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Building a compassionate workplace

Over the years I have had the good fortune of interacting with leaders, organizations and individuals at various stages of their respective careers. Strangely I have found a common answer to the question on compassion, “I/We are a compassionate person/organization.” If we treat this as the gospel truth what then is the need to even discuss compassion at the workplace and or developing a compassionate workplace?

It all begins with the definition and perception of the word compassion. The origin of the word is from Latin and means “co-suffering”. A more modern definition from the Cambridge English Dictionary describes it as “a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them”. It is very evident that in both the origin and current definition there is sufficient similarity and dissimilarity. This is exactly the point at which the dissimilarity originates within individuals and organizations.

It is then technically correct that all human beings ‘feel’ the suffering of others. The more humane ones feel sympathy, the sadists find pleasure (in the suffering of others). Similarly organizations ‘feel’ the pain of their employees and stakeholders. The problem then is in the second half of the definition – the desire to help or suffer with them. Many that I have engaged with treat the question of helping others as a good desire but one that is not easily actionable. I have heard “fund crunch, resource crunch, time crunch” and many other crunches as reasons for NOT fulfilling the desire to help a sufferer.

Many years ago I encountered the question of maternity leave. I heard arguments for sticking to the then policy of two months extendable to four months (on a case-to-case basis, whatever that meant…) and changing it to four months completely. Given that I had the power to rule, I ruled that the maternity leave policy should be six months and no less. It was many years later that my stand was vindicated when the government made it mandatory. Contrast this with a conversation I had with women leaders where I was categorically told that their organizations didn’t hire young women. When I probed I was told it was because of “issues with marriage and maternity leave”. Had this come from men, it would have been termed sexist. But what to say when it came from women themselves?

The problem then lies in our moral compass and being in touch with our emotional side. Morality isn’t a prescription that one can follow and be ‘moral’. It is a mindset that stems from how we learn about life and the world we live in. I continue to fight an uphill battle in getting people to follow traffic rules. Imagine then an entire species that has self-preservation and “me first” as its top priorities and you will understand why there is so little compassion visible.

When discussing how compassion should be brought in to the workplace I received some interesting input. Here are the top 3

What cannot be measured cannot be done

There is this thought floating around that to be able to become compassionate or to create a compassionate organization one needs to put in a measurement scale. To define the scale

one would have to define the parameters that were measurable. The measure then would be an indicator of compassion.

What is rewarded gets done

The biggest rewards are financial and there is no argument about that. Bourses reward companies by hiking their share price based on financial matrices. I have sat in a group where a proposal to add a compassion index that should determine the share price of a company was proposed and even discussed. No, it wasn’t a group of delusional individuals. These were industry leaders, some even highly decorated ones.

Compassion should be taught

I have heard about workshops on sensitivity. Organizations have talked about doing little things to make people happy and thus compassionate. I am not even in the same playfield in understanding how this works. There are other schools that talk about groups that lead compassionate thinking and thus help percolate the idea.

There isn’t a prescription or a magic formula that creates compassionate organizations. There are some indicators though that help build one. The key to this learning is that it takes time, it takes effort and it can be hugely frustrating for leaders and employees alike.

Here are some learnings from my own journey

Compassion is an integral part of the culture of a company

It is not something that is taught but is in the DNA of an organization. While there is no measure or process on how it gets into the DNA, there are expectations that the more successful a company, the more compassionate it should be. The reverse is that the smaller or marginalized the organization, the more room we make for ‘not being compassionate’. If a large organization didn’t help individuals in their time of need (usually financially or with time off) we would collectively be very angry. We would dub the organization a ‘bad one’. Read reviews on Glassdoor and you will know what I mean. But if the individual is a part of a small organization such as a proprietary firm or a small partnership one and he suffered, the tendency would be to accept the discomfort more readily. We thus make allowances for organizations.

To truly be compassionate, size doesn’t matter. A company needs purpose and profit should be the last objective listed. To be compassionate you need to be successful; this too is true. But to be successful you don’t have to let go of your compassionate side. As business leaders develop and ‘start-ups’ want to be recognized, a sound compassionate outlook is essential.

Compassion stems from the leadership

It is my observation that the very top tier of management is sometimes hesitant to show it’s compassionate side. There is a feeling that by being rude and ‘tough’ one is perceived to be a better leader. Nothing could be further from the truth. History has acknowledged the existence of ruthless leaders that conquered large parts of the world. But the most effective ones are the ones who were compassionate. While a Genghis Khan conquered the world with bloodshed, Ashoka the Great did so with the spread of Buddhism and its message of

non-violence. In today’s world Genghis Khan has no role to play in any scenario. A compassionate leader is the one employees follow because they see him as their own; a mortal of flesh and blood – a human being that will help them achieve their objectives.

I think leaders have shied away from this important trait or have downplayed it in their leadership. A team that is willing to bend backwards for a leader is a team that lives and breathes success.

Employee first decision making

While a company or a leader might be good at creating policies that resonate compassion, it is in crunch situations that leadership and their compassion quotient is tested.

How will a leader act when faced with a policy that he has formulated vs the genuine need of an employee?

- Will the leader take shelter under the provisions of the policy OR

- Will he have the courage to rise above it and risk his own credibility?

Decision making at the very top is tough. But that is what it means to occupy the highest chair in any organization; you must have it in you to take tough and complicated decisions. I have found leaders to be self-serving, self-protecting and most often just indifferent. This is where the culture of the organization comes apart. Insensitive decision making is still better than indifferent decision making. While the former can still be corrected once sensitivities are known, the latter is very difficult to move simply because the leader doesn’t ‘get it’. It is then that the organization suffers the most. Look around you and see successful companies, they have one thing in common – decisive, sensitive and employee first leadership.

There are many ways to illustrate what a compassionate company looks like even if it is difficult to describe. Here is an example of compassion in the DNA of SAGE India.

A child was poisoned in Kerala. The poisoning was with a rare compound on which very little research was ever done. The child was rushed to a hospital. The doctor at the hospital thought he had read about this sort of poisoning and that there was a cure for it. There was some research but he wasn’t sure where to find it. The doctor called the librarian of the research center. The librarian in turn traced an article in a journal published by SAGE. Unfortunately they didn’t subscribe to that journal. The librarian called his sales contact at SAGE who in turn called the head office in New Delhi. Without seeking any sort of approval, the sales head, customer services and the production team traced the article. A PDF was located and emailed to the librarian. In turn the doctor got access to it, read it, acted upon the antidote and the child was saved. When I became aware of this, I immediately ensured the individuals were recognized and rewarded. A journal article is an asset of a publishing house. Very few individuals are ever authorized with parting of company assets at no cost. But it was heartwarming to see that very junior individuals believed in the leadership of the company. They acted with compassion to save the child without fear. The net result was that a human life was saved.

For compassion to be built a combination of vision and execution is very important. It is for the leadership to set the tone and the belief system right. It takes time and it takes effort but at the end of it, it is absolutely worth it.

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