Revitalizing our workplaces with compassion

Many of today’s organizations have become transactional and dehumanized.

The professionals I work with increasingly tell me that they feel their employer treats them more like a human resource than a human being, and we have become so dependent on technology as a means of communication that opportunities to connect and care for each other on a basic human level are diminishing.

We are so caught up in a culture of “busyness” that we barely have time to care about ourselves, let alone our colleague across the hall. In search of human connection, many people spend more time at work than with family members, but few of us have a colleague we trust enough to share our weaknesses and talk to about the things that worry us.

To be human is to suffer, but our struggles can be hidden from work. As a result, compassion as a core human value is too often overlooked in the business world. Many leaders believe that too much kindness is weak leadership, and instead advocate toughness and strength. However, there are many reasons to disregard this approach.

Companies that integrate compassion into their business achieve better financial results, have higher employee retention, and encourage customer loyalty because employees and customers give back when they feel cared for and valued. Spontaneous acts of compassion occur every day among colleagues in the workplace when we feel compelled to help someone going through a difficult time. However, companies where compassion is practiced both systemically and systemically are few and far between. So what does it take to create a culture of compassion?

There are four building blocks that help companies embed compassion into their organizational DNA:

Companies can have the most beautiful visions and the best laid plans, but if the culture is not conducive, compassion will not thrive.

In compassionate companies, hierarchies are often hard to see. The physical spaces in these companies also look and feel different, such as office spaces where those in formal positions of power are often indistinguishable from other employees. Colleagues treat each other with a sense of equality and mutual respect, with no one being more important than another.

When compassion is embedded in the corporate culture, the company places its employees at the center of its actions. Its values are likely to include words like “trust,” “equality,” “balance,” “respect,” and “caring,” and employees at all levels embody these values in the way they treat each other and the way they interact with their clients or customers.

Take the example of Innocent Drinks, the London-based smoothie and fruit drink company. The main building, aptly named Fruit Towers, is designed as a community space with a communal kitchen at its heart. Employees use this space daily to meet and eat together, allowing relationships to be built and maintained.

Compassion cannot be decreed from above, but leaders are an inescapable focal point because they have the power to foster compassion and mobilize resources by example.

Take Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, the world’s largest social network for professionals, for example. He has focused the entire company on compassionate leadership. The company regularly hosts “In-Days,” where employees are asked to clear their schedules and spend time with their teams. This time away from tasks and goals helps employees get to know each other better and builds trust and connection.

Self-compassion is also encouraged: Each employee is given an annual budget to spend on things that make their lives easier, such as childcare or a gym membership, and Weiner himself has developed an online course called “Managing Compassionately.” In this course, he shares his own experiences of the importance of learning to manage compassionately and talks about the need to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to try to understand their problems. He also emphasizes how important it is for team leaders to understand the triggers and vulnerabilities of each team member.

Social networks
Social networks are emotional highways in the workplace because people naturally form networks of relationships where they can gossip, share information, discuss their personal lives or give each other advice. The speed and strength of social networks are the building blocks of corporate compassion.

With its 74,000 employees, you might expect Cisco’s social networks to be slower than those of a small company. But at this company, news of employee suffering spreads quickly. In a 2018 media interview, one employee recounted how an executive he had never met learned about his daughter’s life-threatening genetic condition on the Cisco network and rallied around her team to raise money for medical treatment, which Cisco then contributed. Cisco has become known for its coordinated and systematic compassion, which is part of what the company calls its “conscious culture.”

Systems and practices
It is the policies and procedures that anchor the culture and help embed compassion in organizations.

Research has shown that work practices based on trust and respect, such as transparent communication, participatory decision making, and favorable human resources policies, are conducive to a compassionate culture. It is also clear that those companies that promote humanity and dignity in their systems and practices experience higher employee retention and engagement.

One example is the reward practices at U.S. fast food chain Shake Shack. As part of the company’s ethos of taking care of its teams, the food chain is now piloting a four-day work week. To combat low employee retention in the industry, the chain is also using the four-day week as part of its hiring efforts.

As we move into a world defined by artificial intelligence and automation, we need to be more aware than ever of the power of interpersonal relationships. Compassion is fast becoming an economic imperative, because it’s not money or professional success that makes us happy. It is the relationships we have with friends, colleagues and loved ones that are the key to life satisfaction. Close social ties help us cope with life’s ups and downs; they slow our mental and physical decline and are a better predictor of longevity and happiness than class, IQ and genes combined.

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