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This article was first published in the April 2020 International edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

The idea of compassion in the workplace may seem irrelevant or even incompatible with running a business. However, research suggests that demonstrating compassion may reduce stress and boost performance – both in others and ourselves.

Psychologists broadly conceive of compassion as a sensitivity to another’s distress, which motivates actual action to help. More specifically, academics led by Clara Strauss at the University of Sussex considered compassion as having five elements:

  • noticing and recognising distress in an individual or group
  • understanding the universality of distress in human experience
  • feeling empathy for the distressed
  • tolerating any uncomfortable feelings aroused in response
  • taking action to alleviate that distress.

Empathy is considered just one component of compassion. Empathy is about feeling; compassion requires that action is taken to help.

People can experience distress as a result of workplace issues including high workloads, project failures, demanding clients, difficult colleagues, feelings of uncertainty and so on. But life also throws up challenges such as illness, grief or calamities such as terrorism, natural disasters or pandemics.

Management researchers led by Shimul Melwani at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that compassionate behaviour by individuals was associated with the perception that those individuals were more leader-like. In this context, compassion can be seen has having a socio-comparative purpose: it conveys information that the person behaving compassionately is in a better position (for example, more intelligent, resourceful, secure or emotionally stable) than the person being helped. As such, compassion may signal that a person is ready and able to oversee others. The fact that compassion may boost one’s leadership prospects is likely most relevant in organisations with flatter hierarchies and in which leaders are promoted based on merit rather than tenure.

Behavioural scientists led by Richard Boyatzis at Case Western Reserve University have assembled evidence showing that leaders who coach with compassion may get better results. Employees who feel fearful tend to be defensive. In contrast, those who feel that their managers sincerely care about their welfare are more open to possibility and learning.
Other studies show that employees who receive benevolent or generous behaviour in turn become more considerate and altruistic. As a result, a leader who coaches with real concern for others may trigger a cascade of similar behaviours in colleagues.

Organisations have a culture of compassion when individuals candidly express their thoughts, commonly talk about their feelings, and openly share stories about their home and work life. In contrast, other workplaces may have unspoken rules that employees either suppress personal feelings or express them only with great care as if their emotions are shameful.

As a leader, you can demonstrate compassion simply by asking the question ‘How are you?’ more, and then patiently giving people the opportunity to voice their thoughts and feelings without fear of repercussion. Sometimes, merely listening and showing concern for others can be a compassionate action.

Helping others may also help yourself. Social scientists headed by Hooria Jazaieri of the University of California, Berkeley observed that a nine-week programme of structured compassionate activities led to a decrease in anxiety in experimental participants. In terms of managing stressful situations, the participants also shifted away from using suppression strategies – which psychologists believe are less flexible and effective for managing negative emotions.

Another study led by Myriam Mongrain of York University in Canada found that just one week of practising compassion boosted happiness and self-esteem in 719 adults.

Furthermore, the slight but measurable benefit lasted for at least six months, showing that practising compassion may provide lasting mental health gains.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace.