New book says compassion is the hidden key to business performance

“People are so pre-occupied with their own tasks and ‘to do’ lists that their capacity to notice and care for themselves, let alone their colleagues down the corridor, is diminished.”

I’ve just read Amy Bradley’s new book ‘The Human Moment: The Positive Power of Compassion in the Workplace’, and this comment in the preface really struck a chord.

• We spend our days battling against an unrelenting deluge of emails and running from one meeting to another, barely stopping to exchange pleasantries, eat lunch or take a breath of fresh air.

• Many of us spend more time at work than we do with our families – not entirely present when we are at home, thanks to technology pinging away in the background, encouraging us to be ‘always on’.

• Our knowledge of and relationships with colleagues are superficial, and we ourselves are often reluctant to show vulnerability or disclose any personal information about difficult life experiences we may be going through.

It’s not good for us. But it’s not good for organisations either. In workplaces that are becoming increasingly transactional and dehumanised, we are seeing rising levels of burnout, stress and mental-health related issues. Engagement is low, absence is high and productivity is under par.

In her book, Amy Bradley argues that if organisations want healthier, happier and higher-performing workplaces, they need to find ways to embed compassion in their business. Drawing on research and case studies, she suggests four key areas HR can focus on if they want to help the business become more ‘humane’.

1. Creating the right culture

If organisations push their employees to the limit, reward long-hours cultures and pit their people in competition against each other, compassion is never going to flourish.

The book describes the hallmarks of a compassionate company:

• hierarchy is not evident – there are unlikely to be plush, top floor, executive offices, for example.
• the company places people firmly at its heart and is values-driven, and
• corporate values are likely to be around trust, equality, respect and care – with employees across the business living these values out in the way they treat each other and deal with customers.

HR people need to take a close look at the existing culture in their organisations and assess what changes to policies, practices and behaviours might help to make the shift.

2. Developing managers

“Whether we like it or not, it is leaders who set the ‘feeling rules’ in an organization …. and who set the expectations for what is appropriate when suffering surfaces at work,” says Amy Bradley.

Compassion cannot be enforced, but leaders can do much to embed it by the way they behave and the stories they tell. Those who build trust and facilitate compassion most effectively, tend to be those who show genuine care for others and who are honest about their own vulnerabilities. Leaders at all levels often struggle to know how to deal with a direct report who is going through a difficult experience. HR can help by equipping managers with the skills and confidence to facilitate open and honest dialogue, build trust and deal empathetically with people at times of difficulty.

3. Supporting social networks

The speed and strength of social networks underpin compassion at work. Amy’s book cites the example of how this played out in reality at US security and software company Cisco – a huge global organisation with over 74,000 employees. One employee reported how a leader, who he had never actually met, heard about his daughter’s life-limiting illness through the Cisco network, and subsequently rallied round the team to raise money for medical treatment, which Cisco then matched.

HR has a role to play in encouraging the creation of supportive, social networks. Many HR software systems, for example, have internal portals where space can be dedicated for employees to communicate about social or charity issues. Making physical communal space available, where people can meet informally during breaks, can also help employees cement relationships – as can actively encouraging the establishment of social groups to bring people together, perhaps around sport or leisure interests.

4. Reviewing policies

Formal policies and procedures can do much to support a compassionate culture at work. The way the business approaches everything from recruitment to decision-making contributes to the building of fair, open cultures where employees can be themselves at work and perform to the best of their ability.

A genuine commitment to wellbeing will also have a positive impact. Slavishly following policies to the letter is, however, not always helpful, or indeed compassionate. HR needs to think carefully about how they can build flexibility into absence or sickness pay policies, for example, to ensure that people who are dealing with a serious illness or trauma are treated sensitively and that no additional stress is unwittingly caused.

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