It’s cool to be compassionate

Read time, 2min 30secs

These blogs were intended to be written swiftly over a cup of coffee. This one means so much to me that I’m already on my third Americano and way over my self-imposed word limit. So, with the jitters and an element of verbosity, I share with you my thoughts on building a culture that cares…

True compassion means not only feeling another’s pain but also being moved to help relieve it.

                                                                                                                                                              Daniel Goleman, EI Guru

Little things make a big difference.  I had dinner with wonderful old friends on Friday night. One friend reminded me of the ‘Free Hugs’ she offered at Waterloo station on behalf of our employer; the palliative and neurological care charity, Sue Ryder.  Whilst not everyone wanted a hug from Liz, that connection gave joy to at least a few folks as they battled public transport that day. In a busy world, time out to connect with others is increasingly important.  Such acts of kindness as a ‘Free Hug’ or making a colleague a cup of tea, are a fantastic starting point for building a culture where we look out for the needs of others.  The raison d’être of Sue Ryder is to care for others, but they recognised the importance of demonstrating this in all that they do, and in getting all staff involved whether working in care roles or in the Head Office.

I couldn’t be more passionate about the need for compassion and care in the workplace.  I was told on a number of occasions in my early career that I’m ‘too nice’.  There was an undertone to these suggestions that wasn’t lost on me.  Displaying compassion and empathy were somehow viewed as weak, and I needed to show greater emotional detachment at work.  I wasn’t offering free hugs in the canteen – I was merely demonstrating care and concern for those around me. I’ve since come to find that compassion and kindness to others, whether through small acts of kindness such as Sue Ryder’s ‘Free Hugs’ or through getting to know people as individuals, isn’t weak at all. I can be compassionate toward others whilst still offering supportive challenge, and holding others to account. In fact, I’m often the person championing the need for courageous conversations.  Workplaces can be kind and courageous.

Like many of you, I’ve also worked within workplaces where process regularly takes precedence over the needs of people; any action is condoned as long as the end outcome is achieved.  Such cultures are unhealthy and are fraught with cultural issues that aren’t sustainable for long-term success. The research stacks up in favour of kind workplaces to drive high performance and engagement. An important connection has been found between compassion in teams and ongoing team connection and performance (Frost et al, 2000), and a strong link between compassionate leadership and high employee engagement (Lilius et al. 2008). People care that we care. 

A taster of some of the amazing work in this field

I’ve loved reading about the work of the research group forming under Compassion Lab in this area , who are trying to increase the extent of research in the field and to raise the level of conversation about ‘compassion at work.’  If you want to read more about compassion at work, I can definitely recommend having a google and a read of their work.

I came across a fab research project a while ago from the great bunch at Roffey Park.  Meysam Poorkavoos conducted research on compassion and work with Roffey Park in 2016 and designed a Compassion at Work Index (CWI) to profile compassionate leadership traits. You can complete this here: I loved this research because it breaks ‘compassion’ down into five core areas, which illustrate why compassion isn’t ‘soft’ or ‘fluffy.’

The five areas the CWI focuses on are:

  • Being alive to the suffering of others. (Being sensitive to the well-being of others, and noticing any change in their behavior).
  • Being non-judgmental. (Not Judging others, and validating their experience).
  • Tolerating personal distress. (The ability to bear others’ distress – it doesn’t overwhelm to the point of preventing action).
  • Being empathic. (Understanding the sufferer’s pain and feeling it as if it were one’s own).
  • Take appropriate action. (Taking appropriate action to support the sufferer).

Setting the temperature for a compassionate culture

Empathy is putting ourselves into the shoes of another person, and seeing the world through their eyes. Compassion takes this a step further – it is about caring for another’s experience, and taking action to alleviate their suffering.  It is all too easy to read about other’s suffering in the newspaper or to notice someone struggling at work and to do nothing. There is a whole body of work on bystander apathy and diffusion of responsibility – in short, we assume someone else will do something.  In the wise words of Cory Booker, US Senator;

You can be like a thermometer, just reflecting the world around you. Or you can be a thermostat, one of those people who sets the temperature.”

Cory Booker, US Senator

1.  Make an effort to get to know people. Ask others if they had a good weekend, and take the time to actually listen to the answer. Take the time to introduce yourself to new people at work. It’s only superficial if you don’t genuinely want to get to know the other person.

2.  Lead by example in displaying compassion, no matter what ‘level’ of the organisation you’re employed at. Offer help and support to others, and condolences when they’re going through a hard time. This creates a ripple effect of kindness. People who are treated with kindness, often seek to ‘pay it forward’ and to offer kindness to others in return.

3.  As a leader, role model compassion as a core organisational value others should aspire to. Melwani et al. (2012) found that people who act compassionately are perceived to be stronger leaders. Great leaders lead from the heart, and inspire others through kindness and support.

4Make space for informal connection. Don’t allow yourself or your team to enter into the ‘busyness trap’ – so busy on a treadmill of ‘doing’ that we think we don’t have time to stop and chat. Yes, certainly get your work done, but think of a ‘chat’ as a connection instead of wasting time.

5Invite more authenticity and open communication in the workplace. Allow for honest and open debate, act without judgment and respond to issues with curiosity – an issue needs to be explored, not ‘acted’ upon.

7.  Welcome and celebrate compassionate behaviour. It demonstrates the value placed on these behaviours and provides greater meaning for people at work. I’ve recently left a role at the National Physical Laboratory where 10% of the workplace are trained as Mental Health First Aiders, trained and able to support their colleagues in times of mental distress. Each person was publicly and privately thanked for their contribution. I was blown away by how motivated people were to make a difference to the lives and experiences of others.

8.  Keep perspective. There are times when command and control are needed in the workplace, but I have rarely worked in a workplace where the nature of the work demands this. We nearly always have time for exploring concerns with others.

9Leave your ego at the door. No matter your craft, leave your ego at the door and respect the contribution of all those around you. You’re never too senior, too ‘expert’ or too ‘busy’ to show care and compassion to others.

Acting with compassion is something we need to openly encourage and practice daily, and we need to challenge where this doesn’t take place.  It’s cool to be compassionate.

So, what will you do today to encourage compassion in your workplace or in your client’s workplace?




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