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Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things. --Thomas Merton

Awakening Compassion at Work

--by Immanual Joseph, Jul 15, 2017

Jane Dutton's research focuses on how organizational conditions strengthen capabilities of individuals and firms. She is a co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations.

Monica Worline’s research is dedicated to the mission of enlivening work and workplaces is a founding member of CompassionLab, and a collaborating scientist at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University.

Immanual Joseph interviewed Jane and Monica on their lessons from decades long research on workplace compassion, and their new book Awakening Compassion at Work. What follows is an edited transcript of that interview.

IJ: Let me start by congratulating you on your new book , 'Awakening Compassion at Work- The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations'. You refer to compassion as ‘the quiet power'. Can you share more information about your book and why you refer to compassion as 'the quiet power'?

MW: We have been doing research on the topic of compassion at work for 15 years now. Over that time learned so much about the importance of compassion in people's work lives, and about the suffering that's pervasive in work organizations. And we have also learned about the added pain and suffering thats layered on top of that when people don't experience compassion in their workplaces. We had gotten to a point where we felt that we were being asked more and more to share parts of our research with audiences who we are really hungry for how to create more compassion in their organizations. That was the impetus for us to write this book. The book is grounded in compassion in organizations research, and it really tries to make that research accessible to people who want to change their own organizations and create more compassion in their own work lives. When we talk about compassion as ‘the quiet power’, one reason for that intriguing idea is that we know that compassion is pervasive in organizations just as much as suffering is pervasive in organisations, but it's often not a part of the formal definition of people's work. Compassion often even happens in the spaces between work tasks or formal work meetings. So although it's there and caring for people and addressing their pain is a part of work communities everywhere, it's sometimes travels under the radar of the formal workplace, and that's one reason why we call it the quiet power.

IJ: People do not often see the word compassion as belonging to the workplace. What are your thoughts on that?

MW: I think there are a lot of things in our contemporary workplaces that become obstacles to compassion and prevent us from immediately associating that word with work. Some of the research in the field shows that the script of putting on your professional role of manager makes empathy less central and actually makes it less appropriate to express emotion. There's a long history of trying to keep certain kinds of emotions out of the workplace, and creating an image of work as the rational place where we leave our emotions at the door. That thinking about the workplace has changed a lot in the last decade and we know more and more all the time about the importance and the centrality of emotion to people's lives and the fact that we can't really keep emotions out of the workplace. But I do think that that image of the rationality of the work place, that you take your emotions off and hang them up at the door as if they were a coat and then you can put them back on at the end of the day, is a very pervasive image and it's one that we have to entertain and talk about and change as a part of the change process of introducing more compassion in the workplace.

JD:  Even though compassion can be stunted in lots of workplaces, it is such a natural human to human response that were born with.  Compassion, even though it's not recognized often in organizations, is part of what is making a process or people more effective. People have to be fast, efficient, they have to learn as they work. But people make mistakes, or fall short of what they hope, and they feel stress- those are naturally occurring points of pain and often times what accounts for people moving on. Being able to adapt, respond and be effective requires getting compassion from other people. Just as Monica said it's often happening under the radar.

Some managers in some organizations don't see compassion as part of an organization's capability for adaptation, for innovation and those kinds of things. But part of what we're trying to do in the book is showing that the compassion is something we are born with and it actually contributes to these really important capabilities that are associated with organizational effectiveness.

MW: One more reason that I think we don't associate compassion and work sometimes is that when you ask people about compassion in the workplace, they may be may be thinking about really grand scale moves. Maybe they're thinking about whether their organization has compassion training or a chief compassion officer or something like that that's very formal. But the kind of compassion that happens every day and workplaces everywhere is that one person notices another person's pain and takes some kind of small action to address it. And so when we are looking at the formal level of the organisation,  we are looking for something different than when we're looking for those small interpersonal moves.

IJ: People seem to think of compassion with exclusivity to icons like Mother Teresa or His Holiness the Dalai Lama. What I understand from your work though is that the practice of compassion doesn’t always have to be iconic.

