Exactly two years and one day after giving my first TEDx talk in Bergen/Norway, today I’ve been given the chance to speak at another amazing event: The first ever edition of TEDxEBS. Now, EBS stands for European Business School (in Oestrich-Winkel/Germany) and it’s actually the university where I completed my Ph.D. from 2005-2010. So, six years after defending my thesis on management accounting and performance management, I was excited to return today in order to speak about a slightly more inspiring topic in a more relaxed environment.
I’d like to thank the TEDxEBS team for their awesome work. They have created a beautiful event, perfectly organized, with a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
It typically takes a couple of weeks until the TEDx videos are edited and then approved by the TED organization. But as I’m eager to share my thoughts and feelings with you, below, you’ll find the script of today’s talk. Once the video is online it’ll be fun to watch what I’ve actually said on stage compared to what I had written down earlier on.
Enjoy – and please help me to spread the news…
A Bridge over Troubled Water: On Compassion in Organizations
The most common sentence at work
What’s the most common sentence you hear at work? Most likely, it’s “How are you?” Each time you start an interaction, that’s the way to kick off the conversation, right? So, what do we reply when a colleague asks us: “How are you?” Typically, we´d say: “Thanks, everything’s fine.” And then we´d probably ask in return: “How are you?” And the other person will say “Great! Thanks for asking…” That’s what we do in business, that’s the flow. Here in Germany, it’s all the small talk you need. After that, you can get right to business.
The elephant in the room
Now, what if one of the two individuals in this “game of how are you” actually said something like: “I don´t feel good at all. You know, my child is really sick and I probably shouldn’t be here today.” Or, even more severe: “My father is likely going to die over the next days and…” Suddenly, there´d be this huge emotional elephant in the room, right?
And then, there´d be this awkward moment of prolonged silence. Finally, the other person would say: “Oh, that’s terrible. Is there anything I can do?” And the first person, noticing the awkwardness, would very likely reply: “No, no, it´s fine. But thanks for asking. Let´s go to work.” And then, they would go to work. Maybe they would talk about the budget for next year. Meanwhile, that elephant would make itself very comfortable in the room, making sure the whole meeting takes on a markedly uncomfortable vibe. Why is that the case?
Ever since Fredrick Taylor´s concept of “Scientific Management”, companies are supposed to be places informed by stern rationality. It´s all about numbers, calculations, and efficiency. Humans, with all of our emotional complexity, we´re oftentimes seen as a disturbing factor. Many of the most influential theories in economics actually dismiss human emotions altogether. Their homo oeconomicus is a selfish calculating machine.
And yet, each and every one of us knows that moment when the elephant steps into the room, right? Apart from positive feelings such as pride and joy, inevitably, we also experience emotions such as anger, fear, and sorrow while at work. There’s certainly a lot of fear in organizations. The truth is: Part of human life consists of suffering. And that’s why part of organizational life also consists of suffering. It´s a no-brainer.
That´s why the late Peter Frost, a management professor at the University of British Columbia, coined the following sentence:
There´s always pain in the room!
There´s always pain in the room. Such a strong statement. Because it’s true. I mean, there’s pain in this room right now. 100 people. In the beginning, I asked “How are you?” – and you said you feel alright. But I´m sure there is suffering in this room right now. For some, it’ll be some physical pain, for some, it’ll be emotional pain, for whatever reason. There’s always pain in the room. That’s human. That’s life.
And basically, this means there´s always a lot of suffering in organizations. I work for a company of 120.000 people. That’s a lot of potential for suffering, each and every day. It’s not always about life and death, but it’s certainly always there. Where does this suffering in organizations come from?
Some of that suffering is caused outside of work, but people bring that into the office. There´s relationship problems, financial worries, sickness, there´s death – and taxes, for sure. We’re kind of expected to shake things off, to leave our negative emotions at the front door. Guess what: We can’t. We can put our sorrows on hold for a while, but we cannot get rid of them altogether. It’s impossible.
Additionally, work itself can be a source of suffering: Think about choleric bosses, harsh working hours, conflicts between departments, getting worn out in these power games, or the fear of being laid off. As leaders, we often talk about change. We talk about the future, and how to get there. What we tend to forget: Wherever there’s change, people lose something. When something new comes to life, something old has to die. Grief is, or at least, should be a natural companion of change.
