Turning Toward Compassion

Different colored hands illustration

When confronted with a roomful of people, have you ever stopped and scanned their faces, looking for signs of pain that might be right in front of you? After a decade in senior leadership roles around the world, I realize there have been plenty of times when I've sat in meeting rooms looking for who was interested, who was bored and who was most likely to be a team player. But I’m not sure I ever took in the faces around me with a focus on compassion.

I simply didn’t understand the power that the simple act of compassion can have in organizations, and if I’m honest, I’m not sure I had the confidence to pull it off.

Why does compassion matter at work?

Compassion was perhaps once thought of as “soft” or even inappropriate in an organization, but according to the Harvard Business Review, a growing number of companies are now embracing compassionate management, and it appears to be a strategic investment that’s helping them outperform their competitors.

In fact Professor Jane Dutton from the University of Michigan, whom I recently interviewed, notes that a growing body of research shows that when we experience compassion at work—whether we are the recipient, the giver or merely a bystander—increases our feelings of commitment to the organization and our levels of engagement. It may also improve our willingness and ability to work well with others.

As a result, organizations that practice and encourage compassion are finding that this one mechanism can help them to acquire and keep talent, improve collaboration, enhance customer service and perhaps boost innovation capabilities. These are all outcomes my managers expected me to achieve over the years, and yet compassion was certainly never listed on any of my job descriptions.

How can such a simple act be so powerful?

Perhaps Professor Peter Frost from the University of British Columbia, shed the most light on this for me when he noted, “There is always pain in the room because suffering is pervasive.”

Suffering may be the result of life-changing circumstances, such as the diagnosis of serious illness, the loss of a loved one or the termination of a much-needed job. At other times pain comes from smaller situations such as the anxiety of failing projects, the scarcity of organizational opportunities, or the ongoing uncertainty of our ability to meet targets.

Despite the prevalence of pain, most of us have become pretty good at covering up how we’re feeling at work. We’re scared to be vulnerable, and are sure we’re expected to carry on and produce regardless of how we may be feeling inside.

Yet research shows when we open ourselves up to experience compassion, it helps us to make sense of what's happening and improves our sense of psychological safety. This helps us grow into people who are more resilient, more connected to each other and who are ultimately healthier and happier, despite the pain.

Studies also suggest that practicing compassion creates spirals wherein those on the receiving end are subsequently better able or more likely to care for and be supportive of others.

I couldn’t help but wonder why none of this had never been covered in any of the countless sessions of leadership training I’d attended.

So what can you do to be more compassionate at work?

The good news is researchers have found we’re born to notice, feel, interpret and respond to the suffering of others, rather than turn away from it.

“Rather than worrying about fixing someone’s pain, simply taking the time to see their pain, to inquire, to empathize and to listen without judgment, can be an act of compassion at its best,” explained Professor Dutton.

After learning all of this, as I started taking the time to see the pain in the room, and to create space for people to talk and to just listen, I was surprised how much positive change could be created through this one simple act.

Next time you have the chance, stop, look and notice. The world could do with a little more compassion.

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