The Art of Cultivating a Caring & Compassionate Workplace Culture

More than a dozen social scientists, business school professors, and other experts on compassion gathered earlier this year at the Compassion & Business Conference at Stanford University.

Researcher Olivia “Mandy” O’Neill shared her studies on the effects of compassion in the workplace and moderated a panel of psychologists and researchers on the topic of  Thriving Leaders & Employees.

One of the themes of the conference was that caring about your own well-being and caring for the well-being of others aren’t at odds, but putting compassionate leadership into practice does take some time and energy.

Modeling compassionate leadership

Leaders need to be mindful about when to introduce an initiative that asks employees to act more kindly and respectfully. When employees are stressed, they’re usually not feeling caring or compassionate, and leadership pressure to express these emotions just produces more stress.

Embracing and building a more caring work environment has to come at the right time and from a place of authenticity.

However, leaders can certainly model compassionate leadership. Research on emotional contagion shows that people are particularly likely to catch the emotions of their leaders, so being a role model is a highly effective way to influence team behavior in a kinder, gentler direction.

Even in organizations where people compete for resources, Jamil Zaki’s research found we tend to be nice to people outside our circle and to those who can’t help us in return. Of course, there’s a huge degree of variation in organizations, and a lot depends on the extent to which compassionate behavior is encouraged, trained, and rewarded.

Additionally, researchers know people who are kind, generous, and compassionate tend to be attracted to and be selected by organizations that have those qualities as well.

Compassionate cultures are forgiving cultures

Team-oriented cultures often have people who are more aware of one another’s contributions, but organizational kindness and goal orientation aren’t mutually exclusive. Achievement-oriented cultures that are also respectful and caring are likely to be the most successful.

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Compassionate cultures are also forgiving. Jay Narayanan, Assistant Professor at National University of Singapore, talked about the toll of holding a grudge.

He described an experiment showing grudge-holders perceived a hill as steeper than did people who had been asked to recall a time they’d forgiven someone — it was as if the grudge was a heavy load weighing people down. Yet, we resist forgiving others because we fear it will make us appear weak and invite exploitation, when in fact the research suggests we’ll be viewed positively.

Although being compassionate with yourself leads to high achievement, Kristin Neff, Associate Professor in the department of Educational Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, said people resist self-kindness because they think it may make them complacent or lazy, due to the false assumption that negative feedback is the way to make employees better or more motivated. However, it’s very easy to have this feedback misinterpreted as criticism and backfire on you.

That dovetails nicely with a point researcher Kim Cameron made about an ideal ratio between complimenting and correcting. His research found there has to be some room for negative feedback, but the important thing is for the ratio to be skewed to the compassionate by 3-to-1 or even 5-to-1.

We’d all like a little more kindness and consideration on the job — are you willing to make the first move?

This was originally published on the OC Tanner blog.

Named as one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry and to the Employee Engagement Power 100 list, a Change Maker, Top Idea Maven, and President’s Award winner, Michelle is a highly accomplished international speaker, author, and strategist on performance improvement. A respected authority on leadership, workplace culture, talent and employee engagement, she’s a trusted advisor to many of the world’s most successful organizations and the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States.

Michelle speaks and writes about what she knows first-hand – as a former executive of a Fortune 100 global conglomerate, and as a researcher and strategist. She passionately shares new insights and tools for leaders to confidently, effectively and strategically lead their organizations to success.

Michelle is the Past President of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University and President Emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association. Michelle was the Founder and Chair of the Editorial Board of Return on Performance Magazine, and has been featured on Fox Television, the BBC, in Fortune, Business Week, Inc. and other global publications, and contributed to the books Bull Market by Seth Godin, Contented Cows Still Give Better Milk, and Social Media Isn’t Social.   




6 Comments on “The Art of Cultivating a Caring & Compassionate Workplace Culture

    1. Thanks, Al. The holiday season seemed to be an especially good time of year to promote this message, and I’m hopeful we’ll take it into the new year.

  1. Excellent points in this post. Compassion taps into the heart and soul of an organization and is quite powerful when connected to supporting the purpose and goals of the organization. I also agree with Kim Cameron’s points about the ratio of complimenting and correcting. There’s a tipping point where criticism degrades trust and then it’s extremely time consuming to recover. Leader’s interested in this subject should consider concepts / approaches related to servant leadership, appreciative inquiry, humble inquiry (Edgar Schein), and wellbeing (Tom Rath) to develop and further leverage their compassionate culture.

    1. You’ve mentioned some of my favorite authors, Tim – thank you. There’s a groundswell brewing for a kinder and more compassionate approach in the workplace. These authors – and you – are helping to build the momentum. Keep up the great work!

  2. This is a great article, thank you. I have been looking recently at how we can apply Positive Discipline (Jane Nelsen’s parenting tools) to the workplace, and this is another great example. Positive Discipline is all about being mindful and intentional, kind and firm at the same time, and connecting before correcting. I will use this for years to come!

    1. Jennifer, your comments are very kind. Thank you for living the philosophy, and for the tip about Jane Nelsen – I’ll have to look into her work.

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