Compassion: A New Management Imperative – Part 2

December 14, 2021 Jason Lauritsen

man looking distraught, face in handThis is part two of a three part series. In last week’s post, we explored why employee well-being is vital to performance at work. And we discovered that the skill managers need to effectively support well-being is something we don’t traditionally teach at work – compassion.

Today, we’ll dive into compassion to explore what it is and how it works. Then in the next post, you’ll learn how to help your managers develop the skills and capacity to practice greater compassion for their people.

What is compassion?

Compassion isn’t something you’ll find in the most traditional management training curriculum. In fact, if you’re familiar with it, it’s probably thanks to your spiritual practice. Compassion isn’t new; it’s just been really slow arriving in the workplace. But it’s long overdue. And we need it now more than ever.

Compassion is defined as “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” While it has some similarities to other more popular concepts like empathy and sympathy, it is not the same thing.

Empathy in psychology is defined as “a sense that you can understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy allows you to walk in another’s shoes and feel their feelings. When the other is suffering, you can feel their suffering.

Sympathy, in contrast, is defined as “a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.” You don’t have to understand or feel the other’s pain to feel sympathy for someone else. It’s feeling something “for” someone else’s suffering.

Neither empathy nor sympathy, by definition, requires any motivation to take action to help the person suffering. You can be empathetic towards an employee who is really struggling and feel their struggle, but that doesn’t help relieve the suffering of the employee. It just means you both feel the pain.

Sympathy is even less helpful to the employee. Pitying struggling employees is a great way to push them towards the door. It’s more likely to lead to anger and resentment than anything positive.

Compassion, on the other hand, requires an authentic desire to relieve the suffering of the other. It doesn’t require that you feel their pain or pity their situation, rather that you notice the suffering and are moved to take action to help.

That’s what Rebecca and my wife did for me. They saw my suffering and offered help. When you are the one suffering, you don’t crave empathy. You want is support and relief. That’s what compassion does.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-empathy. If you’ve been developing empathy in your management and leadership teams, that’s a great start. It’s just not enough.

And as I outlined earlier, given the threats your employees have faced to their well-being recently, there’s a lot of struggle and suffering to be addressed. Our managers need this new skill of compassion to help them effectively respond.

The four components of compassion

While it may sound daunting on the surface to teach compassion to your management and leadership teams, there’s some good news. Research suggests that we all have an innate predisposition towards compassion for others. This has been observed in children from our very early years. Some have labeled this the “compassion instinct” to capture that it is a “natural and automatic response that has ensured our survival.”

So, it might be more accurate to think of developing compassion as unlocking our natural human instincts for compassion and freeing them to benefit ourselves and others. But how do we do that?

Psychologists have found that compassion has four components that, like a muscle, can be strengthened through exercise and practice.

1. NOTICE: You must first recognize that someone else is suffering.

2. CARE: You must then be emotionally moved by that suffering.

3. DESIRE: You have an intention to see the other free from or relieved of that suffering.

4. ACTION: You must be moved to a readiness to take action to relieve that suffering.

It is these components working in concert that make compassion so powerful. It’s a simple checklist to greater management impact.

When I look at this list of components as someone who has been studying employee engagement and management for twenty years, it reads like the prescription to cure what employees have been wanting from managers forever.

See me.

Care about me.

Notice when I’m struggling.

And then do something to help me.

Compassion will help your managers not only respond more effectively to suffering and struggle, it will also improve engagement and performance. Compassion is a key ingredient of management that we’ve been missing.

In Thursday’s post, you’ll learn how to help your managers develop a great capacity and ability to show compassion to their people.


Compassion: A New Management Imperative – Part 1

8 Ways to Support Employees’ Mental Health

About the Author

Jason Lauritsen

Jason Lauritsen is transforming management as a keynote speaker, trainer, and author. He liberates managers from outdated and inhumane practices so they can cultivate human potential at work and improve people’s lives.

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