Why Bringing Compassion to Work is Good for Business

“You don’t have to be in HR to expand your role to include compassion. Everybody can be important for noticing if something’s going wrong, or if someone is in pain.”

Monica Worline is an organizational psychologist and research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism, the founder of EnlivenWork, and the author of Awakening Compassion at Work. She recently joined Michelle McQuaid, bestselling author of Lead Like a Woman and Your Strengths Blueprint, for a conversation on why we should take compassion seriously in the workplace.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. It originally appeared on Michelle McQuaid’s podcast. To listen to the full conversation, click here

Michelle: One of the things I often find is that there’s a bit of confusion about the difference between compassion and empathy. Can we start there?

Monica: How social scientists and positive psychologists define compassion really is complex. We talk about compassion as a four-part human experience that unfolds in relation to suffering.

First, we have to notice that suffering is present in our lives and in the organizations around us.

Second, we have to interpret that suffering in a way that makes us more likely to feel empathy and concern for what’s happening. The third part, empathic concern, is actually a form of empathy, and that feeling leads us to [the fourth part]: taking action, to do something about suffering. Overall, compassion is defined as a process that leads us to notice and alleviate the suffering of others around us.

Michelle: Why might companies invest in building compassionate practices into our workplaces? When I talk to lots of CEOs about compassionate practices, their first response is, “That sounds a bit soft, given the commercial realities that we’re facing.” How do you deal with that kind of feedback?

Monica: That’s so common, that leaders feel like compassion is too soft to be relevant to their bottom line performance. But we have over 20 years of research on the topic of compassion in organizations, and we see that compassion impacts costly things. There’s a very high correlation between whether people think they work in a compassionate organization and how much they are committed to stay in that organization.

Turnover is very expensive, and retaining talented people is one of the highest priorities on many strategic agendas these days. Compassion is helpful to performance in an organization through retention and commitment of employees.

Another way compassion matters to the bottom line of an organization is that compassionate environments increase employee engagement, and employee engagement heightens customer engagement. When we have more engaged employees interacting with clients and customers, they do higher quality service, they relate better with their customers or their clients, they keep building loyalty to your brand.

A third way that compassion affects the bottom line is through resilience. Compassion helps people be adaptable to change, and performance research in the financial services industry shows that when organizations are more compassionate, they’re more likely to bounce back faster after a downturn.

“The first thing that people can do is simply open their eyes more and make themselves more available to notice the suffering that’s going on around them.”

Michelle: That’s fascinating, because many organizations are looking for resilience training. You have built into the book a personal blueprint that people can use in workplaces to improve their levels of compassion. Can you talk us through what the blueprint recommends?

Monica: The first thing that people can do is simply open their eyes more and make themselves more available to notice the suffering that’s going on around them.

The second part is making more generous interpretations. This one is hard and takes practice, and it’s where a lot of our mindfulness and equanimity training can come in, because when people are suffering and upset, they can act that out in all kinds of ways. Maybe they’re late for work, maybe they miss some deadlines, maybe they make more mistakes than usual. We can interpret those things with generosity or with judgment.

I’m not saying that you should let everybody off the hook for everything, that it’s fine if everybody’s late all the time. But it’s worth asking yourself, “Am I interpreting generously what’s going on? Do I need to find out more information? Is there something going on in that person’s life that I might not know about that would help me understand and accommodate better?”

Another way is to tap into the empathy aspect of compassion and to bolster your feeling of concern. We can do this easily by listening to our own self-talk. Empathy is really sensitive to costs. A lot of positive psychology researchers are showing us how fragile empathy is. If you think to yourself, when you see somebody else in need, “I just can’t handle that right now,” that very act of talking to yourself about how you don’t have the resources to respond is a compassion killer. If you can activate your sense of, “I feel concerned for what’s going on. I wonder if I could just do something small,” then the fourth way that people can increase compassion around them is by finding ways to act.

