Conventional management thinking demands that standard work traits that drive results -- things like persistence, sacrifice, grit, resilience -- are what most bottom-line bosses expect of their workers to get the job done.

Sure, that works. But in a twist of fate leaving corporate bottom-liners baffled, more evidence is coming out to suggest that it's virtuous behaviors like compassion, empathy, and gratitude that make the difference in people-centric work cultures. 

LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, perhaps the most outspoken of any high-profile leader on the effects of "compassionate management," tweeted this last year. 

Big misconception about managing compassionately is that it's a "soft" skill. Most compassionate people I know are typically the strongest.

-- Jeff Weiner (@jeffweiner) October 6, 2017

As more executives and thought-leaders use their position to influence the masses, people are shifting perceptions about what used to be considered "soft". Let me expand on this further.

The Science of Compassion in the Workplace

To add fuel to this very necessary fire, the recently released The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science documents compassion as an individual, group, organizational and cultural force of nature that positively changes lives and transforms companies.. 

David DeSteno, one of the Oxford Handbook contributors found that when people feel compassion (as well as gratitude and pride), it builds grit and thereby paves the way to perseverance. In fact, states DeSteno, "People made to feel pride and compassion are willing to persevere more than 30 percent longer on challenging tasks compared to those feeling other positive emotions, such as happiness, precisely because pride and compassion induce them to place greater value on future rewards."

Another contributor, organizational psychologist Kim Cameron, cites compelling research about the effects of compassion in the workplace. He says that people who feel compassion "demonstrate higher levels of helping behavior, moral reasoning, connectedness, and stronger interpersonal relationships, as well as less depression, reduced moodiness, and less mental illness."

For skeptical bottom-liners, another study (Bright, Cameron, Caza, 2006) documented in the Oxford Handbook found that organizations characterized by higher levels of compassion (and other virtuous behaviors like forgiveness) increased performance, innovation, customer retention, profitability, and quality. They also had considerable less employee turnover.

3 Ways to Manage Compassionately for Competitive Advantage

Leaders of the future invested in putting their employees first are beginning to understand that virtuous behaviors like empathy and compassion must be cultivated as new workplace traits to build sustainable value and enhance the business. Here are four ways to do it.

1. Alleviate the personal suffering of your employees.

Using his symbolic power and social platform, Jeff Weiner has publicly stated that the compassionate response of every leader should be to do everything in their power to remove the pain and alleviate the suffering of employees.

One recent example that came across my desk is the responsibility of companies to assist employees who are victims of domestic abuse.

In one notable research, it was found that nearly 75 percent of HR heads in medium and large UK organizations "believe companies can empower victims by giving them guidance on how to deal with domestic abuse and only 9 percent agree it is a personal matter and not appropriate for employees to raise with their employers."

There is a business case for this, of course. In the research, it was found that those companies that believe domestic abuse has had an impact in their organization in the past 12 months, "58 percent say an employee's productivity has declined, 56 percent said that it has caused absenteeism and 46 percent say that it had an impact on other colleagues' productivity."

The compassionate response for leaders is to have domestic abuse constantly on the radar screen, communicate consistently to employees about available services, and ensure that they stand by the side in full support of abused employees.

2. In time of crisis, put people before business.

A great example depicted in the Oxford Handbook is that of Phil Lynch, former president of Reuters America. As researchers Monica Worline and Jane Dutton tell the story, on September 11, 2001, Lynch sprung to action after watching terrorists fly planes into the World Trade Center towers, where several Reuters employees lost their lives. The collapse of the towers also destroyed Reuter's business infrastructure that connected them to their clients. 

Assessing priorities and who came first, Lynch's immediate response was issuing out this order to his executive team: "People first, then customers, then the business."

Directing attention to suffering and actually modeling a compassionate response for others to adapt, "Phil and his team issued regular updates about the crisis, employees' safety, and activities to help the recovery, emphasizing again and again those three priorities."

Answering tough questions on global teleconferences during the crisis, full transparency was on display. "Lynch responded openly about what leaders were feeling, as well as the steps Reuters was taking."

3. Build more trust within teams to release compassionate energy.

In Weiner's own instructional course on managing compassionately, he stresses the role trust has in fostering compassion between teams and leaders and their team members. Here's Weiner:

[A] huge part of scaling is trust amongst the leaders and trust amongst the employees of that organization who have worked together over time and have each other's backs, [whom] have developed a sense of shorthand with one another. They can, to some extent, predict how someone's going to respond in certain situations, and it is beyond a competitive advantage when you've got that kind of trust, when you have that kind of shorthand, and compassion helps develop that.

Weiner drives home one last example. When compassion is modeled by leaders and it is released throughout the organization, it reinforces teamwork in pursuit of the same mission, vision and strategy. To Weiner, "that's where I think it can be a game changer."

Published on: Feb 23, 2018