Sometimes you become aware of the same topic coming at you from different directions. That’s how it is for me at the moment with compassion in the workplace. I’m hearing about compassionate leadership, mainly in the context of the UK’s NHS, and I’m hearing too about compassionate performance management. There seem to be moves towards greater compassion in organisations of all kinds.
An article by Emma Seppala of Stanford University in Harvard Business Review (‘Why Compassion is a Better Managerial Tactic than Toughness’) quotes a study by Jonathan Haidt of New York University, showing that the more employees look up to their leaders and are moved by their compassion or kindness (a state he terms elevation), the more loyal they become to those leaders. Anyone else who has witnessed this behaviour may also experience elevation and feel more loyal. Equally, responding with anger or frustration (or indeed other negative behaviours) erodes loyalty.
In other words, compassion increases our willingness to trust: our brains respond more positively to bosses who have shown us empathy – and various studies have shown that compassion increases the health and wellbeing not only of employees but also of the bottom line.
Seppala also finds that compassion and curiosity increase employee loyalty and trust. It doesn’t take more than a few moments’ thought for me to recall individuals I’ve worked with in organisations where insensitive or harsh criticism, lacking empathy, or even dismissiveness, provoke anxiety, stress and distrust, and erodes confidence. As a result, willingness to take responsibility and the courage to be creative are diminished, which in turn slows down or even blocks the flow that is so critical to organisational effectiveness and to the innovation that is the lifeblood of organisational development.
Ironically, we see this especially in organisations which are highly results-focused: the more their management and leadership styles focus on the tasks that are part of getting things done, the less attention is paid to nurturing and developing the people who are to fulfil the tasks. So the pace of task completion slows down, the pressure increases, and even less attention is paid to the people.
This extends too to the physical environment that the employer provides: investment in comfortable and attractive furniture, even down to clean crockery, gives the message to staff (and visitors) that they matter. One of the things that struck me on a recent visit to a FTSE 250 company was both how shabby the environment was and how dispirited the mood seemed to be amongst employees. I can’t help wondering about the connection between the two.
When compassion is low, trust is reduced, engagement and levels of discretionary effort are correspondingly low, retention and successful recruitment grow more difficult, stress and absenteeism are high, reputation (for the wrong things) grows, and success becomes more elusive. Conversely, when compassion is high, so too are organisational vibrancy, employee happiness, and the tendency towards sustained effectiveness and success.
Simple really. It’s just about being human and bringing humanity to work.