Here’s a simple truth – yet one that is often overlooked: As leaders, we create suffering. We create suffering. It’s unavoidable. If we don’t create suffering, we’re probably not leading. Leading people sometimes means making decisions about things, budgets – and sometimes, making decisions about people. Who gets to work on that new cool project – and who doesn’t? Who gets to go on vacation for Christmas, who has stay in the office? Who gets promoted, and who will lose their job? Some people will suffer. You create suffering as a leader. That’s OK. But you have to be aware of that fact and you’ve got to take care of that.
The nature of compassion
So, what can we do when were confronted with the suffering of a person we work with? One option could be to downplay or outright ignore it. We sometimes advise other people to stay strong, or to get their shit together, right? But recent research from the Leadership Quarterly suggests that, especially as a leader, it’s about the worst thing you can do. In the long run, it will drive down engagement, motivation, and satisfaction of your people.
A different way to respond to suffering is: Compassion. Showing compassion. Now, that´s a word that somehow doesn’t seem to fit in the world of business. It seems too soft, too esoteric. In fact, the word compassion is most often associated with spiritual traditions, first and foremost with Buddhism. Now, what exactly does it mean to show compassion? How do we get there?
First, some good news: You don´t have to go to Tibet for several years to meditate in a cave. Actually, compassion is something we´re born with. Even small babies will spontaneously display compassion when confronted with the suffering of someone they care about.
At the heart of compassion there´s a very simple and beautiful idea: The wish that other individuals may be free from suffering. While people here in the West would probably think of their family and friends first, the goal of practicing Buddhists is to extend this wish to all sentient beings. That´s the Champions League of compassion, so to speak. For now, let´s say the gist of the matter is wholeheartedly wishing for the best for other people.
Compassion as taking action
Now, here´s a crucial thing: Compassion is about taking action. It is more than just being empathetic. Compassion is about mitigating another person´s pain. Let´s suppose you see somebody hitting their thumb with a hammer. You could say something like “Oh, I know how that hurts, I´ve been there.” Technically speaking, you´re empathetic. You´re able to feel what´s going on with the other person. But then, if you don´t care, it´s not compassion.
In scientific terms, compassion consists of a three-step: 1) Noticing another person´s suffering; 2) feeling empathetic concern; and 3) taking some kind of action to mitigate that suffering. Or, as I like to call it: Realize. Relate. Relieve. Now, what is the concept of compassion in organizations?
Compassion in organizations
In organizations, compassion can be displayed spontaneously, or it can be planned into the system. What does it take to be personally compassionate? Not much, actually. Taking some time to just listen to somebody, offering them undivided attention. Giving somebody a hug, or buying them a coffee. When you´re able to hold a space where others can show their full selves, where they can be vulnerable – that´s compassion. Especially as a leader, not doing or saying things or postponing certain actions can ask be a sign of compassion. You should try not make things worse, right?
On the organizational level, there´s a possibility for magnifying individual compassion. Think about offers for counseling. Think about monetary support or temporarily cutting working hours. Especially, with severe strokes of fate, having time to cope and sort things out is a crucial resource. When companies offer swift and non-bureaucratic support at this point, it´s a true sign of organizational compassion.
Another element of compassion in organizations is coordinating rituals. I´ve already spoken about how change always activates grief. When long-time employees retire, or worse, pass away, typically, we hold farewell rituals. But what about the pain an organization creates itself? When there are layoffs and restructuring, people will suffer. I´m talking about relationships that are torn apart, about people being stripped of their pride, or a part of their life´s meaning. This is not only burdening for those colleagues who have to go, but also for the ones who get to stay. Handling transitions such as these in a personal and appreciative fashion, not resorting to press releases and empty phrases, is a true sign of compassion.
The upsides of compassion in organizations
So, what´s the “so what” of organizational compassion? What are the upsides? There is an excellent review article by Jane Dutton (and colleagues) from the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. She proposes compassion unfolds its positive effects on several layers of the organization: It is beneficial for the person on the receiving end, it’s beneficial for the one who displays compassion, it can be beneficial for potential bystanders – and potentially it creates ripple effects throughout the whole organizational system. Acts of compassion are a source of shared emotions, gratitude, and companionship. Additionally, while going through the motions, people engage in joint sense-making.
