Why Workplace Compassion is the Talk of HR

Workplace Compassion boosts Happiness

Workplace compassion boosts employee happiness and helps de-escalate stress. (Photo via Leon Brocard, flickr.com/acme)

In recent years, the leading thinkers of our time — theologians, psychologists and business experts — have sought to reclaim the idea of “compassion.” They propose that compassion is a virtue everyone can aspire to and benefit from, not just the saintly or sappy. Workplace compassion in particular is now praised as powerful leadership technique proven to improve employee happiness and de-escalate stress.

The trend can be traced in part to a February 2008 TED Talk by Karen Armstrong, a British scholar on religion in the modern world. She makes the case for bringing spiritual leaders worldwide together around the goal of building compassion. She got a fast response. Her call was answered with the creation of the International Charter of Compassion.  Soon her ideas were spreading among human resource professionals. For example, in 2011 the Louisville chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management joined the Charter to further compassion in the City of Louisville and its business community.

Compassion was already under discussion before Armstrong’s inspirational talk. The year before, another TED Talk participant, Daniel Goleman, argued that compassion is “a simple act of noticing.”

In 2010, TED Talker Krista Tippett, host of the nationally syndicated radio program On Being, called for a “linguistic resurrection,” for the word “compassion” to be disassociated from the realm of idealism. In a culture obsessed with perfection and hiding problems, she suggested we think of compassion as more than saintly tolerance.

Tippett proposed that real compassion is showing up, paying attention and acting on our curiosity, without assumptions.

It turns out treating employees with compassion reaps positive results. Managers have traditionally believed that putting pressure on employees improves performance. What it does instead is make people sick, unhappy and more stressed than ever, according to Emma Seppala, Ph.D., associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University.

Compassion is an effective alternative, she says.

“A new field of research is suggesting that when organizations promote an ethic of compassion rather than a culture of stress, they may not only see a happier workplace but also an improved bottom line,” Seppala writes in a Greater Good Science Center blog post, “Why Compassion in Business Makes Sense.”

Seppala says the new findings debunk long-held assumptions about leadership and power.

“Despite this research, managers may shy away from compassion for fear of appearing weak. Yet history is filed with leaders who were highly compassionate and very powerful — Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu, to name a few. They were such strong and inspiring leaders that people would drop everything to follow them. Wouldn’t any manager wish for that kind of loyalty and commitment?”

Compassion can also be interpreted as “companionate love,” a term coined and explored by a team of professors from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and the George Mason University School of Management. The researchers found that a culture that supports companionate love — defined as listening more, being careful with coworkers’ feelings and sharing affection — reduces emotional exhaustion, absenteeism and other forms of employee withdrawal.

Interestingly, employees may not necessarily need to feel the love in order to benefit from a culture of companionate love. It’s a classic case of faking it ’til you make it. Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade sums up what he and other researchers discovered:

“The view that dominated our field for 20 years was that anytime you engage in emotional labor — meaning you’re changing or regulating your emotions for a wage — that’s going to lead to burnout. What we’re suggesting is that it’s more complicated than that. It may well be that even if you don’t start out feeling the culture of love — even if you’re just enacting it — it can lead to these positive outcomes. In addition, there is the possibility that as you enact companionate love, you will begin to feel it over time.”

Check out this Charter for Compassion resource page for more information and ideas on workplace compassion.

For more on fostering a lasting culture of compassion, appreciation and happiness in your workplace, download our FREE Guide to Workplace Gratitude. Click the image below and start sharing your gratitude today!

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