Use Compassion to Build a Stronger Team
We talk a lot today about the value of bringing your whole self to work. But our whole selves include feelings of disappointment, sadness, frustration and grief that can feel unwelcome within the head-down-get-the-job-done vibe of daily work. Leaders who show compassion and create compassionate work environments can reduce job-related stress, build organizational commitment, lower turnover and increase supportive behaviors among team members.
In this moment of widespread stress and “quiet quitting,” learning to lead in ways that both show and nurture compassion could help you build a team that pulls together for the greater good and stronger performance.
Most of us probably feel like we know compassion when we feel it, but scholars define it as, “an empathetic emotional response to another person’s pain or suffering that moves people to act in a way that will either ease the person’s condition or make it more bearable.” There is a really important concept embedded in that definition — taking action. When we empathize with someone, we strive to understand what they’re feeling, but compassion also involves taking action to help make things better.
Why it matters
Many early management theories viewed people much like other raw inputs to the process of production, the old cog in the wheel. Fortunately, that view has (largely) changed and we understand today that we don’t stop being human when we clock in for the day. Whether it’s encouraged or not, our whole selves do tend to come to work and it’s much harder to perform to your potential in a workplace that does not value the full range of the human experience.
In their paper, What Good Is Compassion at Work? scholars from the University of Michigan and Western Washington University report that experiencing compassion at work not only reduced stress and turnover, but it also provided those receiving compassion with a positive lens through which to view their workplace.
Even small acts of compassion prompted people to draw positive conclusions about their coworkers and the type of organization they work for. Interestingly, the effects lasted long after the personal difficulty had eased, still causing people to feel more positively about their workplace, have a stronger sense of connection to their colleagues and organization, and have a greater desire to contribute in positive ways.
The opposite was also found where stories of people behaving without compassion prompted highly negative feelings, a very narrow sense of who one is allowed to be at work, and a view that both colleagues and the organization as a whole were uncaring. People reported feelings that if they resigned no one would even notice.
It can be especially important for colleagues who work in demanding customer-facing roles to feel cared for themselves. It’s very difficult to show compassion to others if you don’t feel you are receiving it yourself.
Acts of compassion that were most remembered and valued by study participants tended to be simple and small. They included acknowledging suffering either in person or with cards, letters and flowers; managers who provided flexible work arrangements; an institution where employees could donate unused vacation time to others experiencing hardship; teams that collected donations for someone with an unanticipated expense; food deliveries after surgery or a new baby; and every day acts of kindness such as sharing a cup of coffee or covering someone’s duties so they could attend to a personal need.
Take these steps
In their book, Awakening Compassion at Work, the authors, both organizational psychologists, describe four aspects of compassion that leaders should understand to provide compassionate responses to employees and build a compassionate work environment. They are:
- Notice body language, tone of voice, disrupted work patterns and other signals that might indicate someone is suffering and inquire about their well-being in private.
- Consider another’s suffering to be real and worthy even if it bumps up against your own biases or is different from how you might feel.
- Demonstrate empathy through simple gestures that can increase connection.
- Take action by offering a range of responses from quiet listening to sending flowers and adjusting work schedules to demonstrate both understanding and care.
There is a strong, evidence-based case for the value of showing compassion in the workplace. It also just feels right. The challenge for leaders is to find ways to respond to that feeling and make it clear to others that it’s okay for them to do so as well.