As a consequence, employees experience elevated levels of gratitude, pride, and meaning. Yes, compassion can be a powerful driver of meaning in organizations. Some studies propose there is a measurable impact on the bottom line. Think about less absenteeism, less burn-out, certainly less turnover intentions. On the positive side, think about heightened levels of trust, cooperation, and satisfaction. These seem like soft words, but they will show up in a company´s bottom line, eventually.
What undermines compassion in organizations?
Before I start wrapping things up, I´d like to say something about what undermines compassion in organizations. At this point, I could talk about how certain values and norms suffocate and literally kill compassion, for example rigid hierarchical leadership, overly competitive standards, and a macho-style “boys don´t cry” culture. But for the sake of brevity, I´m going to talk about something else: About you!
I´m speaking here at a distinguished business school. Most, if not all of you, are going to be future business leaders. That´s great news, but therein lies a risk: Several studies, for example by Adam Galinsky (and colleagues) from Columbia Business School, propose that we tend to become less empathetic the more powerful we are. When we rise up the corporate ranks, we tend to lose – at least to some extent – our innate impulse to feel what others feel. When we rise in power, we typically care less about the suffering of others. At the same time, research by Jennifer Berdahl (and colleagues) from the University of British Columbia suggests leaders are less willing to express negative emotions. They tend to keep them to themselves. As a consequence, it´s very unlikely they´ll be at the receiving end of compassion – even if they might desperately need it. Accordingly, there´s a kind of compassion gap at the top of most org charts.
Now, keep in mind: As a leader, especially when you´re part of a top management team, you serve as a role model, whether you like it or not. People are going to look up to you, you´ll set the tone of the organization. As a consequence, there seems to be kind of vicious circle. Leaders tend to become less compassionate as they rise in power, and at the same time they shape the norms of the organization. Taking this into account, it seems that hierarchical systems have an inclination to become less compassionate over time – unless the leaders purposefully counteract this emotional decline.
It starts with you
And so, it starts with you! Most of you here in this room are just about to embark on your professional journey. Some of you will join existing corporations and you will eventually rise up the ranks. Some of you will join a non-for-profit or build a career in public service. A lot of you will hopefully build your own companies or take on responsibility in the family business. It’s all good. You can all find happiness.
Just remember: You’re not a different human being when you´re doing business. You take on a role and a responsibility – but there is no other version of yourself that you can send off to work. It’s always you and it’s always all of you. As a leader, you will suffer, and even more so, you will be the cause of suffering. You´ve got to take care of that.
So, when you go work: Dare to bring your whole self to work. When you lead people: Dare to encourage them to bring their whole selves to work. When you build a company: Dare to grow an organization where people can be their best, their whole selves. Dare to be a compassionate leader. Dare to lead from he heart. Thank you!
I wholeheartedly would like to thank the following researchers for being a source of inspiration, knowledge, and wisdom – even though most of them do not appear directly in the talk or in the charts, and even though some of them don’t even know about their contribution:
Wayne Baker, Sigal Barsade, Jennifer Berdahl, Kim Cameron, David Cooperrider, Edward Deci, Jane Dutton, Alex Edmans, Barbara Fredrickson, Peter Frost, Adam Galinsky, Adam Grant, Dacher Keltner, Laura Little, Kristin Neff, James Pawelski, Christopher Peterson, Robert Quinn, Richard Ryan, Esa Saarinen, Martin Seligman, Emma Seppälä, Kennon Sheldon, Tanja Singer, Michael Steger, Chris White, Monica Worline, and Amy Wrzesniewski.
A special thank you goes out to Jane Dutton and Robert Quinn from University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations. Somehow, they have helped me to understand that it’s OK to put my ass up on that stage with this “esoteric” topic.
Last not least, I’d like to thank my two beautiful children – who hopefully will grow up to work in a (business) world that’s as close as possible to the one I bring to life in my words.
4 thoughts on “A Bridge over Troubled Water: On Compassion in Organizations”
What a powerful and inspiring speech! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.
I love this perspective with deliberate intention to incorporate this model into my business practice. Thank you for the gift of sharing.
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