MW: I think it's so important that we have exemplars in our lives like Mother Teresa or His Holiness the Dalai Lama who can stand as really almost mythical figures that show us the power and the beauty of compassion. And then we also have to understand that the way that compassion might show up in our own work lives could be very much more intimate and interpersonal than those exemplar stories. For example, when we see a colleague, who has under time pressure made a mistake in their work, and they feel very badly about making their mistake and they may even feel fearful about some kind of negative outcomes that will be a result of that mistake - and we take time out of our day to deliberately stop by that colleagues cubicle and say some kind words, or write out a little postcard and leave it on their keyboard so they can find it in the morning. Those are the levels of active compassion that Jane and I have studied and we know to be tremendously impactful in the workplace. We don't have to be talking about something on the grand scale of the compassion exemplars to be talking about the kind of things that make a really important difference in people's lives at work.

JD: One of the things I think that we're excited about in respect to the book but also

 the work that we've done over the years is thinking less of compassion as just an emotion and thinking about it as more of a process. The process of compassion involves noticing the suffering of others, making sense of the pain they're suffering, feeling for the other person (empathic concern), and acting (or in some cases not-acting, because sometimes we have withhold action as a way to help the sufferer). In terms of understanding how compassion unfolds in an organization and when it actually gets stunted or stopped, it sometimes really helpful to think what is it in the organization that is helping or hindering the noticing of suffering , helping or hindering what we call as generous interpretations of the suffering, what is hurting or helping empathic concern, and what is hurting or helping people to take appropriate action towards the sufferer. A really important point of the book is to talk about this idea that some compassion is more competent than others. That is, the way the process unfolds actually is helpful to the suffering and in some cases it's not. When it is more helpful in alleviating suffering we call that more competent compassion. Two of the major points in the book have to do with this process, and what is it in the organization's context that opens or shuts down these sub processes, and what makes compassion more or less competent.

An example would be one of the studies we have been working on with one of our doctoral students, Ashley Harden. The study looked at how universities responded to a hurricane that happened in New York City which caused a lot of suffering and pain for students as well as for the faculty and staff, and what she found was that the organization made a really big difference. In different universities it was easier or more difficult for people to notice the pain of the students, the pain of the staff, and the pain of the faculty. And so you can have the same external event cause pain to a bunch of people in organizations, and see how the organization responds very differently to the suffering, based on the culture, routines and a number of different features of the organization's context.

MW:  I think it's really important for us to clarify that when we talk about compassion competence. In our book when we talk about competence were talking about the competence of the system to create compassion for people. But there's also competence and skill at the interpersonal level. People can become more skilled at noticing suffering around them inter-personally and they can build more sensitivity and emotional intelligence and capacity to engage in skilled action at the interpersonal level. The arguments that is very unique to the work that Jane and I have done, and where we make I think a distinctive contribution in the field of compassion research is to look at competence at the level of the system not just at the interpersonal level.

 IJ: People resist practicing compassion in organizations because they feel that people will take advantage of them if they are compassionate. For example, managers may feel that their reports will abuse the system or showing compassion will make them seem weak. What are your thoughts on that?

MW: Paul Gilbert in the UK has identified three kinds of fears of compassion that are very common, at least in Western cultures.  These fears of compassion go beyond the workplace, but they take a particular form in the workplace as well. One is that the fear of receiving or giving compassion might make one look weak and in the workplace that's particularly exacerbated fear if there's a lot of emphasis on looking strong and looking competent. The second kind of fear is that if one receive compassion or gives compassion people might take advantage of them, or in the workplace maybe they'll see this as an opportunity to take advantage of the system. Then there's a third kind of fear of compassion that the research has named, which is the fear of giving compassion to oneself. That is a kind of fear that's also very prevalent in professional logic, which is that, if I'm going to be successful and I'm going to push myself hard and I'm going to achieve a lot of things, I need to be hard on myself and if I'm compassionate toward myself it will undermine my ability to be successful. All three of those forms of fear come up often in workplaces and become obstacles to compassion, until we learn to see them as fears that are workable and to understand that they are fears rather than realities.

