Prior to COVID, the way in which we worked has long taken a toll on many. We need to admit the problems, take stock and reimagine a future that works for everyone. This article discusses why compassion is good for business and how leaders can show it.
“Nothing should go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working. If we go back to the way things were, we will have lost the lesson. May we rise up and do better.”
Many business leaders firmly believe that a ‘tough stance’ approach is the only way to keep people on top of their game. They believe that compassion has no place in the corporate realm. These leaders mistakenly think that constantly applying pressure on employees will boost their efforts. What this approach does instead is to increase stress. Research shows that this all too common strategy has a number of damaging costs to both employees and employers. Given our current state of unpredictability, the benefits of building an ethic of compassion rather than a culture of stress, seems more pressing than ever.
Compassion = Empathy + Action
A useful definition of compassion at work was gleaned at a recent Compassion in Leadership Summit that I attended. Simply put, compassion is where empathy meets action. As Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn explains, “Compassion is putting yourself in the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their lens for the sake of alleviating their suffering.” A simple example would be to provide leave time to someone who’s child is sick, or otherwise needs to attend to personal business. Another would be to lessen the load of an employee who is overwhelmed with tasks or projects.
Reality: People are Stressed Out
Prior to COVID, research showed that 60 percent of workers suffer from work related stress that costs US businesses more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal and insurance costs. Health care spending for people with high levels of stress were 46 percent greater than at similar organizations with low levels of stress. Stress in the workplace has been linked to negative health outcomes such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. It also ramps up employee turnover: stressed out employees are far more likely to be looking for a new job. After all, would you want to work for a boss who yells at you for calling in sick or needing time away to look after an aging parent?
On top of all of this, the current pandemic has thrown another layer of concern, pain and suffering into the mix. Job loss is at record highs. Individuals and families are under stress like never before. Many face both financial and health hardships. We all know people and businesses that are struggling mightily. Working from home, trying to home school and look after one’s kids and meet work obligations, has pushed many to the max. If ever there was a time to show compassion, the time is now.
Impact: Decreased Stress & Improved Health
A compassionate workplace supports your people’s efforts to manage their stress. One simple way to reduce their stress is to encourage colleagues to socialize at work. When encouraged to catch up for a few minutes, people are more likely to strike up conversations about what goes on in their lives outside of the office. It is these types of positive social interactions that provide verdant soil for social bonding. In turn these connections have been shown to decrease psychological distress and boost one’s health. Decreased stress means employees are less likely to burnout and more likely to lean harder into their work.
For the many of us who are currently working from home, a leader can display caring by conducting a check-in with everybody at the beginning of staff meetings on Zoom. Similarly, a simple, “how are you doing?” text from the boss or a colleague can go a long way to lessening another’s sense of isolation and stress. Knowing others care, particularly your employer, can foster a deepened sense of commitment and appreciation for one’s job.
Fostering better health through lessening stress has a huge cascading impact over an individual’s life outside of work too. Healthy, happier people tend to have better relations with family members, cook healthier meals and be more physically active. These same people are less likely to need to use sick time, which is also a boost to the company’s bottom line.
An obvious benefit of compassion in the workplace is improved talent retention. People much prefer to have a boss who is capable of showing empathy and understanding rather than one who does not. Studies show that organizations in which compassion prevails, employees have increased job satisfaction, loyalty, dedication and higher levels of engagement.
Compassion is Contagious
Many business leaders fear that showing compassion might allow their people to take advantage of their kindness but research shows the opposite is true. When leaders show up in a considerate and cooperative manner, their team members are more likely to reciprocate.
Cooperative behavior cascades across social networks. Research shows that recipients of civil and understanding acts from others showed a desire to pay-it-forward. Each person who was treated kindly, wanted to extend generosity towards others.
People tend to feel good about themselves when they’re treated with compassion. In turn, they are much more likely to extend those positive feelings to others. Acts of generosity and kindness beget more generosity in a chain reaction of positive interactions. Office productivity is much more likely to climb when team members are cooperating, rather than competing with each other’s efforts. This is precisely how culture is formed.
The Three Skills of a Compassionate Leader: Awareness, Mindset, Action
Scott Shute, Head of Mindfulness and Compassion, at LinkedIn defines compassionate leaders as:
- Having the capacity for awareness of others
- A mindset of wishing the best for others
- The courage to take action
Awareness of others means being present to what is happening for the other people around us. Obviously our mindset affects how we act and how we treat other people and the goal here is to develop an attitude of genuine caring for another’s wellbeing.
The courage to take action means being willing to be potentially uncomfortable, to step into another’s shoes and see things from a different perspective. This latter view may put us in a position to see and acknowledge our own shortfalls. An example is setting the intention to ask a team member about how they are doing and then deeply listen to their answer. With that intention we will gain the courage to take that action, even when it may involve a course correction from us.
Hopefully the above research and examples demonstrate the case for more compassion at work and in one’s leadership. Compassion in business is a concept that seems both long overdue and vital for successful organizations going forward.