Is There a Place for Compassion in Business?

By Patricia Thompson

I recently coached a senior executive I’ll call Stephanie, who was grappling with a pretty common dilemma in the business world: her organization’s profits were nowhere near where they had been projected to be, and her impatient CEO wasn’t happy about it. She and her colleagues were feeling intense pressure to perform and feared that they would lose their jobs if they were unable to turn things around.

To cope with the situation, Stephanie decided to mirror what her boss was doing with her. That meant “turning up the heat” on the members of her team so they would understand the gravity of the situation. After all, she reasoned, if everyone shared her sense of stress, they would feel a need to work with heightened intensity and resolve. They would be more engaged and efficient. Their productivity would increase. In turn, this would help them to accomplish their goals and contribute to greater profits.

Based on my experience working with leaders, Stephanie’s line of reasoning is extremely common. Although the tides are shifting in some businesses, in others, many leaders have been taught that when things aren’t going well, they need to apply performance tension. They believe that this will cause people will feel threatened so they will take their work seriously. Then, and only then, will people dig down deep and perform at their best.

Perhaps this logic is a vestige of what social psychologist Douglas McGregor’s dubbed Theory-X almost 50 years ago. McGregor characterized Theory-X as the notion that workers are inherently unmotivated and must be controlled in order to perform in accordance with the goals of management. He believed this model was a product of the industrial age—a time during which workers were cogs in the wheel of the company.

The only problem is, research suggests that this hard-nosed approach doesn’t work.

The Real Outcomes of Applying Intense Pressure to Perform

Although many people ascribe to the logic that when people are pressured they will do better, the wide array of research on stress suggests that stress causes people to be less effective, not more. Heightened levels of workplace stress are linked to increased absenteeism, turnover, and accidents, and lower levels of performance and organizational productivity. In their Harvard Business Review article entitled Manage Your Emotional Culture, Barsade and O’Neill reported that “negative emotions such as group anger, sadness, fear, and the like usually lead to negative outcomes.”

In high-pressure organizations such as Stephanie’s, employees often increase the number of hours worked in an effort to meet the high demands of the job. While this might help them to keep up in the short-term, across time, this increased work can often lead to work-family conflict, which in turn, creates additional stress for the individual. And, the irony of all of this is that research suggests that workaholism isn’t even linked to greater performance on the job.

In addition to the ramifications for performance, demanding workplaces have psychological and physical consequences. For instance, research has shown that employees who work for abusive supervisors are more likely to report emotional exhaustion. Individuals who report a high degree of job strain are also at greater risk for cardiovascular disease. White collar professionals who work more than 10 hours a day were found to have a 60% increased risk of heart problems compared to their peers. The impact on the bottom line is health expenditures that are 46% higher for employees in high stress environments, compared to those in organizations with lower stress.

What’s a better alternative? Compassion.

What Does Compassion in the Workplace Look Like?

In my experience, for many business leaders, the word “compassion” can be almost cringe-inducing. For results-oriented professionals whose main focus is on getting things done, the word can sound too “touchy-feely.” Many managers associate compassion with weakness, under-performance, or letting people get away with shoddy work. And, because many focus on measurable outcomes and hard data, compassion can seem too intangible or ambiguous. As a result, compassion is often dismissed as something unworthy of attention.

During my career as a corporate psychologist, I’ve asked thousands of people to describe their best boss—not necessarily the boss they liked the most, but the one who played the biggest role in helping them to grow and succeed. One of the most common qualities I heard during these interviews was that people appreciated a boss who took a genuine interest in them and cared about them as a person. In other words, they thrived under bosses who were compassionate.

So, why are so many professionals leery of the term?

Compassion simply refers to a sense of connection. It involves recognizing and honoring everyone’s shared humanity. Instead of treating employees like they are a means to an end, compassion demands that they not only care about one another, but are willing to show it.

We all want a sense of connection. We want to feel valued. And, when employees feel that connection and validation at work, they don’t “take advantage” of the system as Theory-X might predict. Instead, they flourish.

In a Harvard Business Review article, Emma Seppälä and Kim Cameron outlined six characteristics of a compassionate workplace:

  • Caring for, being interested in, and maintaining responsibility for colleagues as friends.
  • Providing support for one another, including offering kindness and compassion when others are struggling.
  • Avoiding blame and forgiving mistakes.
  • Inspiring one another at work.
  • Emphasizing the meaningfulness of the work.
  • Treating one another with respect, gratitude, trust, and integrity.

On first blush, I’m sure most of us would want to work in such an environment. But do these sorts of workplaces actually lead to productivity?

Compassionate Workplaces Get Results

Over the past decade, the researchers responsible for Google’s Project Aristotle have sought to uncover the variables associated with the highest team performance. To that aim, they collected a wide array of information ranging from the personality composition of groups, to group members’ preference for various rewards, and even how frequently teams ate lunch together. They then sliced and diced the data in an effort to find the magic bullet that would predict effective collaboration and greater team performance.

They discovered that the critical factor associated with high team performance was a concept called psychological safety, which Harvard Business School professor, Amy Edmundson defines as “a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.” In other words, the most effective teams were compassionate. They created spaces where people were more likely to express their points of view, and where their opinions were considered by others. The underlying sense of trust and empathy amongst these types of groups facilitated greater collaboration, authenticity, support, and openness.

In a longitudinal study, Barsade and O’Neill found that healthcare employees who felt a sense of companionate love (i.e. warmth, affection, and connection) at work showed higher levels of job satisfaction and teamwork, and lower levels of absenteeism. In turn, a compassionate culture was associated with better patient outcomes such as improved quality of life, better mood, increased satisfaction, and fewer trips to the emergency room. The study’s authors reported that these results also held up in a follow-up study in other industries, with employees who felt love reporting greater work satisfaction, organizational commitment, and accountability on the job.

In her book Love 2.0, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson coined the term “positivity resonance,” which she defined as occurring any time two people share a positive emotion. Positivity resonance occurs for example, when you share a joke with a colleague, or when your boss provides you with positive feedback for a job well done. In her book, she cited research that suggests that positivity resonance is linked to greater trust, heightened emotional intelligence, and a greater willingness to consider others’ perspectives. In one study, a mere 10-minute pleasant conversation led to improved performance on an IQ test.

In short, compassionate workplaces lead to a greater sense of connection amongst employees. They create a space in which individuals are able to be vulnerable, take interpersonal risks, express their opinions, and collaborate effectively. And, in contrast to what some leaders may fear, being compassionate doesn’t mean you have to let people walk all over you or underperform. After all, compassionate people can also exhibit self-compassion, which would mean that they would have boundaries and uphold standards. But compassion makes the difference between corrective feedback being communicated in a way that made the employee cared for, as opposed to shamed; loyal, as opposed to resentful; and hopeful, as opposed to deflated.

In sum, compassionate workplaces are a win-win for everyone involved. Employees who work within them benefit by feeling more connected, less stressed, and freer to be their authentic selves. Companies benefit through greater productivity, enhanced problem-solving, better collaboration, and increased performance.

Dr. Patricia Thompson is a corporate psychologist and the President of Silver Lining Psychology, a management consulting firm in which she helps organizations to achieve greater success through executive coaching, team building, and personality assessment for hiring. A frequent writer and media contributor, her advice has been featured in The Harvard Business ReviewForbesFast CompanyTIMEEntrepreneur, CNN, and many other outlets.

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

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