IJ: How valid are these fears of compassion?

MW: In addition to our compassion research, Jane and I have drawn a lot on the sociological research by a woman named Candace Clark and a beautiful book that she wrote called ‘Misery and Company’ . She shows that as a society in the United States we are more prone to interpret certain kind of suffering as worthy and deserving of compassion, and other kinds of suffering as not worthy and deserving of compassion and we're also prone to interpret certain kinds of behaviors as symbolic of weakness, and other kinds of behaviors as symbolic of the kind of strength and success that we tend to associate with the workplace. So I think these fears of compassion are very real, but they are also sociologically and culturally held. Each of us is subject to these interpretations that we learn by participating in the culture, and because they are interpretations that we learned, we can actually learn very different ones. One of the important things that happens to people in the course of their careers often is that they encountered some kind of significant pain or suffering and they receive compassion from unexpected sources and they realize that this compassion that they have received has been so important and that's in fact they need to challenge those fears and beliefs that they're holding until they may significantly change their outlook over time to become more open to the importance of compassion.

When Jane and I wrote the book we started talking about all of the ways that our interpretations of the world and of situations can either steer us toward empathy and concern and compassion or steer us away, and we tried to talk about the interpretations that steer us toward compassion as being the more generous interpretation, ways of understanding what's going on in the world around us that help us keep in touch with our concern for other people and connect us to the desire and the capacity to act with compassion toward them.

JD: I think our belief is that part of the problem with having people recognize the value of compassion is that there's much more articulation of the cost and the fear of compassion as opposed to articulation and appreciation of the benefits of compassion. The first part of the book documents how compassion is essential for a bunch of strategic capabilities for organizations that are very valuable from a competitive context. So rather than think compassion is something nice and extra, especially where capabilities rely on human to human interactions, like coordination collaboration innovation those kinds of things which are so dependent on having quality relational fabric in an organization. Compassion is really important for building and maintaining those sorts of capabilities. So one point I want to make is that I think we focus a lot more on potential downside of compassion and we don't feel fully recognize the full spectrum of the benefits to compassion. The second I wanted to make was that a lot of our models of what makes an organization effective are dependent on it assumptions about self-interest, that that's what's really driving people's behavior and I think has Neuroscience more and more uncovers the centrality and in some sense the dominance of other interest of serving others as more primary than serving self in terms of how our bodies are constructed.  Compassion, which is very much a human-to-human, other-centered, other-focused behavior, is something that has evolutionary value but is actually hardwired into who we are. It's again back to the business culture which has elevated self-interest and made this big story about that's what drives human behavior, but we are finding out that this is incomplete, and in many cases wrong. So I think that's another thing that over time is going to make us recognize more the value of compassion.

IJ: What are some of the positive outcomes that have been recorded as a result of practicing workplace compassion?

MW: We tend to look at the capability of an organization to innovate and to be creative, and we know that compassion in an organization has a direct effect on this capacity for innovation. We can show a lot of evidence from different people’s research that when there's greater compassion in an organization there is greater commitment to the organization and loyalty to the organization, and that creates conditions for employee retention and reduced turnover. We see a lot of evidence that compassion in an organization increases employee engagement. Employee engagement and customer engagement are deeply related, so retaining clients through more engaged employees is a function of compassion in an organization. Then there's quite a bit of evidence that looks at how complex coordination happens in an organization and how you can gain efficiency and effectiveness through complex coordination or collaboration on tasks. And there is good evidence to show that greater compassion in a system is related to higher levels of complex coordination. And so you can trace back, for example on how fast an Airline can turn around the planes and get them out of the gate and you can see traces of compassion in the process. Or how long people choose to stay with their employer or how long those people can keep the clients that work with that organization and partner with our organization. Those are the important capacities that an organization can build as it builds compassion.

