A Bridge over Troubled Water: On Compassion in Organizations

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

Nico Rose - TEDxEBS 2016

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:

Pain - Compassion  - Peter Frost

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.

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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.

Compassion - Realize - Relate - Relieve

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!

Compassion Killers - Adam Galinsky

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.

Mappalicious - Children

Feedback? You´re doing fine! Just keep on going…

A good friend of mine, Vivian Wagner, has founded a non-profit organization called 1World Social Capital Program (1WSCP). 1WSCP offers mentoring to aspiring female professionals and students, helping them to grow their social capital with 12 highly regarded and successful mentors who are doing amazing work to break the glass ceiling for women all around the world.

1WSCP regularly posts short videos of leaders who share important learning experiences from the careers. For my video, Vivian asked me to specifically think about how we can elevate and uplift the people around us.

I share a story that took place while still studying Positive Psychology at Penn. The video contains a shout-out to Professor Jane Dutton from the Center for Positive Organizations who facilitated our learning experience that day. An older written account of that experience can be found here.

Share and enjoy!

Organizational Energy: A Whole-System Approach

A couple of days ago, I wrote about the concept of relational energy, the idea that energy is generated via positive interactions between an organization´s members – resulting in a fully charged system.

Org_Energy_BruchToday, I´d like to introduce two other approaches that aim at assessing organizational energy. In both, St. Gallen-based (Switzerland) Prof. Heike Bruch plays a major role.

In an article Bruch co-authored with Sumantra Ghoshal in the Sloan Management Review from 2003 based on several case-studies, she introduced the idea that an organization as a whole system can be described via a grid that describes the intensity and the quality of the present energy. In doing so, she also promoted the concept of “organizational burnout”, a state that may arise when an organization spends to much time in the upper left quadrant of the energy grid. I highly recommend reading the original article – as it also provides valuable ideas on how to shift an organization from one energetic state to an another (“Slaying the Dragon” and “Winning the Princess”)

In 2011, she followed up with this article: Energy at work: A measurement validation and linkage to unit effectiveness. This further explores the idea of “whole system energy” but tackles it from a more quantified point of view. The authors define

collective energy (henceforth productive energy) as affect, cognitive arousal, and agentic behavior among unit members in their joint pursuit of organizationally salient objectives.

One important notion is that the researchers view productive energy as having affective, cognitive, and behavioral components – so it´s not only about “feeling energized”:

Affective energy refers to members’ shared experience of positive feelings and emotional arousal due to their enthusiastic assessments of work‐related issues.

Cognitive energy refers to the shared intellectual processes that propel members to think constructively and persist in search of solutions to work‐related problems, including the mental faculties to focus attention, shut out distractions, and have a desire to make “good things” happen.

Behavioral energy reflects members’ joint efforts designed to benefit the organization; it encompasses the pace, intensity, and volume with which members purposefully invest physical resources.

 The other important distinction is the facet of emergence:

We take a multilevel position on energy, conceptualizing it as both an individual‐level and a collective‐level phenomenon. We, therefore, recognize the need to discuss the nature of its emergence or how the lower‐level parent construct (i.e., individual‐level energy) materializes to form a collective construct (i.e., productive energy).

Accordingly, the authored have used a questionnaire to assess individual energy, but used that data to additionally compute a collective energy level, e.g., that of the whole business unit, by aggregating the individual energy levels. Here are some of the items they used:

  • Affective dimension: People in my work group feel enthusiastic in their job.
  • Cognitive dimension: In my work group, there is a collective desire to make something happen.

  • Behavioral dimension: People in my work group often work extremely long hours without complaining.

After statistical analyses, the authors conclude that

productive energy appears to be an emergent phenomenon. That is, energy referenced at the unit level considers the context or social environment in which individuals work and is distinct from the attributes of those individuals.

In a separate study, they also find that

the productive energy of firms is positively associated with firm performance.

I´m really eager to see how this stream of literature will develop in the future – and how it might inform practical interventions, e.g., in the field of human resources development.

Passion. Purpose. Performance. Positive Business Conference (Day 1)

I’m absolutely thrilled to be at the University of Michigan, attending this year’s Positive Business Conference at Ross School of Business.This post is my personal summary of the conference’s first day, brought to you via some of the tweets I’ve put out there…

Prof. Vic Strecher shared some really intriguing upsides of having a strong purpose in life. More importantly, you should check out his fabulous app JOOL.

