My compassion, Your Compassion, Organizational Compassion

I believe that the methods by which we increase our altruism, our sense of caring for others and developing the attitude that our own individual concerns are less important than those of others, are common to all major religious traditions … They all advocate love, compassion, and forgiveness.

-The Dalai Lama

In his book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, Stephen Hall suggests that compassion is made up of three components. The first component is the acknowledgment of, and respect for another’s perspective. This is really about a possessing a heightened sense of emotional intelligence to better read cues from people around you. The second component requires a person to feel something in the “heart” of another person’s pain, and this includes physical, emotional and mental pain. This is empathy. The third component is possessing an emotional response to another’s suffering to such a degree that you must act. The action you take is a function of something personal to you but also external. Thus, the compassionate, authentic leader is motivated to reduce their suffering as well as the suffering of others.

Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton, in Awakening Compassion at Work, suggest that compassion has a fourth component. We seldom consider that suffering occurs within organizations, that organizations could be that “human.” But suffering is present, and it allows for the growth of an organizational culture of compassion. Compassion is different from exhibiting kindness, gratitude, and happiness. Kindness is a desire to help someone flourish; happiness is a personal sense of well-being, and gratitude is a feeling of appreciation for experiences in one’s life. Worline and Dutton have written an excellent resource for those of you who want dive deep into compassion at work, at both leadership and organizational levels. Their work has informed my view of the role compassion plays in authentic leadership.

In how a leader responds to suffering we can distinguish empathy from compassion. Empathy is the ability to understand the way someone is feeling in a given circumstance, likely because the empathetic person has had a similar experience. Yet an individual who feels empathy may not be compelled to relieve another person’s suffering. In an organization, suffering comes in many different forms, from lack of respect for colleagues to pressure to meet unrealistic deadlines to failure to value accomplishments. However, we tend to associate suffering with tragedy or other serious life events — the death of a loved one, a divorce, being laid off and similar experiences.

Though these associations are accurate, suffering is also an intensely personal experience and will impact all of us differently. A compassionate leader or colleague will not only feel empathy but will intrinsically feel compelled to help diminish the suffering of the other person. This does not necessarily mean doing that person’s work, but it could be expressed in the form of a simple act of kindness that can create momentary relief.

Let’s explore suffering during an organizational downsizing. Downsizing is a highly stressful experience for all involved. If you are among those being made redundant (the politically correct word for being laid off or fired), you will feel rejected, sad, stressed about what to do next and very likely concerned about how you’re going to pay the bills. If you are the leader accountable for ensuring that the downsizing goes to plan, you may feel guilt, shame, and stress because of the impact you’re seeing on those who are leaving the company. The people who are left behind will likely feel guilt, as they have kept their jobs while their colleagues are let go. Through and through, this is a crappy situation.

For me, I have been made redundant. At my previous academic job, I didn’t get tenure. For those who aren’t familiar with the tenure process, it’s higher education’s version of a job for life. Essentially, you make your case to a group of your peers that you are contributing value to the institution by being an effective teacher and producing research, and thus providing a service to the academic community at large.

My peers decided that I was not contributing enough research, so I was axed. I had known I would be on the fence for tenure, but I’d felt that I had accomplished enough to secure permanent residence. So when the call came that I didn’t get tenure, I was sad and felt rejection and shame. In an aim to relieve my suffering, the provost (the academic CEO) and the dean offered to help and let me teach a summer course so that I had health insurance for my family. They understood that with four kids to feed, I needed a little stability.

A Business Case for Compassion in the Workplace:

I can imagine that the thought of expressing compassion in the workplace makes some of you feel a bit awkward, maybe even uncomfortable and that you might think that compassion in a leader is a sign of weakness. When I began to write this chapter, the theme I set out to explore was how empathy is unequivocally an attribute of authentic leadership. But as I dug in and started culling the transcripts and research, it became clear that empathy is a baseline and that it’s compassion that is the higher expression of authentic leadership. Compassion is a hard virtue to achieve because it requires putting aside one’s ego and putting others first.

Your organizational a compassion starts with a plan

So, how might compassion impact the workplace? Kim Cameron, David Bright, and Arran Caza investigated eighteen organizations (with 804 respondents) to determine if perceived virtuousness, of which compassion is one aspect, impacts organizational behavior as well as financial and organizational performance. Their findings were published in American Behavioral Scientist. What they found is a significant relationship between perceived virtuousness in organizational behavior and perceived performance. When employees believe that their organization is acting virtuously, they perceive that the organization is better performing. However, we all know that perception is often different from reality, so the researchers took a deeper look at the proposed relationship between virtuousness and performance. They investigated twelve publicly traded companies, conducted a hierarchal linear regression and found that, statistically, companies that perceive their organization as having high levels of virtuousness had significantly higher profits. This is a very small sample but telling.

When organizations foster compassion, then, there is at least tangential evidence that there is an ROI. Taking this a step further, reflect on a time when someone showed you compassion. How did you respond? Were you more thankful? Was trust increased between you and the other person? If it was a leader or colleague, were you willing to work harder for that individual? In other words, the aim of this string of questions is to wonder out loud if the intangible benefits of practicing organizational compassion equal or outweigh the financial impact.

Take a minute and try to listen empathically, be that ray of sunshine and call someone who is going through a hard time, or hold your judgments. Your truths are yours, while someone else has a completely different set of truths. Excepting another person set of truths, makes it easier to be compassionate.

Dr. James Kelley


The Dalai Lama & Nicholas Vreeland, An Open Heart: Practicing Compassion in Everyday Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), p. 8.

Stephen S. Hall, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience (New York: Vintage, 2011).

Monica Worline & Jane E. Dutton, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations (New York: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017).

Kim S. Cameron, David Bright & Arran Caza, “Exploring the relationships between organizational virtuousness and performance,” American Behavioral Scientist 47, no. 6 (2004): 766–90.