JD:  I will also add that Raj Sisodia who is one of the founders of conscious capitalism has co-authored a book called 'Firms of Endearment'. His book has several different kinds of numbers on the effects of compassion.  Jody Hoffergittell has a whole bunch of studies in airline industry and in health care that shows the value of what she calls relational coordination, which is connected to compassion on a whole bunch of effectiveness indicators.

IJ: How will I know if my organization really compassionate? How will I measure compassion in my organization? How can I practically implement change if I see this is an area to be worked on?

MW: For any person taking stock of compassion in their work life they can ask themselves to think the last time they experienced compassion in their work. Just by calling to mind experiences of compassion from colleagues or co-workers -that could be receiving compassion or it could be an instance when I was involved in creating a compassionate response when someone else was suffering, or it could that I wasn't involved at all but in fact I saw my colleagues do this wonderful reaching out to someone who was in need. Just calling to mind and sharing of stories of giving receiving and witnessing compassion are really powerful ways of taking stock of where compassion is around you and your work and of actually building it and sharing it by remembering the story and reminding yourself of the presence of compassion. We often use the accessibility and the power of people stories of compassion at work by the way of having them take stock of their work life and their organisations in any given moment there are a couple of other more formal ways that people can think about assessing concussions. We have some colleagues who are inventing new compassion and organizations measurement devices that are showing very good results in the scientific studies that are being done to validate those measures.  So that looks at compassion across the whole organization. As a compassion lab, Jane and I and others invented a kind of quiz, that is a few questions that evolved out of our research, that is housed on the website of the Greater Good Science Center. Those questions can prompt people in organizations to think about this four-part process of compassion the way we define it. They can use that quiz as an informal assessment tool and use the results of that quiz to spawn discussions with others about how they might change aspects of their organization based on what they see when they look through the lens of of a quiz or when they start telling and sharing compassion stories.

IJ: Can you share a couple of examples of how compassion shows up in the work setting?

MW: I think one thing that we've really learned over the time that we've studied compassion and work is that compassionate actions in workplaces can range from very very small acts to very grand and highly coordinated ones. One action that is in the category of a small action that's incredibly important is I was in an organization and I was standing near an elevator and a colleague came to catch the elevator at the same time and I didn't know this colleague particularly well but we had served on a committee together and it seemed to me as he approached the elevator that something was wrong but I couldn't put my finger on why. So I just made eye contact and asked ‘is everything okay?’ . It turned out that his family had suffered a suicide of one of his nephews and he was very upset about it. That opened up the opportunity for him to speak with me about what was going on, but in that case it was really making eye contact and asking a question. That was the compassionate move from my side and he had the choice about whether he wanted to reveal what was happening or not.  On the other end of the spectrum we have seen an organization where a similar source of suffering, a niece died, and the organization created a really beautiful remembrance ritual and many of the members of the organization were invited to participate in the ritual. The remembrance ritual happened in Hawaii so it involves laying flowers on the water in remembrance of the person who had died and  a professional underwater photographer captured the entire ritualband shared the photographs on the story of the ritual and an elaboration of the remembrance ritual with the family so that they could actually use those pictures at the memorial service. That required a high degree of coordination and it took up more resources obviously in terms of money and time to create that elaborate ritual. Both of them are forms of compassion that we've observed in our work.

JD:  If you think about certain things that organization have to do, like they often times have to lay people off or do downsizing and there's a real variability in the way that process is executed. For example, in some organizations people just get a notice and people come in and usher them out of their rooms and take them to their cars and there's no human contact. Its handled very much as a legal process to minimize any kind of negative legal repercussions for the organization and its deeply damaging not just for the people who have been laid off. The process is very humiliating. It causes more pain as opposed to less pain. But it's really bad for the people who are the survivors that witness this form of non caring, non compassionate downsizing. On the other end of the spectrum there can be much more compassionate processes of downsizing where there is a realization that you know there's going to have to do some people laid off but people are very involved in the process. They're constantly communicated with.  They are given potential services, for example, to help them get rehired. The people who are coming to lay them off help them pack their stuff in their office and walk them down to the car so that they are treated as special human beings who are undergoing the process of being laid off. In one case more pain is created for both the survivors and the people who have been laid off, and in the other people are actually inspired, they feel cared for. They know that organization has to reduce sources, reduce costs and it has a very different residue. They're very different level of outcomes. So you can think about ways that organizations do various tasks as either increasing the amount of pain or decreasing the amount of pain by unleashing compassion by the way it's done.

