Compassion and Business: How does that go together?

The word compassion sounds “soft”. It invokes images of praying Buddhist monks, nurses taking care of the feeble, or a priest administering the last rites to a dying person. What surely doesn´t come to mind is the picture of a corporate boardroom, right? But why?

When we walk into to the office in the morning and someone asks us “How are you?” we´re supposed to say something along the lines of: “Fine! How about you?” It´s part of the language game in the corporate world. We know this. At the same time, we all know that quite often, people are presenting a white lie at this point. We know this very well precisely because we do the same every once in a while. We say “I´m fine” even when things clearly aren´t fine at all.

Life can be a bitch. Our loved ones become sick or pass away. We fight with our spouses, our children, our parents, our neighbors. There are bills to pay and sometimes the end of the month is still too far away. Hell, the Warriors lose to the Cavs after a 3:1 lead in the NBA finals. It´s tough.

This emotional load – we bring it into the office, no matter if we admit it or if we decide to cover up. Most people indeed choose to cover up – as somehow, someone decided a hundred years ago that businesses ought to be rational places, spaces where emotions don´t belong or even disrupt normal functioning (whatever that is…).

The problem is: It´s just not possible. People cannot shut down their emotions at discretion. At least not for longer periods of time – and certainly not without paying a price.

There is always pain in the room.

This sentence was coined by the late management professor Peter Frost, one of the pioneers studying and advocating compassion in business settings. It´s a quite powerful proposition, even though (Or maybe: because?) it states something very obvious. Shit happens to the best of us. We suffer – and sometimes, it takes us a long time to cope. We feel pain and sorrow and those feelings don’t bother to ask us if we are currently at work or at home.

So, how should managers and co-workers react? The common rules of business tell us to ignore or downplay the issue but in most cases, that´s not what really helps.

Not showing our suffering or downplaying the suffering of our colleagues is a perfect example of what Finnish philosopher Esa Saarinen calls a system of holding back in return and advance. We don’t openly display our suffering because we expect from prior interactions that it will not be acted upon appropriately. Meanwhile, the others see no need to act compassionately as everything seems to be OK. Ad infinitum. And the longer this “non-reciprocity circle” is in place, the harder it becomes for an individual to make a first move in order to interrupt the chain of neglect.

Another way would be to act compassionately: To notice the negative feelings of our co-workers, to feel empathetic concern, and to act accordingly. Compassion does not equal to fully experiencing the same feelings as the person we´re compassionate to.

Put in a straight-forward way…

…being compassionate means to be willing to imagine how it would feel like to walk some miles in another person´s shoes – and then, upon recognizing this would probably be hurtful, trying to appropriately mitigate that pain or suffering.

That´s it. It´s not a mystic thing – and we don´t have to mediate in a cave for 20 years before we´re able to pull off that stunt.

We know how to be compassionate even before we can ride a bike. Small children act compassionately by nature. When they see another child crying, they instinctively show signs of distress – and then they try to help with their restricted means, e.g., by caressing their counterpart or sharing a toy.

But somehow, this get´s lost as we get our high school diplomas, university degrees – and then move on to become business people. Which is a pity, because businesses create a lot of pain themselves – it´s not all from our private lives. People suffer because they don’t get that promotion, because their buddies get laid off, or just because co-workers, or even worse, bosses behave in outright toxic ways. Again, we all know this to some degree.

Here´s the point: Science shows over and over again that by carelessly ignoring these emotional dynamics, businesses are hurting the bottom line. If you want to know how, I´d like to point you towards this superb review article written by science rock star Jane Dutton of University of Michigan´s Center for Positive Organizations and some colleagues (that´s also where I “stole” the graphic from):

Dutton, J. E., Workman, K. M., & Hardin, A. E. (2014). Compassion at Work. Annual Reviews of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 1(1), 277-304.

annurev-orgpsych-031413-091221_f1

Study Alert: “Positive Art: Artistic Expression and Appreciation as an exemplary Vehicle for Flourishing”

Rousseau: Unpleasant SurpriseThis one´s hot of the press, written by Tim Lomas.

The article in the Review of General Psychology proposes the creation of “positive art” as a field encompassing theory and research concerning the well-being value of art. It identifies 5 main positive outcomes that are consistently found in the literature across all these forms:

  • sense-making;
  • enriching experience;
  • aesthetic appreciation;
  • entertainment;
  • and bonding.

The article aims to encourage a greater focus on the arts in fields such as positive psychology, enabling science to more fully understand and appreciate the positive power of the arts.

Lomas, T. (2016). Positive art: Artistic expression and appreciation as an exemplary vehicle for flourishing. Review of General Psychology, 20(2), 171-182.

Now, I´m not much of an art lover, but even I have experienced and written about the power of taking a “deep-dive” into a painting: Using Art to Cultivate Mindfulness – or: A pleasant Surprise with Rousseau´s Unpleasant Surprise.

And I certainly know about the positive power of music, no matter what kind: Finding Happiness in angry Music.

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Positive Psychology News Digest on Mappalicious | No. 25/2016

My favorite pieces covering Positive Psychology and adjacent from (roughly) the last seven days.

