An Empty Gesture or True Compassion?

Meaningful acts of compassion strengthen us, but empty gestures do the opposite.

Do you watch the TV series “This is Us”? We do, too. Do you remember the episode where Randall quits his job? If you don’t know what we’re talking about, watch the scene and join us!

Randall is allergic to pears. At his interview dinner, he accidentally ate some pear and went into shock. So, his boss should have a strong memory of this allergy. But upon the death of Randall’s father, the firm sent him — wait for it — a box of pears.

That empty gesture might not have been so bad if it had been accompanied with a truly supportive expression of care. But upon opening the card that came with pears, Randall found a canned one-line message and typed out signature line that read generically: “the team.”

The emptiness of this sentiment pushed Randall over the edge. It came to symbolize many other things that disturbed him about the firm. He knew it was time to quit.

At a time of real suffering in Randall’s life, receiving these empty gestures from his colleagues amplified his sense of grief. Rote actions and overused gifts can seem empty of meaning. When experienced at a time of loss, that emptiness often comes to symbolize disregard and inauthenticity on the part of organizations.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

True compassion, on the other hand, is customized. In our book, Awakening Compassion at Work, we show dimensions of competence in the expression of compassion in organizations. One dimension is customizing actions to the preferences, needs, and desires of those who are suffering. For instance, in one organization we studied, people made handmade cards for their coworkers who were going through difficult times. These inexpensive-to-create bundles of folded paper became unique and treasured expressions of care. Treasured not because they were fancy, but rather because they were totally personalized with accumulated wishes, inspirational sayings, jokes, quotes, memories, and small tokens of concern pasted into their pages.

Our research shows that true compassion makes a meaningful difference in the lives of people who are suffering. While routinized responses such as flowers or donations can seem like empty gestures if handled in the callous way of Randall’s firm, the don’t need to be that way. Even routinized responses can be customized and infused with meaning if we take care to ensure that they are accompanied by personal notes or genuine and warm thoughts.

As Randall is delivering his resignation, he reminds his boss of his strategic importance to the firm. He’s brought in new clients, grown the employee base, and invested countless hours away from his family to insure the firm’s success. When people have invested so much of their lives in work, how they feel they are treated in their darkest hours speaks volumes. Meaningful acts of compassion strengthen people’s commitment and attachment to the organization. Empty gestures do the opposite.

Let Randall’s story serve as a cautionary tale. Watch out for empty gestures that breed contempt, cynicism, and distrust. Not only are they missed opportunities for compassion, they are potentially costly losses of invaluable human talent, dedication, and goodwill.

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Monica Worline, PhD, is CEO of EnlivenWork. She is a research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and Executive Director of CompassionLab, the world’s leading research collaboratory focused on compassion at work.

Jane Dutton, PhD, is the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration and Psychology and cofounder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. She has written over 100 articles and published 13 books, including Energize Your Workplace and How to Be a Positive Leader. She is also a founding member of the CompassionLab.

Their new book, Awakening Compassion at Work, available now on Amazon, reveals why opening our eyes to the power of compassion is smart business.