 IJ: How can I become sensitive to the suffering of my friends and colleagues in my workplace?

MW: Jane and I use a saying that I think many people could really turn into a daily reminder or even a daily kind of mantra if they want to help sensitize themselves to suffering at work. Our longtime colleague and another co-founder of the compassion lab is Peter Frost. He would say whenever a group of human beings are gathered together there is always pain in the room.  So we have used  that as a reminder to ourselves that there's always pain in the room. And when when we get busy and we're not paying attention we have to remind ourselves that we're missing the pain that’s there. When we get worried about looking good and worried about our professional image people can try very very hard not to show that they're in pain. But we know if we just return to this constant reminder that there is always pain in the room and I think simply by calling that idea and reminding ourselves of that idea we can begin to notice more about people's tone of voice, about the posture of their bodies, their facial expressions ,even sometimes the tone of an email, or voicemail that someone leaves. All of those can be invitations to notice more about the other person when we remind ourselves that how common it is for there to be pain in our organizations.

JD:  Monica and I had this fancy idea in the book that organizations have a type of social architecture that make them more or less likely to exhibit compassion confidence come at the collective level. If I were thinking about trying to advise people to help their organization be more compassionate it would look at one of the most important elements of the social architecture. I think culture, or shared values and beliefs, are really important.  We also talk about the importance of networks that if your organization has ties between people that are high-quality, where people know each other and they care for each other, so aside from pain that is part of the social architecture conducive to compassion and then also organizations have routines or so routinized ways of doing things that can make a difference for compassion. so I think there is a multiple leverage points for making an organization more likely to in a sustained way being more compassionate organization.

IJ: What do you think of incentivizing compassion in the workplace? Larger organizations are capable of highlighting and rewarding compassion, and have formal programs around compassion. But smaller organizations may  not have similar capacities.

MW: A lot of the symbolic things that organizations can do like naming a role Chief Compassion Officer are really important signals that the organization values compassion. But all leadership actions can be role modeling for compassion. Leaders can be modeling compassion as they lead, or not modeling compassion as they lead.  That is as a powerful form of modeling for the rest of the organization's about what's valued and what's appropriate and what's going to be supported. I would argue that even more important than sometimes the symbolic value of naming a role or putting up a plaque on the wall that says the word ‘compassion’ is to have people living it out in the way that they lead and manage every day. And because compassion is a human to human experience in the presence of suffering, it is easier to practice it in organizations are smaller and people have the chance to know each other more fully. Our research says that the more the network ties between people, the more people know each other in a high-quality way and they have a chance to form connections that help them feel really seen and known at work, the more likely it would be that you would get compassion when suffering strikes in those organizations. So while large organizations with a lot of money might seem resource-rich in some ways, they often have a much harder time building the high-quality social fabric between people, the social networks between people, that help people recognize each other's humanity and act with compassion toward each other. And so, if what we mean by incentivizing is the symbolic reinforcement, I think that role modeling is so powerful that it often overpowers other kinds of things anyway, and it doesn't cost extra money to model compassion if you want compassion in your organization. Paying real attention to the quality of relationships in the organization is an important way of fostering compassion. The extrinsic incentives, can we pay people to be more compassionate often backfire. So when you start talking about words like empathy fatigue, and when you start thinking about why people disengage from jobs that demands them to be compassionate, those types of incentives often backfire and create what sociologists would call ‘emotional labor’, where people feel like they have to put on a show as if they are compassionate, when they don't actually feel connected to other people, they don't automatically feel that their suffering is recognized or that they could be authentically compassionate toward other people. So that there's a downside of that form of thinking about extrinsic incentivizing of compassion. This is a very difficult area that has to be thought through very carefully

