Many people are confused by or uncomfortable with the concept of compassion in the workplace. With the growing emphasis on metrics, efficiency and productivity, work is becoming more impersonal. Employees think they must leave their emotions and personal problems at home. Even if you successfully “leave your personal problems at the door,” the emotions related to those problems will affect your work. In addition, problems at work occur on an almost daily basis and those problems generate emotions. So, when you are in emotional or physical pain, co-workers may be uncertain about how to respond. Do they ignore the pain or do they show compassion and if so how much and what should they do?
Compassion on the job is both proper and powerful. In a series of studies, Professor Jane Dutton and her associates at the University of Michigan found that compassion has a positive impact in the workplace. It affects attitudes, work meaning and behavior. According to Dutton, when people experience compassion at work – whether they show compassion, receive it from a co-worker or simply see it – these compassionate acts increase job satisfaction, reduce stress, and increase employees’ sense of well-being.(1) If you are still not comfortable with the idea of compassion in the workplace, think of it as kindness or caring, which are synonyms for compassion.Compassion and kindness are part of the upward positive cycle of well-being. Compassion leads to more compassion.
Compassion means different things to different people. For our purpose, we will use the definition in the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Unlike empathy, which is the ability to understand another person’s experience or emotions, compassion is broader and more proactive. An act of compassion may be as simple as listening to a co-worker without giving advice, taking a break together or sending an email to cheer up a co-worker. Or, compassion may mean helping a team-mate solve a problem or complete a task. It means giving another person the help they want and are willing to accept. Part of compassion is being will to accept “no” to your offer of help.
We are Hardwired for Compassion
Right, now you are thinking, “People may see me as weak if I show compassion.” We have centuries of philosophical writings that support this notion. Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) wrote, “Sympathy as a good-natured emotion is always blind and weak.” Later, Ayn Rand wrote “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” We grew up hearing these and similar messages.
Contrary to these ideas, science has proven that we are hardwired for compassion. Recent research in psychology and physiology has discovered that our brains and bodies respond automatically to people in need. But, like other body systems, we must exercise to fully develop our capacity. When we see or feel physical or emotional pain the anterior cingulate cortex in the front areas of your brain is activated along with the amygdala deep inside the brain, which is the fight or flight area of the brain. In addition, the nurturing area of the brain – the periaqueductal gray area in the center of the brain is also triggered. When our brain realized that the body is not threatened, the nurturing area takes over.
The vagus nerve, which is part of the body’s autonomic nervous system, responds to seeing or feeling pain. Showing compassion stimulates this nerve, reducing heart rate, improving digestion, and strengthening the immune system. (2) Finally, the pituitary gland releases oxytocin. More commonly known as the “love drug” it produces oxytocin, which strengthens social recognition, connectedness and helping behavior. Like other body systems, these compassion components must be trained and exercised regularly if they are to work properly and support our well-being.
In ancient China, Confucius (551 – 479 BC) wrote, Wisdom, compassion, and courage are the three universally recognized moral qualities of men. These three are your greatest treasures. Approximately 100 years later and half a world away, the Greek philosopher Plato (427 – 347 BC) said, Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. These two wise men speaking to us from the ancient past summarize the reason and requirements for compassion in the workplace.
Everyone at work is “fighting a hard battle” to do their jobs while maintaining their well-being. You need wisdom, compassion and courage to do this. Identify a co-worker who seems to be “fighting a bard battle” at this time. What can you do to show compassion for that person? Next: Practical Compassion
- Dutton, J.E., & Workman, K.M. (2012). “Compassion as a Generative Force” Journal of Management Inquiry, 20, 401-406. http://webuser.bus.umich.edu/janedut/Compassion/Journal%20of%20Management%20Inquiry-2011-Dutton-1056492611421077.pdf
- Keltner, Dachter, “The Compassionate Species,” The Greater Good Science Center,University of California Berkley, July 31, 2012, http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_compassionate_species