The Road To Compassion At Work

Originally published at Forbes.com.

I have been a student, practitioner and teacher of leadership development skills for more than four decades and over the years, I have moved from sympathy to empathy to compassion as my response to suffering in the workplace. It continues to be an education fueled by my personal experience and research that offers a business case for compassion like this academic article by Jane E. Dutton, Kristina Workman and Ashley E. Hardin.

In my teens, I learned about power, collaboration and mutiny through student government positions. In my twenties I learned about mutual respect, hierarchy, patriarchy and organizational behavior from my professors at Cornell, my employees in the hospitality industry and from Ken Blanchard who wrote The One Minute Manager and Situational Leadership. In my thirties, I learned about the simplicity of shared vision, values and wealth from my mentors Fred Eydt and Chuck Feeney and complex leadership theories from my professors in my graduate program at Columbia.  In this period of my leadership career, I focused on using sympathy when people I interacted with at work were suffering. Sympathy can be defined as feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Sympathy allows you to keep suffering at a distance.

In my forties I learned about failure, being an artist and entrepreneurship through the ups and downs of creating my own content and business; and social impact from leaders like Eileen Fisher and the speakers and members who were part of the Social Venture Circle (formerly Social Venture Network). I also learned about using empathy in the workplace when I became a Franklin/Covey facilitator.  This is the decade where I honed my leadership coaching craft to a more professional level at the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara. In addition, I was able to embrace empathy as a coaching, leadership and culture change practice armed with knowledge from Daniel Goldman’s work related to emotional intelligence. Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. However new research suggests that overusing empathy at work can lead to burnout.

In my fifties, I am striving to move from empathy to compassion in my professional life. Compassion is asympathetic consciousness of others’ distresses together with a desire to prevent or to alleviate it.  I call this process the Compassion Continuum, I observe the suffering with sympathy first, then actually share some of the feelings of the sufferer with empathy and finally move into compassion by taking the time and actions needed to be of service. 

For example, when a career or leadership client is experiencing depression and needs extra support, I will now take the extra step of finding them specific therapists or psychiatrists in their area rather than being more passive, like telling them to search on Psychology Today.  I will also make extra calls to offer support to any of my clients who are suffering from personal or professional loss. Today I called a client that is facing losing her job before her meeting with her boss. Over the years I have come to realize that people in distress, often need action rather than advice from their advocates. In addition, since taking on this compassion challenge, I am making more time for my colleagues when they are experiencing struggles and also have more compassion for myself when I make mistakes.

Practicing compassion at work is not always easy. It takes patience, focus, time and effort but it will always provide personal, professional and organizational benefits.