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Compassion: Our Hearts at Work

written by Amanda Horne 22 September 2008

Amanda Horne is an executive coach and facilitator whose business theme is "Thriving People and Workplaces." She is an Authentic Happiness Coaching graduate and a founding member of Positive Workplace International. Full bio.

Amanda's articles are here.

Richard Davidson

Richard Davidson

“I am committed to putting compassion on the scientific map.” This remark was made at the 2008 Happiness & Its Causes Conference, Sydney, Australia, by Dr. Richard J. Davidson, Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience and the W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin/Madison.Dr. Davidson is shown here describing how this geodesic sensor net containing 256 electrodes picks up electrical impulses from numerous parts of the brain when placed on a subject’s head. The net can be used at the same time that a PET or fMRI scan is taken at the Keck Laboratory to provide maximum information.Listen to Neuroscience of Compassion on Peace Talks Radio for more about Dr. Davidson’s views on the subject.

Compassion in the Workplace

This heightened interest in compassion is also occurring in organizations, where people are paying more attention to how compassion can build thriving workplaces. Frequently leaders and executives comment on the ‘humanity at work’ and ‘human moments’, and how these are vital for good workplace functioning. With its origins in eastern and western philosophies, compassion is outward directed, it “transcends preoccupation with the centrality of self” (Snyder & Lopez, 2007, p. 47), people focus on others and not merely on themselves. This ‘other’ focus builds the foundational strength which characterizes supportive and flourishing relationships and contributes to personal, team and organizational success.

A recent situation in a large organization illustrates compassionate behavior at work. A team with limited resources was working to a very tight deadline. Unfortunately, one of the co-workers had a serious accident. There was no question: the team took time out to visit their colleague and did all they could to help their colleague’s family. Although this added to the time pressure, it created a new level of energy in the team, and they were able to get the job done in time. This not uncommon example sent a very powerful message to the rest of the organization about what’s important in life. Organizational compassion is contagious.

Compassionate behavior was the focus of research documented in the Journal of Organizational Behavior (Lilius, Worline, Maitlis, Kanov, Dutton, & Frost, 2008). Two studies were carried out in a hospital. In the first study, researchers measured how frequently employees experienced compassionate behavior on the job, from their supervisor and from co-workers. They also measured positive emotion and commitment to work. The second was a narrative study where the same employees wrote about their experiences of compassion at work. Findings included:

  • Compassionate behavior often occurs at work and employees experience compassion more frequently from peers than from supervisors
  • Compassion leads to increased positive emotions such as pride, gratitude, inspiration and ease, and strengthen well-being at work
  • “Compassion represents a form of personal connection that we rarely notice in work organizations and is usually invisible in any formal sense. This is because if compassion ‘‘works,’’ it allows people to heal and recover, generating little if any interruption to the normal flow of action and leaving little visible trace of its deep impact.”
    (Lilius et al, 2008, p. 211)

Wider Research
Wider research shows that compassion

  • Reduces stressed and frustration (Snyder & Lopez, 2007; Heaphy & Dutton, 2003)
  • Increases positive emotions and reduces negative emotions (Lilius et al, 2008; Heaphy & Dutton, 2003)
  • Increases dopamine, enhancing attention and pleasure and increases serotonin, decreasing fear and anxiety Snyder & Lopez, 2007)
  • Increases the sense of humanity at work (Heaphy & Dutton, 2003)
  • Fosters group happiness and team cohesion (Snyder & Lopez, 2007; Lilius et al, 2008)
  • Improves performance at work (Heaphy & Dutton, 2003; Goleman, 2006)
  • Improves commitment at work and employee engagement (Lilius et al, 2008; Goleman, 2006)
  • Improves responsiveness to customers (Goleman, 2006)

“Workers’ immune systems were buffered from the immunological effects of job strain when they viewed their social support as adequate. Positive connections strengthen the immune system during periods of acute and chronic stress, such as job strain” (Heaphy & Dutton, 2006, p. 15)

“Leading with compassion can favorably impact the bottom line while enabling leaders to sustain their effectiveness for longer periods of time.” (Boyzatis & McKee, 2005, p. 185)

Some ways to improve compassionate behavior
Feeling secure and stable provides a foundation which makes it easier to show compassion – “feeling cared for frees us to care for others” (Goleman, 2006, p. 214)

“An organization which has high-quality connections between people will have much more fertile ground for compassion to happen.” (Worline, 2006, p. 31). The following behaviors can increase the expression of compassion in an organization by supporting high-quality connections:

  • Be available, sensitive and responsive to others’ needs and issues.
  • Make time.
  • Listen empathetically.
  • Be emotionally present, be in tune and engage mindfully with others.
  • Build a team environment which supports compassionate behaviors.
  • Encourage compassion from all levels, not just from the top.
  • Be curious and have respect.

“…companies where the focus is on amplifying positive attributes such as loyalty, resilience, trustworthiness, humility, and compassion – rather than combating the negatives, perform better, financially and otherwise.” (Fryer, 2004, p. 23)



Boyatzis, R.E. & McKee, A. (2005) Resonant Leadership: Renewing Yourself and Connecting with Others Through Mindfulness, Hope, and Compassion. Harvard Business School Press.

Fryer, B. (2004), Breakthrough Ideas for 2004, Harvard Business Review, February 2004

Goleman, D. (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. New York: Bantam Books.

Heaphy, E., & Dutton, J. (2006) Positive Social Interactions and the Human Body at Work: Linking Organizations and Physiology, Ross School of Business Paper No. 1056, Academy of Management Review.

Lilius, J. M., Worline, M. C., Maitlis, S., Kanov, J,. Dutton, J. E., Frost, P. (2008) The contours and consequences of compassion at work, Journal of Organizational Behavior, Vol 29; No. 2, pp 193-218

Snyder, C.R. & Lopez, S.J. (2007) Positive Psychology: The Scientific and Practical Explorations of Human Strengths. Sage Publications.

Worline, M. (2006). quoted in: “Compassion Across the Cubicles”, Greater Good Magazine, Spring 2006

Photo by: Jeff Miller, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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