Two weeks ago, I gave my second TEDx talk on compassion in organizations. If you are interested in the (sort of) transcript of my talk, please visit this post. The purpose of this one is just to share some photos and to congratulate the fabulous organizing team of TEDxEBS 2016. The photos were shot by Erfan Fazloomi.
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.
Do you like the people you´re working with? Do you identify strongly with that group of human beings? Do you even feel that you belong to the larger system of the organization you´re working for? If the answer is yes: Good for you! Because most likely, this will be beneficial for your psychological and physiological health in the long run.
A recent meta-analysis by Niklas K. Steffens (University of Queensland, Brisbane) and colleagues concludes that
both workgroup and organizational identification are associated with individuals’ experience of reduced strain and burnout as well as greater health and well-being.
In short, liking the people we work with on the immediate level (our team) as well as the macro level (the organization as a whole) and experiencing a sense of belonging helps us to stay healthy and sane. From a Positive Psychology point of view, it´s interesting to see that social bonds do help to prevent stress, but even more so, foster the experience of positive outcomes:
Social identification feeds more strongly into the promotion of what is “good for us” than into the prevention of what is “bad for us”. These findings support previous work which has made the point that the absence of stress is not equivalent to the presence of well-being. More specifically, findings are consistent with a psychological conception of positive human health and phenomenological accounts of social identification which suggest that increases in identification capture increases in positive experiences and are therefore related particularly strongly to positive forms of well-being.
Here´s to you, Chris Peterson!
So, I’m sharing a commercial video here. Yes, that’s not the usual content on Mappalicious.
It’s just that so many of my academic heroes are gathered in this video (and thus, at the CPO, e.g. Robert Quinn, Jane Dutton, and Kim Cameron) that I’m actually eager to share it. The CPO is a fabulous place to learn. I know this ever since taking part in their Positive Business Conference in May.
Please also check out their fabulous website. They host a wide array of Positive Psychology resources, e.g., this extensive list of research papers on Positive Organizational Science.
I don´t know if it´s my age (…the 40s are clearly in sight…), or the fact that I will become a father for the second time over the upcoming weeks (Yeah…!), or if it´s just in the air anyway (I believe so…) – but my mind is preoccupied with the topic of meaning and purpose at work and in life in general most of the time.
If you also would like to dig deeper into that subject-matter: Here´s a neat book list for you. Some books are brand-new (e.g., Dan Pontefract´s) or haven’t even been published yet (as in the case of Emily Esfahani Smith´s, a fellow Penn Mappster), some have been published over the last two years (e.g., Aaron Hurst´s book), some are a bit older (e.g., Rick Warren´s bestseller), and with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Viktor Frankl I´ve also included some classics. Some books are based on solid science through and through (e.g., Vic Strecher), some are more self-help style (e.g. Marsha Beck), some are scholarly books (Dik et al.), most are clearly written for the layman.
Share and enjoy!
- Martha Beck: Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live
- Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning
- Bryan Dik et al.: Purpose and Meaning in the Workplace
- Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning
- Aaron Hurst: The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community Is Changing the World
- Dan Pontefract: The Purpose Effect: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization
- Emily Esfahani Smith: The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters
- Victor Strecher: Life on Purpose: How Living for What Matters Most Changes Everything
- Dave & Wendy Ulrich: The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations That Win
- Rick Warren: The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?
For my German-speaking readers:
About two weeks ago, I gave a keynote on Positive Psychology at the Fifteen Seconds Festival in Graz/Austria. It covers a short introduction to Positive Psychology, some scientific facts on the relationship between treating your employees exceptionally well and the financial returns of a company (based among other things, on the research of Prof. Alex Edmans), and a model of exceptional leadership based on ideas of Prof. Michael F. Steger.
Share and enjoy!
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.