Why We Need Compassion in the Workplace

You walk into work and can’t even make it to your cubicle without being assaulted by 3 different coworkers, impatiently making requests.  You walk through the cube farm to the bathroom and not a single employee greets you.  Your coworker is suffering from a dreaded disease, but feels isolated and afraid of repercussions in his job if “word gets out”.  This is a not a compassionate workplace and it’s having an impact on the bottom line.


It’s easy for those in the ivory tower to believe that “carrot and stick” leadership is the best way to increase market share and fat bonus checks, but studies now show that is not the case.  In a study by Wharton and O’Neill from George Mason University, they found “that compassionate love does matter across a broad range of industries, including those as diverse as real estate, finance and public utilities.”  O’Neill continues by saying,  “But the interesting thing is that even though the overall baseline of compassionate love can differ across industries, there was as much of a difference within industries as between industries.  Overall, we found that — regardless of the industry baseline — to the extent that there’s a greater culture of compassionate love, that culture is associated with greater satisfaction, commitment and accountability.”  Happy, satisfied, committed employees make for a better workplace.


Here is why you need to create a compassionate workplace:


  • Better health for everyone.  In a Boston Globe article by Richard Williams, Wallace Higgins and Harvey Greenberg, they cited numerous research studies regarding leadership style and the health of employees.  They concluded “your boss can cause you stress, induce depression and anxiety, or even trigger the onset of serious illnesses.  It is not just bad managers who can negatively affect employee health, but it is also the lackadaisical and mediocre who put employees on the sick list.”  And the cost is huge in terms of lost productivity, healthcare costs and employee turnover.


  • Regardless of technology, we still need personal connection.  With the overabundant use of social media and texting, it’s easy to hide behind technology, rather than reaching out and connecting personally with others.  As Bill Taylor wrote for Harvard Business Review, “In a world that is being shaped by the relentless advance of technology, what stands out are acts of compassion and connection that reminds us what it means to be human.”  It reminded Taylor of a story that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos told students at a Princeton University convocation.  His grandmother use to chastise him by reminding him, “It’s harder to be kind than clever.”  Don’t forget to try and be kind to your co-workers.


  • Compassion relieves our own suffering.  In The Book of Joy, written by the Dali Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, both put forth the 8 pillars of Joy.  The seventh pillar is Compassion.  The Dali Lama puts it well when he says that, “When we think of alleviating other people’s suffering, our own suffering is reduced.  This is the true secret to happiness.”  This seems counter intuitive to me.  Like borrowing trouble from someone else.  But I know when I had to lay off a group of employees many years back, when I was compassionate and understanding, some of the departing employees actually hugged me and I was relieved.  That shared compassion is what helped me cope with an unenviable situation.


  • The greatest correlation between profitability and productivity is a compassionate leader.  As Christina Boedker of the Australian School of Business found in her research, the ability of a leader to be compassionate.  “[Understanding] people’s motivators, hopes and difficulties and to create the right support mechanism to allow people to be as good as they can be” was the single greatest indicator towards success.  Time to throw out the carrots and sticks.


  • Teams with compassion surpass those who are not.  As Ray Williams wrote for Psychology Today, “The new science of altruism and the physiological underpinnings of compassion are finally catching up with Darwin’s observations nearly 130 years ago, that compassion is our strongest instinct.”  Jonathan Haidt, author of Righteous Mind, reflects the view of Edward O. Wilson, David Sloan Wilson and others, who argue that when groups of animals compete, it’s the cohesive, cooperative, internally altruistic groups that win and pass on their genes.”  Teams who care about each other are more successful.


This can be a difficult sell to the Powers that Be.  I had a manager tell me once that, “I’m not going to do all the Kum-ba-yah stuff.”  She had a much more difficult time getting the results from her group.  Don’t we prefer to work with others that are compassionate?  It starts with us.

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