they are somehow inferior or then feel “bad” about themselves?
How Workplace Compassion Contributes to Organizational Success
Displaying compassion to our fellow workers, subordinates, and managers requires an acceptance of our innate humanity. In other words, compassion brings the “human” back into the workplace.
But compassion is not just a “feel good” workplace characteristic. According to Worline and Dutton (2017), “compassion matters for competitive advantage.”
In an age in which innovation, collaboration, client customization, and adaptability are critical to organizational sustainability, there is an urgent demand for “bigger, better, and faster” – regardless of the goals’ reasonableness or achievability. As burnout runs rampant in many organizations and employees choose to leave their employers (rather than continuously strive toward the achievement of these unreasonable demands), organizations must rethink their attitudes toward urgency.
Urgency was first touted as a way to create an adrenaline rush in employees so that they could work tirelessly toward the completion of tasks that were critical to organizational success. But urgency and adrenaline are only healthy and sustainable in short doses; prolonged periods of urgent action that are not balanced with periods of respite and reward create not only burnout, but also emotional and physical health problem.
In other words, if everything is urgent…then nothing really is.
By instead rethinking organizational policies and processes in terms of their level of compassion toward workers, companies can reap the benefits of an engaged, energized, and loyal workforce.
I’m not kidding: adding compassion as a criteria for policies and procedures has measurable benefits:
- In a study by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, leaders who interacted with their subordinates in ways that were perceived as fair and self-sacrificing were rewarded with employees who were more loyal, committed, and collaborative in working to find solutions to problems.
- Fowler and Christakis found that generous, compassionate, and kind actions created a chain reaction in workplaces – thus creating a cultural change toward compassion.
- In a 2012 study published in BMC Public Health, compassionate acts built bonds between workers – which led to decreased stress levels and greater productivity.
Workplace compassion creates a culture of cooperation and trust. Rather than a culture of competition, organizational cultures that exhibit and support compassion tend to have lower health care utilization rates, greater employee engagement, less turnover, and a culture of trust that supports learning and innovation. (I told you I wasn’t kidding.)
5 Tips to Building Workplace Compassion
While I firmly believe that every employee desires to be treated compassionately at work, I also recognize that there are many hurdles to building a culture of compassion.
Based on my research, I have identified five simple ways that organizational leaders and individual employees can approach their work with a sense of compassion:
Tip #1: Don’t respond based on implicit assumptions. Bias is well-researched in the protected classes (e.g., gender, race, religion, etc.), but is infrequently acknowledged in the areas of human behavior. While everyone has implicit biases through which we appraise the behaviors of others, it is important to step outside of these biases in order to see another’s perspective of the challenging situation.
Tip #2: Be present and authentic. Compassion should be given freely. This is accomplished by becoming present in the moment – taking the time to see and listen to the people with whom you are engaged. In other words, get out of your head and open your heart.
Tip #3: Encourage employee conversations about non-work activities. When employees are encouraged to socialize with one another, it provides greater insights into their motivations, fears, and aspirations. When sharing such information, it can build trust and encourage a greater proclivity to help and support each other. (NOTE: Be patient with such sharing activities and NEVER force someone to share more than what they are comfortable with.)
Tip #4: Create organizational initiatives that encourage employees helping each other. Organizations that have a strong sense of community involvement may have an advantage in building a compassionate, collaborative culture – but don’t focus exclusively outside the organization. Perhaps create an initiative that allows employees to provide assistance to other employees who might be in need. For example, a fund which allows workers to donate their unused time off or make a financial donation to help a coworker.
Tip #5: Recognize when employees act compassionately and help each other. Formal recognition (e.g., awards, events) as well as informal “thank you’s” or even the offer to get an overworked colleague a much-needed cup of coffee are powerful ways to reinforce the importance that an organization places on compassionate activities in the workplace.
We humans are wired to empathize – which is an important aspect of compassion. We’re wired to experience a visceral, emotional response to another’s suffering. But compassion is more than empathy: it is also the active response to help alleviate that suffering.
Additionally, compassionate action not only helps someone else who is in need but also makes us feel better and more hopeful. Acting compassionately is a win-win.
So, even though pain may be an inevitable part of life, our feelings of suffering are not. Compassion is what makes us human – and it’s a necessity in all of our lives. Since we spend the majority of our time at work, we need compassion in our daily existence. And it is through acts of compassion that companies can embrace the humanity of its workforce and harness the power of its only nondupulicatable competitive advantage: its human resources.
Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout: Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources. An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, keynote speaker, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI. For more tips and ideas, please subscribe to her weekly “Success @ Work” eNewsletter at https://drgeripuleo.lpages.co/success-work-opt-in-page. To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com.