Compassion at work – what does that mean?

There has been a lot of interest in developing more compassionate work places but what do we mean by compassion and how can compassion inform the way we manage others at work?

Definitions of compassion often include a reference to suffering. But suffering is not usually a word we associate with workplaces.

However, we can certainly witness emotional pain and distress in workplaces. After all, we bring our whole selves to work and whilst we may be encouraged to leave our personal problems at the door it isn’t that simple is it?

A member of your team who has experienced a close bereavement is likely to be suffering. Or perhaps a large organisational restructure is creating anxiety and stress amongst your team members. Whether the problem is rooted in home lives or the workplace it is inevitable that organisations are emotional arenas (Dutton et al 2014).

Compassion is an interpersonal process which involves noticing the other person’s distress, feeling it ourselves, and taking action to enhance their well-being.

The literature on compassion at work sets out a compelling case for this approach with clear benefits to individuals and organisations.

When we take a compassionate approach, we enable the other person to feel valued, and maintain feelings of dignity and self-worth.

If our manager treats us with compassion, then we view them and the organisation as caring. It also shapes how we see ourselves in terms of our competence and capability.

And just as third parties are affected by instances of bullying that they witness, we are also affected when we observe compassion – only the affect is positive, making us proud to be part of the organisation.

Compassion leads to higher quality relationships with co-workers, greater commitment to the organisation and lower turnover rates.

For compassion to be embedded within an organisation it is essential that staff feel safe to express feelings of anxiety and stress, emotional pain and suffering. And managers need to have the skills to notice, to care and feel empathetic concern for the other person, and make sense of what is happening, so they can take appropriate and timely action.

Dutton J., Workman K., Hardin A., (2014) Compassion at Work Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior Vol 1 2014

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