Compassion: The hidden heart of business performance
Do you treat your employees as human resources rather than human beings? Time to change, says Dr Amy Bradley.
Reading time: 5 minutes
Today’s workplaces are becoming increasingly transactional. The number of people working on zero hours contracts has grown by 358% within the past few years and with the rise of the gig economy, many people find themselves in piecemeal and unstable employment without regular access to a professional support network.
Even when at work, few people have a colleague with whom they can confide, with only one in six workers feeling they have someone they trust enough to talk to about the things that worry them.
To be human is to suffer, yet our struggles can remain hidden from work. Rehumanising our workplaces though compassion is fast becoming a business imperative, because when employees feel cared for and valued, they are more likely to be engaged.
Furthermore, it is our relationships with friends, colleagues and loved ones that are the key engagement and to our life satisfaction overall.
Close social bonds help people to cope with life’s ups and downs; they slow down mental and physical decline and are better predictors of life expectancy and happiness than class, IQ and genes combined.
Compassion is not just about caring for colleagues and being a nice human being. Compassion also builds the bottom line. Companies that make compassion a core part of the business generate superior financial performance and experience higher levels of customer loyalty, because clients advocate when they feel cared for.
So, what does it take to build a compassionate culture? There are four building blocks that can help companies to embed compassion into their organisational DNA.
Companies can have the most compelling vision and the clearest strategy, but if the culture is not conducive, compassion will never flourish.
In compassionate companies, people are firmly at the heart of the business. Colleagues treat one another with a sense of equality and mutual respect and hierarchy is often indetectable.
Companies that make compassion a core part of the business generate superior financial performance and experience higher levels of customer loyalty
There is a strong sense of connectivity between people across the business and the organisation’s values are likely to include words such as ‘trust’, ‘equality’, ‘balance’, ‘respect’ and ‘care’.
Employees at all levels will live these values in the way they relate to one another, as well as the way they interact with their clients or customers.
Take the example of Innocent Drinks, the smoothie and fruit drinks company based in London. Their aptly named Fruit Towers headquarters building is designed around communal spaces which helps to foster a strong sense of community.
At its centre is a shared kitchen. Employees use this space on a daily basis to meet and eat together, so relationships across the business can be nurtured and maintained.
When it comes to compassion, leaders are an inescapable focal point, as they have the power to set the tone.
Take Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional social network. He has oriented the entire company around compassionate leadership.
Weiner has developed an online course for all those with line management responsibility which is called Managing Compassionately.
In this course, Weiner shares his own personal experiences and talks about the need for all leaders to try to put themselves in their team member’s shoes, to try and understand their struggles.
Compassion is also encouraged within its reward systems with each employee being given an annual budget to spend on anything that makes their life easier, such as childcare or a gym membership.
It is the strength of support between people in an organisation that is a key to compassion becoming embedded.
With its 74,000 employees, one might expect social networks at Cisco Systems, the US security and software conglomerate, to be slower and weaker than those of a small company. However, in this organisation, news of employee suffering travels fast.
In a 2018 media interview, an employee reported how a leader, whom he had never met and who worked in a completely different part of the business, had heard about his daughter’s life-limiting genetic condition within the Cisco network and had rallied around her team to raise money for medical treatment, which Cisco then matched.
Cisco has become known for its coordinated and systemic compassion, which is part of what it calls its ‘conscious culture’.
Systems and practices
It is the policies and procedures that enshrine culture and help to embed compassion in organisations.
Work practices founded upon trust and respect, such as transparent communication, participative decision-making and favourable HR policies have been found to be conducive to a compassionate culture.
Companies that promote humanity and dignity throughout their systems and practices experience higher levels of retention and engagement among their staff.
For example, in the UK-based fast food chain Nandos, it rewards its employees via a sabbatical scheme. After five years of service, staff are offered a month of additional paid leave.
At Philips, the health technology company, it prides itself on its compassionate approach to recruitment.
During the hiring process, Philips staff work hard to ensure people are helped to feel safe and comfortable during their interviews, so as to live by the company’s compassion-focused values.
Compassionate acts happen spontaneously between work colleagues in organisations every day when individuals are moved to support each other in challenging times.
Without a focus on culture, leadership, social networks and systems and practices, however, compassion will not become systemic.
As we move into a world driven by artificial intelligence and automation, we need more than ever to realise the power of human-to-human connections.
In the 21st century, organisations need to look to compassion as the foundation for healthier, happier, more engaged and higher-performing workplaces.
About the author
Dr Amy Bradley is a member of Faculty at Hult International Business School and author of The Human Moment
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