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How Compassion Can Lead to Stronger Bonds at Work


Authors: Monica C. Worline, Jane E. Dutton, Ashley E. Hardin Source: Harvard Business Review

Connecting with others is at the heart of human nature. Recent research emphasizes that the power of connections can help us be creative, resilient, even live longer. But we can easily overlook the importance of these bonds. As popular writer and researcher Adam Grant has noted, the pressure of tight deadlines and the pace of technology mean that fewer Americans are finding friendship in the workplace. In fact, many of us are further disconnecting from the people we work with: we’re more stressed out than ever, and half of us regularly experience incivility in our jobs.

How can we create possibilities for connection in what is sometimes a hostile atmosphere? We believe there needs to be more compassion.

We define compassion as a 4-part experience of noticing someone’s distress or pain, interpreting it as relevant and important, feeling concern for that person or group, and acting to alleviate their pain. As we talk about in our book, Awakening Compassion at Work, acts of compassion can span from grand and coordinated to small and personal.

Consider Patty, who was worried about returning to work after the death of her husband. The thing she dreaded most was arriving at an empty desk on Monday mornings because for the past 15 years Patty’s husband had ordered flowers to be delivered early on Monday mornings. Every Monday, a beautiful bouquet — and a symbol of their life together — graced Patty’s desk.

Summoning up her determination, Patty walked into the office. After saying hello to a few people, she moved toward her desk and caught a glimpse of a colorful bouquet of flowers waiting there. She fought back tears as she read a note from her coworkers, who also did not want her to come back to an empty desk. They cared for her so much that they had collected funds across the entire office and made arrangements for a fresh bouquet of flowers to be delivered every Monday for a year.

Compassion, whether a coordinated gesture or an individual one, increases meaning at work — and not just for Patty, but also for her colleagues and for all the people who see this human response unfold. Being compassionate changes how we see the value of the people who are part of our work world, shifts how we see ourselves, and helps us to see our organizations as more humane.

Our research highlights four ways that people can bring more compassion to work.

Sharpen Your Skills in Noticing Suffering

Signs of suffering at work are often subtle. Professional norms dictate that it’s not safe to express too much emotion, making it hard to see pain. Attuning ourselves emotionally to patterns in our colleagues, and making ourselves more physically and psychologically available, makes us better at picking up on what’s happening.

Alex described noticing that his coworker Ming-Jer was not enjoying the holiday party. Despite not knowing Ming-Jer well, Alex was concerned. He began by simply asking, “How are you doing, Ming-Jer?” Alex discovered that Ming-Jer was struggling with a chronic illness that was straining his finances and his relationships. Alex told us how much closer the two have become since that moment, and how meaningful the connection has made other aspects of his workplace.

Perfect Your Capacity for Inquiry

Norms about keeping personal and professional life separate can make it awkward to ask personal questions. Organizations such as Accenture and EY are now offering training programs on how to inquire in ways that fosters compassion. Asking “Are you okay?” is one example. This kind of question, asked in a genuine way with comfortable time and space, may increase a sense of safety and open space for compassion. That’s what happened with Alex and Ming-Jer.


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