Compassion Is Hot And Compassion Scholars Are Cool

Originally published at Forbes.com.

Leader: Kristina Workman, Ph.D. is a professor and thought leader in the relatively new discipline of compassion in the workplace.

Lives in: Ithaca, NY

Leadership Lesson: Using and developing compassion at work is beneficial to all stakeholders.

Life Lesson: Do great work, but always put your family first.

Leadership Mentor: Jane Dutton, Ph.D., a pioneer in compassion research at the University of Michigan and the co-author of Awakening Compassion at Work.

Dr. Kristina Workman who teaches Organizational Behavior in the SC Johnson College of Business at Cornell University is one of the researchers who is providing the science about compassion that is catching up with the wisdom of the sages. Her research tackles behavioral ethics, compassion, and leadership. Professor Workman is particularly interested in the power of small, everyday interactions at work.

She and I met for lunch at the dining room at the Statler Hotel in the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University where she currently teaches and where I completed my undergraduate degree over three decades ago. As I learned more about her personally and professionally, my main thought was “Wow, her students are so lucky to benefit from her enthusiasm, wisdom and guidance.”

Kristina knew she wanted to pursue a career of impact from a very early age, with two social worker parents who instilled this desire to make a difference with whatever career track she pursued. She went on to study management and psychology at UMass Amherst where she found a supportive environment and professors who helped foster her growth as a young student.

Like so many of us who step out into the working world from school, her first job was awful leaving her feeling underutilized, lonely and negatively impacting her self-esteem. She noticed how these types of challenging work situations were creating suffering for the employees and the companies.

This sparked an interest in fairness in the workplace and led her to a Ph.D. she started at the University of Central Florida and finished at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan where she met and collaborated with her mentor and colleague, Jane Dutton. When Jane was looking for a researcher to work with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a non-profit organization that helps families dealing with the death of an infant, Kristina raised her hand.

Kristina’s parents experienced the devastating loss of an infant 13 years before Kristina was born. Her mom always said she wished she could have just one picture. This is the mission of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep which pairs volunteer photographers with families during this difficult time. They alleviate suffering by providing free professional photographs that can also help facilitate conversation for better support and healing. In this inconceivable time of grief, these photographs can be a moment of celebration for the child’s life. Since 2005, the organization has provided more than 40,000 free portrait sessions in 40 countries.

Both Jane and Kristina are part of a consortium of researchers called the Compassion Lab where “compassion scholars” share and support high-quality research that is envisioning a better future for businesses and organizations. As a researcher, Kristina knows that compassion is the heart’s response to suffering. Her research puts an emphasis on the role of the “sufferer” and the process of noticing and responding to others’ suffering specifically in the workplace. Kristina aims to create more supportive work environments where we all can come from a better place of understanding. Kristina and others in this field are advocating to bring more humanity to business and proving it can contribute to the bottom line.

As a professor at the School of Hotel Administration, she seeks to bring more kindness, empathy and compassion to the hospitality industry through her students. “Working is fundamentally about people and considering that we spend most of our waking hours at work, our experience should be positive and fulfilling.”

I highly recommend these books by researchers that lay out the business case for how compassion makes leaders and organizations better:

Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations

Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence That Caring Makes a Difference

Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself

And here are two stats that can be found in the first book by Jane Dutton (Kristina’s mentor) and Monica Worline that support the case for compassion:

  • Compassion positively impacts productivity, employee and customer retention, profitability, and financial performance *
  • Compassion supports strategic advantage in innovation, service quality, collaboration, retaining talented people, employee and customer engagement, and adaptability to change *

Thanks to all the great work of these and other researchers, there is now more organizations embracing compassionate leadership as a best practice.