Prof. Jane DuttonJOOL had me change my mind on using the term rockstar only in contexts that involve electric guitars. She shared with us her Flourishing Triangle framework of organizational effectiveness.

I was equally thrilled to be able to learn directly from Prof. Alex Edmans, whose work on the financial impact of treating employees exceptionally well has been covered extensively on Mappalicious.

Prof. Joe Arvai shared some incredible research on how to help consumers make more ethical buying decisions. E.g., why is that we can consciously choose from what part of the world our coffee comes from (and how it was cultivated) – but not with regard to our gasoline? And what if we could

After lunch, I was thrilled to have the opportunity of attending a workshop led by Prof. Robert Quinn whose blog posts I share frequently via my Positive Psychology News Digests.

Once more it became clear to me that we do not really understand “a thing” (even if we’ve heard about it a lot of times) until somebody explains it to us in the exactly right words at the right time.

When you’re in the right space, the smartest “person” in the room is the room itself.

Jim Miller, VP at Google, shared insights on the special culture that drives the incredible success of the company.

Of course, there were more sessions, and more speakers, and an abundance of inspiring conversations while having delicious food – but I cannot cover it all here.

Yet, one last thing I found out is this:

Share and enjoy!

Positive Business Conference

What drives Workplace Happiness? A Survey of 200,000 People

BCG_Decoding_TalentOne of the central tenets in Positive Psychology is “Other People Matter!” – coined by the late Prof. Chris Peterson. This is also true for the workplace. Hell may be other people, as Sartre famously said. But they are also heaven if companies manage to create asshole-free offices.

I recently stumbled upon a study carried out by consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG). They surveyed more than 200,000 people globally from all walks of life on the drivers of workplace happiness (among other things). At the end of the day, they came up with a list of 26 different factors. In the graphic, the top 10 attributes that influence workplace happiness are displayed.

Now, if you ask me, the top 4 factors are all about (positive) relationships:

BCG_Decoding_Talent_RankNo. 1 is “appreciation for your work”. Yet, appreciation doesn’t come out of nowhere. It´s provided by bosses, co-workers, and subordinates. It´s other people.

No. 2 is “good relationships with colleagues”. Clearly, that´s other people.

No. 3 is “good work-life-balance”. For me, that translates to “My job enables me to have good relationships with people apart from the workplace”.

No. 4 is “good relationships with superiors”. That’s probably very close to No. 1.

I rest my case.

Article about Positive Organizational Scholarship on Zeit Online

For my German readers (or those that like to use Google Translator):

I´m really proud and happy right now. I´ve published an article on ZON, the online presence of Die Zeit, Germany´s most-read weekly newspaper (and one of the most prestigious in general). It covers a short overview of Positive Psychology and then takes a deep-dive into Alex Edmans´ research on the relationship of employer centricity and capital markets performance.

Nico_Rose_Zeit_Feelgood

 

 

Why that Swiss Friend of yours is probably Happier than You are

Frau_BartSome nations are happier than others, that’s a fact. In most year’s rankings, Switzerland or one of the Scandivian countries (quite frequently: Denmark) take the No. 1 spot in the carefully researched list. Quite obviously, this does not mean each and every person over there is happier than your fellow countrymen – but on average, they are. Why is that the case? The solution can be found in the answers to these high-level questions:

  • Do people earn enough money – and how well does the economy do in general? Additionally: Is the distribution of wealth (perceived as) fair?
  • Do people form strong social bonds in your society? Do they value highly their family and friends?
  • Do people have access to (enough) healthy food, clean water, and decent doctors/hospitals?
  • Do people live in a (stable) democracy granting a high amount of individual freedom and safety?
  • Can people afford to be generous and compassionate vis-a-vis your countrymen (and generally, those in need)?
  • Can your citizens trust their political and economic leaders?

Or, in the words of University of British Columbia economics professor John Helliwell, co-editor of the World Happiness Report (as quoted on ThinkAdvisor.com):

Six factors explain about three-quarters of the difference in country rankings […]: GDP per capita, social support (based on the question, “Do you have a friend or relative to call on in times of trouble?”), life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity (having donated to charity within the past month) and trust (perceptions of business or governmental corruption). 

In order to make make the top ranks of the “happiest nations list”, a country needs to do pretty well on each of those factors. But they also explain why some countries that don’t do so well economically might be far ahead of some richer counterparts:

(Some of) the best things in life are free – e.g., your family and friends.