Recently, I was reminded of one of the great reads I enjoyed back in 2019, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations, by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton. The book was relevant at the time, six months before COVID-19 struck. It is even more relevant today.
This book centers around the importance of compassion at work. Unlike other positive qualities, such as kindness, gratitude, or happiness, compassion is not an independent concept. It is a response to something which can be a bit more negative or even sinister… suffering.
Suffering might feel like a strong word to describe experiences that can happen in the workplace. If there’s one thing we have learned during 2020, however, it’s that suffering can originate in many places and still impact our work-lives. Suffering could be:
- worry about the health of a friend or loved one,
• the strain of taking care of a child while also taking meetings online,
- the feeling of loneliness and social isolation from only experiencing Zoom interactions.
It could also be as simple as having a regular old bad day. We all suffer sometimes, and when we do it has the potential to impact our work. The value of compassion is that it opens our eyes to the suffering taking place. Instead of ignoring it, or pretending like it doesn’t exist, compassion provides each member of an organization a positive action that they can take about it.
Compassion is obviously nice, but Worline and Dutton also make the important business case for fostering compassion in the workplace. Research suggests there is a link between greater compassion and strategic competitive advantages in a variety of areas. For example, higher employee engagement, lower rates of turnover, and better innovation. Wouldn’t you prefer to work for an organization that acts compassionately towards you in times of personal need?
Inquiry and Generous Interpretation
Being skilled at offering compassion in the workplace is a topic explored in detail throughout the book. Two of the techniques described include replacing judgement with inquiry and offering generous interpretation.
Replacing judgement with inquiry is the quickest way of noticing when a colleague or employee might be struggling with something. The most important thing about inquiry is being curious. Let go of the idea that you already know what’s going on with others and be willing to explore the situation alongside them. Similarly, offering generous interpretation is a way of giving others the benefit of the doubt. As the adage goes, you never know what somebody may be going through. It’s better to always assume the best in your interpretations until you can find out more.
Embedding Compassion into Your Work
Many organizations, particularly those in the non-profit space, are full of kind and compassionate people. Even with compassionate members, however, the ability for organizations to be compassionate does not often come about naturally. There are five factors discussed in the book on which organizations can focus. These factors support building compassion into the DNA of the organization, a term Worline and Dutton describe as the organizations “social architecture.”
- Social Networks: Networks are important for social interactions. Compassionate networks are developed by increasing the quality of the connections, not the quantity. High quality connections allow members to more easily share emotional information. In this way, networks are key to spreading the awareness of suffering or to coordinate large scale acts of compassion as required.
- Organizational Culture: Culture plays an important role when it is able to re-enforce a sense of shared humanity throughout the organization. With a strong notion of togetherness, an organization’s culture invites members to share in generous interpretations for failures rather than assigning blame, and to then notice suffering through individual inquiry work.
- Individual Roles: Roles help by incorporating compassionate behavior into the people’s expected responsibilities, adding predictability and stability to the ways different roles will respond to suffering when it occurs.
- Everyday Routines: Routines take this a step further by creating process norms around acts of compassion. When routines are built such that people are frequently in contact or supporting one another, those routines can become a vessel through which compassion flows.
- Stories of Leadership: Leaders guide the process through their role-modeling of individual compassionate behavior. Through this modeling, they become a focal point in which the organizations can share stories of their actions, inspiring others to increase their capacity for compassion as well.
Embedding compassion in your organization isn’t a one-and-done event. At Brighter Strategies, we offer resources which can help strengthen your organization in many ways that are holistic and meets your needs. If your goal is to foster compassion, our work around Organizational Culture are a good place to start.
If you are interested in reading more, you can also check out the book, which includes great resources for developing your personal and organizational blueprint to compassion.