Routines Matter for Compassion at Work

May 31, 2013

By: Monica Worline, Jane Dutton

Originally posted on Compassion at Work Blog

As organizational researchers, we have a unique interest in understanding how compassion can be unleashed or stifled in human communities. An organizational lens attunes us to the important role played by routines and practices  in  “grooving” the ways we interact with one another. By routines we mean the recurring, repeated patterns of action that typify a particular organization or unit (Feldman & Pentland, 2003). Many organizational researchers think routines are key to an organization’s capability to reliably produce products and services  (e.g., Nelson & Winter, 1982) and  we see routines as part of the key to understanding an organization’s one time (Dutton et al, 2006) or ongoing capability for compassion (Lilius et al., 2011; Grant et al., 2008).

When thinking of which routines matter for compassion, our research and the research of others (particularly  the wonderful dissertation research by Laura McLelland suggest that 3 clusters of routines are particularly important.

Selection  and reward routines: Does your organization have reliable means for identifying individuals who are likely to be relationally skilled and empathetic? Are these the people who are selected as employees? When people help in a skilled fashion, are they rewarded for helping each other?

Socialization routines: Are people brought on board in a way that it is easy for them to connect to one another in meaningful ways? For example, are newcomers quickly connected to people who can help them do their work and are they introduced in ways that facilitate identification of authentic strengths (Baker & Dutton, 2006)?

Support routines:  Does the organizations have routines that facilitate employee-to-employee giving when an employee is suffering in some way? These kinds of routines can include routinized ways of notifying others if an employee is in need and also providing timely and relatively easy access to resources that could meet the need.

Routines matter for people at work who are in pain, because they facilitate ways for others to notice, feel and respond. We hope you are working in an organization where these forms of routine readiness are present and well-practiced.

If you wish to gauge how likely your organization is to be compassionate, take the compassionate organizations quiz.



Baker, W. and J. Dutton.  (2006). Enabling Positive Social Capital.  In J. Dutton and B. Ragins (eds.) Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation (Lawrence Erlbaum Publishers).

Dutton, J., M. Worline, P. Frost and J. Lilius. (2006) Explaining Compassion Organizing, Administrative Science Quarterly, 51, 1, 59-96.

Feldman, M. and B. Pentland. (2003) Reconceptualizing organizational routines as a source of flexibility and change. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28: 98-118.

Grant, A.M., J. Dutton, and B. Rosso. (2008). Giving Commitment: Employee Support Programs and the Prosocial Sensemaking Process, Academy of Management Journal, 51, 5, 898-918.

Lilius, J.  M. Worline, J. Dutton, J. Kanov, and S. Maitlis. (2011). Understanding Compassion Capability,Human Relations, 64, 7, 873-891.

McClelland, L.E. (2012). From Compassion to Satisfaction: Examining the Relationship between Routines that Facilitate Compassion and Quality of Service. Dissertation, Emory University.

Nelson, R.R. and S. G Winter. (1982). The Schumperterian tradeoff revisited. American Economic Review, 72: 114-133.