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Awakening Compassion (Book Review)

written by Lisa Sansom 3 May 2017

Lisa Sansom, MAPP '10, is the owner of LVS Consulting, an independent consulting firm that helps to build positive organizations. Lisa provide services such as individual and leadership coaching, team facilitation, effective communications training, Appreciative Inquiry and change management consulting. Full Bio.

Articles by Lisa are here.

It is just about impossible to read Awakening Compassion at Work and not think about recent disasters that have happened, such as the sad events that led to a passenger being involuntarily dragged off a United Express flight. Subsequent emails from the CEO of United were not reassuring, blaming the passenger for being belligerent. Later emails were more conciliatory, and some policies at United changed as a result.

The initial response was not news to musician Dave Carroll.

When Carroll flew United over 10 years ago, he had to check his beloved guitar. It was mishandled by the airline and broken. His claim for damages was refused, and after many months of futile negotiations with the airline, he penned and recorded a song which went viral. It was called United Breaks Guitars. As a result, Carroll became a desired speaker about customer service, but his focus has changed recently. He now speaks about compassion in organizations.

Enter the New Book About Compassion

It is in these times, and with these thoughts in mind, that I read Worline and Dutton’s wonderful new book. I also think about the many co-workers and bosses I have had, some of whom were compassionate, some of whom professed to be and then weren’t, and some of whom probably had no familiarity with the word compassion at all. What is compassion, and where does it belong in organizational life?

The authors define compassion as a very specific four-part process. It involves:

  1. Noticing that suffering is present in an organization
  2. Making meaning of suffering in a way that contributes to a desire to alleviate it
  3. Feeling empathic concern for the people suffering
  4. Taking action to alleviate suffering in some manner

Let’s Look at the Title

Compassion, unlike many other positive interpersonal concepts, arises solely in response to suffering, and we don’t talk about suffering in organizations all that much, especially not when it comes to one’s personal life (divorce, death of loved ones, suffering of those we care about, and so on). Maybe we should?

Worline and Dutton have also made an excellent word choice in their title: this is about awakening compassion. Compassion is something that comes naturally to people, but often we feel that we have to suppress it, or worse, we are told that we need to suppress it in order to be seen as professional, productive, and efficient. However, doing this emotional labor is extremely difficult and mentally taxing, and can lead to worse performance as well as potential burn-out. It removes our ability to form meaningful relationships with others in the workplace, and we know that it’s important to have a “best friend at work” thanks to the work of Tom Rath and others at Gallup.

Now Let’s Look at the Book Structure

In part one, An Introduction to Suffering, Compassion, and Work, the authors explain what they mean by compassion at work and why it matters (hint: it really does). As I read the introduction, I was entirely convinced about the rationale for compassion, but also saddened that we need a corporate rationale to express and encourage compassion. We are all compassionate by nature (at least, the vast majority of us are) and it makes me worried for corporations that we need to calculate the return on investment of compassion for it to be seen as acceptable and desirable in the workplace. I would have thought that we already realized that we bring our whole selves to work. Tragedies and difficulties, such as those shared throughout this book, will affect us. We need compassionate workplaces so that we can continue to be human and make a meaningful contribution through our work. That goes both for the person needing compassion and the colleague who provides the compassion. But perhaps I digress. There is a business case to be made for compassion at work. I just wish it weren’t necessary.

In part two, Awakening Compassion in Our Work Lives, the authors provide some excellent verbiage to help bring compassion to our work lives: we must notice, then interpret, then feel, and then ultimately act in order to alleviate suffering through compassion at work. It is meaningful that the authors choose active gerund verbs as the headings of their chapters. Awakening compassion in our work lives is active, and not passive. We must notice, and we must act. It is not enough to wait and hope for others to make the first move.

In part three, Awakening Compassion Competence in Organizations, we learn about how to go about awaken compassion competence. Again, it surprises me that we need to construct organizational structures that increase competence in this seemingly natural area, but perhaps organizational life has gotten to the point where humanity is not encouraged unless it is seen as profitable. Worline and Dutton do an excellent job of providing case studies where organizations have created compassion competence across divisions and across geographical divides. You would think, for example, that global organizations would be unable to allow employees to demonstrate compassion across time zones and cultures, but it is perhaps easier than you think. When organizations allow creative mobilization of compassionate energies, employees act and support each other in meaningful ways.

Finally, in part four, Blueprints for Awakening Compassion at Work, we read about personal and organizational blueprints and how to overcome obstacles to compassion at work. There is a trouble-shooting guide for when things do not work out as we wish.


In some ways, this was a very difficult book to read. The stories of suffering experienced by employees in the case studies were heart-wrenching and often tragic.

However, suffering does not have to be so grand or final. Suffering happens also in the day-to-day of our lives: the worrisome call from the school principal, the uncertain health test results which are probably nothing but we need another test just to be sure, the extensive rains that may be flooding your basement as you sit at work watching the storm clouds gather. So we can be compassionate in the day-to-day of our work lives as well.

Just taking the time to listen, to notice, to respond and, as warranted, to act, makes for better work environments where people feel that they matter, and respond in positive supportive ways to others. This isn’t just colleague to colleague or employee to client. This is human to human.

Dave Carroll told me “The time for this idea of compassion in business is now.” I tend to agree, and would add that the time for compassion in business has always been. As long as there has been suffering, there has been a need for compassion. Truly, we cannot be collectively elevated without it in organizations and everywhere.


Dutton, J. & Worline, M. (2017). Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Video of United Breaks Guitars

Dave Carroll’s incident chronicled on Wikipedia

Dave Carroll’s speaker page. Thank you, Dave, for kindly allowing me to quote you.

Carroll, D. (2012). United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media. Hay House.

Rath, T. (2007). Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without. New York: Gallup Press.

Photo Credit: Flickr via Compfight with Creative Commons license
Consoling child courtesy of Greens MPs
Perhaps your colleague has a sick child at home courtesy of taylormackenzie
Storm damage courtesy of Crystal Writer

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Angus Skinner 4 May 2017 - 1:30 pm

Well said Lisa. Adam Smith would agree. You cannot have Wealth of Nations and ignore Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Be well

Diana Gabriele 19 May 2017 - 7:20 am

Thank you Lisa for this review. It was perfect to start off my Friday morning workday. I had once heard a quote that speaks to the lack of caring in corporations: “Corporations have no conscience”. It would often times appear that way with some of the callousness that many decisions are made concerning people, customers, staff, environment etc. Thank you for reintroducing the value of compassion which is necessary to be humanity, morality and attentiveness to our workplaces. Have a blessed day.

Jeremy McCarthy 21 May 2017 - 7:19 am

Beautiful article on an important topic. Thanks Lisa!

Lisa Sansom 23 May 2017 - 2:48 pm

Thank you so much for your kind comments Angus, Diana and Jeremy – it’s very meaningful to me. When you treat people right, they treat people right.


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