Compassion at work

Those of us working with vulnerable people have a responsibility to promote compassionate behaviour among colleagues too.

We need to make sure that staff who look after older people, people with dementia and a whole range of other issues related to an experience of discrimination, violence, displacement, ill health or bereavement, can provide a caring and personalised service.

But even in the most commercial enterprises, I would argue that compassion in the workplace should play a central role.

Some old fashioned leaders think this is a stupid idea, creating respect or even fear in their employees. Certainly when it comes to performance, many managers believe that they need to be tough, keeping the pressure on so that team members produce the goods – making sufficient phone calls during the day, getting through the work, meeting the targets and making money. They push, they apply pressure, they don’t want excuses – they want results.

Many of us have had some experience – at home, at school or at work – where our parents, teachers or managers worry that if they are too kind, soft or understanding, we will take advantage and fail to achieve.

I came from a family where if you were not up by six and productive by seven, you were beneath contempt. Sometimes it was embarrassing to visit our cousins and getting there so early to find they were still asleep or at least in their jammies.

I blush when I think my parents consider this disgraceful. Many of my teachers had a similar approach – I certainly feared a reprimand and can still remember the shame of standing outside the head teacher’s office awaiting a serious dressing down. And those of us brought up in this somewhat brutal way find the idea of doing it differently at work quite frightening.

We tend to replicate the way we have been treated, worrying that if we don’t have “respect” the team will squander their time and fail to produce results. Even today, many managers pride themselves on being tough and strong and fear being seen as weak or a soft touch.

My experience, as an employee and as a manager tells me the opposite is true.

Caring for each other is contagious. Staff care not just for each other, but the organisation, the leaders and most importantly the customer.

Compassionate gains

Compassionate management is key to creating a positive, helpful and creative culture that will make your company more successful. Compassionate culture cares about how people feel about their job and the company.

If we use empathy and understanding when dealing with our staff, if we try to remove barriers, difficulties and hardship, then our staff will actually achieve more than if we are always “on their backs” or “getting behind them”.

Compassionate companies gain by becoming employer of choice. If staff feel they matter and their company cares about their wellbeing, they are less likely to give up and go. Have you ever called in sick and your manager gives you an earful? Or did they sympathise genuinely, try to understand the situation and wish you a speedy recovery?

If a manager works with and for their team, they will reduce stress and anxiety, empowering  staff to give their best. If you are worrying about getting criticised, then you spend lots of time covering your back. This cycle can be detrimental and prevent you from focusing on doing the job well or better.

At my work there is lots of chit-chat back and forth. If I am sitting at the hot desks I sometimes join in. But mainly I am glad that people don’t feel afraid and support one another with the kind of issues that arise day-to-day. The idea that all personal conversation is banned meant people had to find clandestine ways to communicate – Whatsapp or visits to the bathrooms – or they would feel isolated and stressed at work, is outdated.

Strong, supportive teams that have bonded during lunch breaks, department away days and through caring about each other’s lives are more effective than those where you don’t really know anyone and can’t wait to get away. Even worse are the divided teams or the ones at loggerheads – these sort of relationships sap energy, effort and enthusiasm.

We care about the family lives that people lead outside work. We try to help with loans for travel and housing; we provide yoga, Pilates and other sport and recreation; we organise social events. People living in good environments with people they love are naturally more productive at work. If there's lots of negative behaviour at work, which produces nasty rivalry – ask yourself why.

Behaviour at work – our culture – is created by the way those  behave at the top. If senior staff are cooperative, helpful, considerate and interested in the wellbeing of their colleagues, this behaviour is emulated. On the other hand if they are seen as tough and unconcerned about other people then this behaviour is copied and defines the organisation.

Caring for each other is contagious. Staff care not just for each other, but the organisation, the leaders and most importantly the customer. If we are generous towards others – thinking and expecting the best of them; trying to work out where they are coming from and care about their wellbeing – then these behaviours are replicated.

A cooperative workforce is created rather than a highly competitive one – resulting in greater productivity and helpful teamwork.

Compassion at work can mean:

  • Leaders who demonstrate that they care about the staff, the customer and each other
  • Small acts of generosity or simply saying thank you
  • Genuine concern about the wellbeing of staff, especially when they are grieving, unwell, stressed or unsuccessful
  • Listening and supporting without saying “oh well, you will soon get over it”, or similarly dismissive sentiments
  • Noting and approving when staff members get it right for customers; e.g. overhearing kindness and remarking positively on it
  • Creating a helpful and supportive culture in teams 

Does your organisational culture encourage compassion towards staff?  Have you worked for a company which has shown a lack of understanding?  Or do you think this approach is too touchy-feely and hinders progress?

Kate Davies
Kate Davies

After obtaining a Master’s degree in Sociology, Kate Davies got her first job in Housing by chance. She embraced the opportunity it gave her to make a difference to people’s lives. In this stimulating milieu and while acquiring further qualifications, Kate’s career quickly progressed. She has now held management positions for over 30 years in both Housing Associations and Local Authorities. During that time, the nature of her role as leader has changed. The authoritative, handing-down management model of yesterday stopped working as the workforce became diverse, younger and more receptive to a consultative approach.