The business case for compassion

February 28, 2017

New book by Professors Jane Dutton and Monica Worline shows why companies should care about caring.

Suffering and compassion aren’t words or concepts common in business lexicon. But a new book by two Michigan Ross professors shows that suffering and a lack of compassion holds people and companies back from being their best.

In Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations (Berrett-Koehler), Jane Dutton and Monica Worline pack years of research into a practical guide that shows how individuals and companies can bring more humanity to the workplace — and why it’s critical to do so.

There’s a misconception that compassion is a soft, feel-good issue not related to business outcomes, the authors say. Dutton and Worline present a large body of research — some of it their own — that shows compassion is very related to the core of any business or organization. Both are faculty members of the Center for Positive Organizations at Ross.

Jane Dutton

“The workplace tends to treat people like just ‘heads,’ but everyone is a whole human who responds naturally to more ‘heart’ such as feeling safe, embraced, or threatened,” says Dutton. “So if we’re serious about building great companies and the human-based capabilities of organizations we need to learn how to understand and react to the whole human.”

Business tends not to do well in that regard. Engagement at work has fallen to shockingly low levels — only 30 percent of employees in the U.S. feel engaged at work, according to Gallup. But companies that do engage employees, and foster a compassionate work culture have better outcomes — less turnover, better customer ratings, and higher profits.

The book gives people strategies for acting with compassion in their own work lives, as well as how organizations can create a competence of compassion across their entire system and culture. That includes how to look at core aspects such as roles, routines, and networks with an eye to creating and amplifying compassion.

“One of our goals in the book is to help managers, leaders, and change agents think of small wins or small moves that will change things at the margins and can have outsized impact,” Dutton says.

For example, entrepreneurs and employees at companies that focus on innovation are often told to embrace failure. And while that’s necessary, there’s still an emotional cost that affects productivity. Compassion toward failure and generous interpretations of errors create more learning and foster more creativity.

Monica Worline

“What the ‘fail fast’ people often forget is that people have a natural inclination to not fail,” says Worline. “It doesn’t matter that it’s encouraged and nobody gets blamed. It still feels bad and it’s a form of pain for people. We tend to want to push that aside, but it makes recovery harder and kills capacity people otherwise would draw on to adapt. It would go a long way to get in the habit of telling people, ‘Hey, I know that was difficult. I know you feel bad, and we are in this together.’”

While small actions can have outsized impact on employees, changing a company’s ability to foster compassion takes some effort. The book offers concrete examples of how organizations can move away from simplified or standardized HR solutions to create workplaces where an array of compassionate acts is part of the DNA.

For example, Worline is working with a company that runs multiple shifts at many locations. Employees say the shift change is the most stressful part of the day. People leaving are tired and want to go home, while those arriving have questions about what they’re heading into for the next eight hours or more.

“They just didn’t have good relations with each other during that transition, so they came up with ideas on how they can make the shift change better and eliminate the worst pain point of their work day,” says Worline. “We’re putting them in action now and measuring the outcomes.”

Awakening Compassion at Work also addresses what business leaders can do to make resources available, and lead by example to create an environment of compassion at work.

“We can keep looking the other way and acting like suffering at work doesn’t exist, which clearly isn’t working, or we can equip ourselves with effective ways to deal with it,” says Dutton.

Dutton and Worline will discuss their book at a March 13 Thought Leadership Showcase with Scott Sonenshein, PhD, ’07. The event will be held 4:30-6 p.m. in the Ross colloquium.

The authors are also sharing techniques and ideas for putting compassion into practice in workplaces in 100 Days of Awakening Compassion at Work.

This article was originally published in Ross Thought in Action.