“Compassion in the workplace” and the influence it has on employee engagement, retention and productivity is a frequently overlooked factor affecting the lives of millions of working people. Too often managers feel they want to respond in a compassionate manner when it comes to interacting with their team members, especially when they are experiencing some kind of personal or professional challenge. But people hesitate because of widely-held misconceptions about how leaders should behave and how they should “show up”.
To be compassionate at work, for many people, means coming across as weak. Showing empathy and a willingness to take appropriate action when a person is down does not come naturally and for some people, it is something they actively avoid doing.
A key feature of the research into compassion at work recently conducted by Roffey Park looks at how to mitigate the negative effect of these “compassion blockers”. The problem of compassion blockers is particularly acute in work environments where an ability to make fast and clear decisions about complex issues is widely admired.
A legal professional, for example, shared his fear about letting on to work colleagues that his marriage was disintegrating and his relationship with his children was on the rocks: there was no organisational compassion (the ability of an organisation to support a troubled employee through difficult times) available to him. And as a lawyer with a reputation for clarity and decisiveness, he was stressed and anxious about people at work losing confidence in him and his ability to perform. So he suffered in silence and no one at work asked why he seemed so sad. People noticed but did nothing.
Such experiences are not uncommon in UK workplaces and do nothing to improve the mental health and wellbeing of people. We seem unable to do much about equipping managers and team members to be able to approach what could be an emotional and challenging, but necessary conversation. Some might say, “Well, HR is there to take care of that stuff!”, which is unrealistic about HR and allows people to sidestep issues rather than addressing them. People need support from front-line managers and that means challenging people at work about the fundamentals. If your workplace is not a great place to be, why not try to change it?
The concept of compassion can be broken down into five constructs and asks some broad questions:
• Being alive to the suffering of others. How good are you at noticing when someone is suffering? You say you’re a great listener, but how great are you really?
• Being non-judgmental. How often have you listened to someone sharing a problem and find yourself thinking, “Well, it’s your own stupid fault, isn’t it? You made a bad decision, live with it”. How good are you at setting aside these thoughts and simply trying to help?
• Being tolerant to personal distress. You find yourself wanting to support someone in trouble, but how resilient are you? Do you find yourself thinking, “I want to help, but I just don’t have the required emotional bandwidth or energy right now to deal with the problems of others?” Being compassionate to others means being self-compassionate too.
•Showing empathy. When someone does pluck up the courage to share something, how empathic are you? Have your life experiences prepared you to feel what it feels like for someone who is suffering?
•Taking appropriate action. You listen, you talk and you empathise: you are ready to act in a compassionate way. But steady on: is the action going to be welcome? Have you thought through the implications?
The Roffey Park research is in itself intended to foster more compassionate workplaces and this means more compassion for everyone. Leadership studies can often focus, understandably, on leadership behaviours in respect of the impact bosses have on subordinates – but that is only half of the story. The area of “followership” is also ripe for research and discovery: leaders need support and nurturing too. They have their vulnerabilities and weaknesses (which too often they try to cover up). So perhaps when it comes to “National Hug Your Boss Day”, an actual hug might not feel right or appropriate for you, but it doesn’t mean you can’t show you care in other ways.
Sometimes, a simple “thank you” is all it takes. No hug required!
Michael Jenkins is chief executive of Roffey Park Institute.
Simply making the effort to thank the people that make your business a success every day has been proven to boost business. Not convinced? Here are three reasons why saying thank you in meaningful ways will enhance your operation.
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