Psychology Today: What Would a Happiness Potion Do for You? by Michael Bishop

Positive Prescription: 7 Ways to make your Day a little bit better by Samantha Boardman

Guardian: The secret to happiness is all in your head by Julianne Chiaet

Greater Good Science Center: What Are Your Happiness Strengths and Weaknesses? by Tchiki Davis

Fast Company: You should probably compare yourself to others more, not less by David Mayer

Time Money: Empathy is the hottest trend in leadership by Denver Nicks

The Positive Organization: The Transformative Power of Purpose by Robert Quinn

The Smart Set: The Positive Psychology of Metal Music by Christine Ro

Time Health: Forgiving other people is good for your health by Alexandra Sifferlin

Greater Good Science Center: Can You Incentivize Generosity? by Jill Suttie

Penn LPS: Alumni Stories, no author

Positive Psychology News Digest

Feel-Good vs. Feel-Purpose: Hedonia and Eudaimonia as separate but connected Pathways to Happiness

Ever since graduating from the Penn MAPP program, I give a handful of presentations and keynotes on Positive Psychology each quarter. Since I´m an executive in a multinational corporation, I mostly get invited to talk to fellow businessmen, and the greater part of my talks addresses human resources, leadership, and organization culture topics. One of the charts I show early on in each and every presentation is this one:

Fifteen_Seconds_Graz_Rose.png

I deliberately show it early in the game in order to convey that Positive Psychology is not a sort of Happyology, that it´s not about wearing rose-colored glasses all the time. Yet, it also serves to clarify the consequences of different human resources and leadership behaviors and programs. One of the most important takeaways:

Hedonic and eudaimonic pathways both play a crucial role in order to keep employees fully engaged and productive – but most measures that foster hedonic experiences are rather short-lived and, perhaps even more important, easy to copy by competitors – whereas conditions that foster meaning an purpose are rather hard to replicate.

Yesterday, I stumbled upon an exquisite book chapter by University of Ottawa researcher Veronika Huta which explains in detail the differences between hedonic and eudaimonic orientations in life (and work). She analyzed a multitude of definitions and conceptions on the differences of hedonia and eudaimonia from previous research and boiled them down to a comprehensible set of attributes. These are the most important takeaways.

Hedonia, in short, is about:

  • pleasure, enjoyment, and satisfaction;
  • and the absence of distress.

Eudaimonia is more complex in it´s nature, it´s about:

  • authenticity: clarifying one’s true self and deep values, staying connected with them, and acting in accord with them;
  • meaning: understanding a bigger picture, relating to it, and contributing to it. This may include broader aspects of one´s life or identity, a purpose, the long term, the community, society, even the entire ecosystem;
  • excellence: striving for higher quality and higher standards in one’s behavior, performance, accomplishments, and ethics;
  • personal growth: self-actualization, fulfilling one’s potential and pursuing personal goals; growth, seeking challenges; and maturing as a human being.

Other important attributes and distinctions:

Hedonia is associated with:

  • physical and emotional needs;
  • desire;
  • what feels good;
  • taking, for me, now;
  • ease;
  • rights;
  • pleasure;
  • self-nourishing and self-care; taking care of one’s own needs and desires, typically in the present or near future; reaching personal release and peace, replenishment; energy and joy.

Eudaimonia is associated with:

  • cognitive values and ideals
  • care;
  • what feels right;
  • giving, building, something broader, the long-term;
  • effort;
  • responsibilities;
  • elevation;
  • cultivating; giving of oneself, investing in a larger aspect of the self, a long-term project, or the surrounding word; quality, rightness, context, the welfare of others.

To close, it is important to say that both pathways to happiness are not mutually exclusive (in the strict sense). Meaningful experiences can certainly bring about pleasure – and taking care of ourselves can certainly add meaning to our lives. As such, we must also refrain from equating the pursuit of hedonia with shallowness. As the graphic at the top of the article illustrates, we need to grow on both dimensions in order to live a truly fulfilling life.

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Positive Psychology News Digest on Mappalicious | No. 24/2016

My favorite pieces covering Positive Psychology and adjacent from (roughly) the last seven days.

Wall Street Journal: Steps to turn off the nagging self-doubt in your head by Elizabeth Bernstein


PsyBlog: 4 Personality Traits That Affect How Long You Will Live by Jeremy Dean


Psychology Today: How Trauma Can Lead to Positive Change by Susanna Halonen


ERE Media: Building A Positive Culture In An Atmosphere of Fear by Derek Irvine


Psychology Today: Can Too Much Meaning at Work Be Harmful? by Michelle McQuaid


Inc: This is the Secret Sauce for Happy Employees by Shawn Murphy


The Positive Organization: On Being Other-Focused by Robert Quinn


The Positive Organization: The Power of Authenticity by Robert Quinn


Atlantic: How Kids Learn Resilience by Paul Tough


Harvard Business Review: Lessons from Companies That Put Purpose Ahead of Short-Term Profits by Andrew White

IMG_7977-5

On the Meaning of Meaning at Work: A Collection of Infographics

Over the last weeks, I invested a lot of hours in trying to better understand the antecedents of meaning and purpose at/in work. While doing so, I created a couple of info graphics that serve to explain different theories and outlines. I thought it would make sense to collect them all in one place to show point of convergence and divergence. Here you go…

CARMA_Work

Anatomy_Meaning_Work

IMG_9786

Three_Level_Meaning_StegerThe final graphic is not my creation – the picture is taken directly from the article listed in the respective headline.

Meaning at Work Grid

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