It’s common that people tell us that they want to be compassionate, but they don’t know what to do. It’s very often just a kind word, “I’m sorry for what you’re going through,” or a simple card or an acknowledgement of suffering. Maybe it’s just a question: “Is there any task that I could take off your plate today that would give you some flexibility?” Things like that, which don’t necessarily take a lot of your time and energy, can make a huge difference in helping that person feel like their suffering is acknowledged. Even if there’s nothing heroic that you can do to fix what they’re going through, the acknowledgement of it and the expression of concern changes the work environment.

Michelle: I completely agree, and one of the a-ha moments I have with many of the leaders that I work with is helping them understand that we all share that same deep psychological need to feel respected, valued, and appreciated. The sense of safety that that brings for us, to feel that we have been seen, that we are connected and supported in some way—we underestimate how powerful those small gestures can be.

“You don’t have to be in HR to expand your role to include compassion. Everybody can be important for noticing if something’s going wrong, or if someone is in pain.”

If you’re going to awaken compassion across a whole organization, exactly how do you pull that off?

Monica: You can create an organization with equally kind people, and how you set up the system can either bring out compassion or damp it down. [In the compassion lab] we have studied four or five parts of an organization that leaders and managers can work with to draw out compassion.

The first is networks—how people are connected together, and how you use the communication connections to share news about suffering and to update people about others’ wellbeing. If people get isolated and aren’t connected with one another, and can’t learn about what’s going on with one another, then it’s hard for compassion to spread.

The next part is values, especially the values that are lived out in the organization. Especially [important] for compassion are the values that feed into our sense of shared humanity. Do we, as a group or a team, value being in it together? Do we value collaboration? Do we value things like justice and fairness and respect for one another? If those values are woven into the way we live our work life together, then it’s a lot easier to be compassionate when suffering strikes.

The third part is role definition. That might sound a little boring, like how we define our roles, but job crafting and role-making can be powerful to change the meaning of our work. You don’t have to be in HR to expand your role to include compassion. Everybody can be important for noticing if something’s going wrong, or if someone is in pain.

Another thing that sometimes sounds boring but is really powerful are the routines of an organization. Once they’re well-established, they’re stored as procedural memory. People don’t have to think about them in order to do them, but they’re not mindless—they’re actually quite susceptible to improvisation. So if people think that taking care of each other is such an important part of getting work done that they incorporate it into their routines, you can change things that look like small behavior and get powerful system-wide effects.

The final thing is leadership. Leaders have a hard job, because they’re justifiably afraid that if they make a compassionate decision in one case, they might set a precedent that they can’t live up to in the next case. There’s a lot of fear of compassion that gets in the way. We try to help leaders think about role modeling, and the ways they hope other people in the organization will treat each other. Leaders as examples of compassion are really powerful.

“As our political and global cultural climates become more contentious, caring for each other and knowing that we’re all in pain is an important way to change every day at work.”

Michelle: Are there examples where, as practitioners, we should be cautious introducing compassion into workplaces? Where you’ve seen it not go according to plan?

Monica: For leaders and managers, there are a lot of dilemmas. Being a compassionate manager or leader often puts you in a place where you’re working with a person who’s in tremendous pain, and you have to simultaneously say, “I understand and hear that you are hurting, and I absolutely have to insist on this standard of behavior or service.”

Errors, mistakes, misjudgments, inattention, missing deadlines—those kinds of things in workplaces can be terribly damaging, even when we know they’re coming from suffering. We have to find ways to be caring toward people and simultaneously uphold [our] standards. If we hold onto the idea that compassion dilemmas are not a problem, in fact they’re very normal, and help the managers and leaders to share wisdom about how to handle those dilemmas, we may never actually fully be able to resolve them, but talking them through and building more skill around handling them is really important. That’s very far from soft work.

Michelle: I completely agree, it’s some of the hardest work we have to do as leaders.

If there’s one thing you wished everybody thought about when it comes to implementing positive psychology or positive organizational scholarship practices in workplaces, what would it be?

Monica: That there’s always pain in the room, and that we human beings are so fragile. There’s so much overload and overwhelm in our lives right now, that understanding the importance of care in our work relationships is an antidote to how much of that fragility is present. As our political and global cultural climates become more contentious, caring for each other and knowing that we’re all in pain is an important way to change every day at work.