A Case For Compassion in Global Business

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Have you heard about compassion? According to the Dalai Lama, compassion is “associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect toward the other.” A recent scholarly definition sees compassion as “an interpersonal process involving the noticing, feeling, sense making, and acting that alleviates the suffering of another person” (Dutton, Workman, & Hardin, 2014).

While compassion has long been established as a critical concept in religious and philosophical domains, it is nowadays largely used in the world of psychotherapy and is increasingly popular in titles of self-help books. Yet, in the world of business it seems to be a fairly distant concept, and might even imply lower productivity, decreased performance and potential organizational entropy. The sentiment may be understandable if we perceive, on the whole, businesses as results-oriented and outcome-driven, suggesting that pressure seems naturally the only right thing in such an environment.

Does the high-pressure environment truly lead to financial success though? And should compassion be left to the religious, soul-searching people, care workers, NGOs and other financially unambitious enterprises?

In fact, these assumptions are increasingly challenged by a growing body of research on the matter. First of all, there is a substantial body of research on positive organizational psychology, which builds a strong case against high-pressure business climates. As summarized in a relevant HBR article, although pressuring and pushing employees to perform better might have initial financial results, the costs of such strategies are noteworthy. Compared to positive environments, high-pressure organizations have greater stress-related health care costs, lower engagement, higher absenteeism, and lack loyalty. There is no doubt that every manager understands how these trends relate not only to employees’ wellbeing, but also to businesses financial outcomes.

Secondly, new scientific evidence indicates the clear benefits of compassionate climates. In their review of research on compassion at work, Dutton and colleagues (2014) highlight that receiving compassion at work promotes positive emotions, reduces anxiety, and increases attachment, commitment and gratitude towards the organization. In compassionate climates people also feel valued. On the side of compassion ‘providers’, research indicates that compassionate people are perceived more strongly as leaders. Finally, at the level of collective benefits, compassion seems to connect people, create more interpersonal trust, and induce higher levels of positive emotions, greater collective commitment and lower turnover rates. Again, it is not difficult to connect all these outcomes to general wellbeing, both of employees and the organization as a whole.

Naturally, as good of a thing as compassion can be, practicing it might not be that easy. For example, one empirical study of compassion through the lens of practicing managers (Banker & Bhal, 2020) revealed several ‘vicious’ factors, which hinder compassion in organizations. Specifically, managers reported that excessive focus on short-term goals, high work pressure, paucity of time, organizational politics that create rivalry and, respectively, lack of trust among employees – are the main barriers towards compassion. On the contrary, the ‘virtuous’ cycle of compassion in organizations starts from empathetic leadership—thus leaders, who are more concerned for their people and who convey organizational ethical values through their actions. Indeed, as the study authors highlight, compassion cannot exist in isolation, it should be rooted in a larger organizational context of values and norms. Herein the importance of taking time for implementing such values in the organizational culture and work structures and policies. For example, think of employee support practices, such as extra care for pregnant or sick employees, or initiatives that facilitate high-quality relationships among people.

All in all, I strongly believe that the discussion about compassion in business is not only relevant and justified, but will continue to grow. As summarized in the two aforementioned articles, the focus on compassion is both timeless and timely. Compassion is as timeless as the well-known notion of being good by doing good… Yet, the discussion of compassion seems also extremely timely. Given our current global challenges, compassion could be just the right thing to turn to.


Further reading:

Dutton, J. E., Workman, K. M., & Hardin, A. E. (2014). Compassion at work. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), 277-304. doi:10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-031413-091221

Banker, D. V., & Bhal, K. T. (2020). Understanding compassion from practicing managers’ perspective: Vicious and virtuous forces in business organizations. Global Business Review, 21(1), 262-278.

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