by Bronwyn Fryer
Don’t look now, but all of a sudden the topic of compassionate management is becoming trendy.
A growing number of business conferences are focusing in on the topic of compassion at work. There’s the International Working Group on Compassionate Organizations. There’s the Changing Culture in the Workplace Conference. Then there’s Wisdom 2.0, dedicated to “exploring living with greater awareness, wisdom and compassion in the modern age.” The speakers are no slouches: eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Bill Ford (yes, that Bill Ford), Karen May (VP of Talent at Google), and Linked In CEO Jeff Weiner top the bill. At TED, Karen Armstrong’s talk about reviving the Golden Rule won the TED prize in 2009 and has given rise to a Charter for Compassion signed by nearly 100,000 people.
More evidence of this trend comes from the Conscious Capitalism movement, whose membership includes companies like Southwest Airlines, Google, the Container Store, Whole Foods Market, and Nordstrom. One of the cornerstones of the movement is to try to take care not just of your shareholders, but all stakeholders (investors, workers, customers, and so on). One member is Tata, the Indian conglomerate, who makes no bones about it: “Our purpose is to improve the quality of life of the communities we serve.”
While the importance of compassion at work has long been touted by scholars like Peter Senge,Fred Kofman, Jane Dutton and others as a foundational precept of good management, managers of the traditional, critical, efficiency-at-all-costs stripe have scoffed. This isn’t surprising: given the number of nasty managers still sitting at the top of organizations, it’s easy to assume that the compassionate ones don’t often get hired, let alone encouraged and promoted. In fact, a Notre Dame study found that nice guys really do finish last, with more agreeable people earning less than those who are willing to be disagreeable. And all too often, compassionate people lack boundaries, thus allowing themselves to be used and abused; they become “toxic handlers” who absorb the organizational pain without much personal gain.
But something in the zeitgeist is changing. At Wisdom 2.0, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner told the audience that he is on a personal mission to “expand the world’s collective wisdom and compassion,” and that he had made the practice of compassionate management a core value at the company. For example, he described a former colleague who was publicly disparaging someone on the team. Realizing that he’d made that mistake himself, Weiner took the fellow aside and said, “If you are going to do this, find a mirror and do it to yourself first. You’re projecting your perspective and assumptions onto that person.”
To manage compassionately, Weiner noted, doesn’t come naturally to most managers. It requires spending the time to walk in someone else’s shoes — to understand what kind of baggage that person is bringing to work; what kinds of stresses she’s under; what her strengths and weaknesses are. In high-pressure environments, such a time investment is anathema to most of us. But such an investment is analogous to the work of a carpenter who carefully measures a piece of wood three times before cutting once: spending such “compassion time” with an employee, Weiner insists, pays off in that person’s much greater efficiency, productivity and effectiveness (and obviates later regrets). It’s not just altruism: as it turns out, companies that practice conscious capitalism perform ten times better than companies that don’t.
Findings like this may be one reason for compassion’s rise in the workplace: perhaps years of research are finally making a dent. Over and over, it’s been shown that compassion concretely benefits the corporate bottom line. Marcus Buckingham’s work on employee engagement has shown that engagement is critical to organizational success. Plenty of others have shown that practicing compassion is good for your business. Consider what happened when a call-center company calledAppletree consciously set about increasing compassion among employees. The company set up the equivalent of a “Make A Wish” foundation to serve its adult employees, which it called “Dream On.” The CEO, John Ratliff, claimed that the gambit changed the culture of his company. (Call centers have a notoriously high turnover rate, largely because the employees listen to unhappy callers all day.) The Dream On program allowed employees to express compassion to each other on an everyday basis. As a result, the company’s turnover rate dropped from 97% to 33% within six months. (You can learn more about this story and much more about the effect of compassion in organizations here.)
The evidence also shows that compassion boosts employee well-being and health — another important contributor to the bottom line. And as my good friend Dr. Edward Hallowell shows in his book Connect: 12 Vital Ties that Open Your Heart, Lengthen Your Life and Deepen Your Soul, the more we compassionately connect, the better we feel, and the more others are there to support us when we need it, as even the most seemingly invulnerable of us someday, inevitably, will.
I also have a suspicion. It’s just a hunch, but I suspect most of us are experiencing cynicism fatigue. The overwhelmingly bad news springing from the news media leaves most people with two options: either they become cynics who drown themselves in their own pleasures, or they try to make a difference. Most of the smart people I know are little a bit of both, but they fight their cynical side. They try to work on something of worth at work and in the world. There is no better way to start doing this than to practice the golden rule on an hourly basis.
Of course, some of us are inherently more compassionate and empathetic than others. But the good news is that it’s possible to strengthen one’s compassion muscle — and so become a better manager. Researchers from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconson-Madison’s Waisman Center found that engaging in compassion meditation — where you practice feeling compassion for different groups of people, including yourself — seemed to increase a sense of altruism.
To me, this is all great news. The more compassion we can practice (starting right now), the better. And given that we spend so much of our lives at work, there is no better place to start than with the person in the next cubicle.