JD: Like Monica I am a real believer in the quality of the social fabric, independent of the size of an organization as being a major determinant for the potential for compassion in an organization. But one of the surprises in our research has been the growing interest in the field of entrepreneurship and the importance of compassion. Dean Sheppard who is at Indiana has written to a recent editorial call for more work on compassion and entrepreneurship, and there's some indication that what really drives the development of new businesses and help sustain entrepreneurs you know when they're not making money and they don't have the investment they need, is believing that the innovation that they're developing or the businesses that they are developing is really meeting some human need. And the human needs that come from human suffering can be a really important source of innovation and creativity in the development of new businesses. So I think that there's actually probably a size disadvantage to compassion but we don't have any systematic research to show that.

IJ: If I go to work today, and I want to do one thing differently that will add to the social fabric of compassion in the workplace, what could that be?

MW: One thing I could do differently if I want to create more compassion around me is to be deliberate in noticing more about the state of other people that I work with. As we talked about earlier, sometimes people try to hide or put their suffering underneath the surface of work, because they don't want to be a burden to other people and they don't want to draw attention to themselves. That's appropriate and sometimes that's very helpful for keeping the keeping things going in the workplace, and at other times it's not helpful and it gets in the way of not only our being able to be compassionate but also our being able to find flexible solutions when somebody is really grieving and may need some accommodations in the workplace. So the more that we can actually notice and inquire about the condition of other people the more we can create compassion around us.

JD:  I believe first moments matter a lot, and so I was thinking more about organizational routines for selecting people and onboarding them. I think that it is really important for organisations to spend time selecting people based their relational capabilities. That helps to determine the composition of a group that is going to be more oriented towards each other but also more effective in dealing with each other. We write in our book about a case that I did on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is an example of an organization that selects on the basis of compassion. The case they use when they are selecting people, instead of being a traditional business economic case, is about what would you do if an employee had a baby that was born with problems and they had to go to the hospital. They are purposely looking for the degree to which someone values care and compassion. On the selection side, valuing people who tend to be more caring and more competent in relational kinds of work, would be an important thing to pay attention to. It is also important how companies onboard\ people. Because what happens when people first start in an organization is so consequential in terms of their orientation. I'll give you an example of an extensive study we did of this. A sales guy in Israel who works for a high-tech company had a bad bike accident, and what this organization did at the local, regional and global level for this low level sales person who only worked for this organization for something like 18 months was amazing. The story of that compassion is actually told at corporate headquarters when people are being on boarded. It's an example where someone's first entry an organization really inculcates them how the company values compassion by giving them a story model of what compassion can look like in the organization.

MW: It is also really important to take stock of what happens in your organization when somebody makes a mistake or when an error occurs. Because some of the most damaging moments in the workplace occur in the wake of mistakes and errors. That is a moment in the organization, where if you treat it with compassion, you can turn it into a learning process and fostering people's growth even in the midst of anger or sadness or people feeling like they've failed and dealing with the difficulty of that. So compassion in the wake of error can really change what's otherwise a source of potential toxicity and negativity in the workplace into a source of potential source of learning and growth. But it's very hard to do, especially for people who manage others or for people who are in charge of processes or projects or collaborative practices. When something goes wrong it's frustrating. People get impatient with each other. It has to be managed well, because you have to fix the mistakes- it's not as if you can just let it all go. So you have to figure out how to have compassion at the same time that you introduce learning and you remedy the errors. And that’s one place where I feel like the way organizations handle mistakes can create a great deal of suffering or when done with compassion it can actually create a great opportunity for learning and growth.




Dr. Immanual Joseph is the co-founder and CEO of Kulture of Kindness whose mission is to create compassionate workplaces and schools. Immanual is a certified life coach, former cancer scientist and published author.  


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