Growing Compassion in Organisations

Hello!

I am so excited to be joining “Working with ACT” exactly two years to the day since Rob and Rachel started this wonderful blog. Working with mindfulness and values is a big part of my professional and personal life. My aim is to bring you interesting perspectives on ACT research.

By way of introduction, I thought I might briefly review one of my own papers written with Sharon Parker.  I promise I will focus on papers by other people in the future 🙂  Here is the citation from which you can link to the paper if you would like to read more.

Atkins, P. W. B., & Parker, S. K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(3).

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“I don’t do emotions!”  This was a comment made by one of my students in reaction to an exercise exploring values and stressors at work. But in reality, we all “do emotions”. A growing body of evidence clearly shows that emotions are a major determinant of performance in all workplaces, including public sector organisations.  Emotions alert us to what matters, they allow us to communicate and make decisions that are effective.  Emotions are at the heart of thinking about how we wish to live and what we wish to create in society?

Becoming skilful at recognising and influencing emotions at work is a key facet of effective leadership and management. Such skill rests upon the quality of our awareness and perspective taking ability. We need to be able to take the perspective of others to act effectively. We need to be compassionate if we are to respond skilfully to our own and others emotions.

Compassion towards oneself and others is a critical part of building effective relationships and making good decisions at work. Think for example of how you handle situations where you or someone in your team fails to achieve important goals. What would it be like if people were more compassionate towards themselves and others at these times?

Compassion is not just a feeling.  It involves four stages:

  1. Noticing another is suffering,
  2. Making judgments about what is going on,
  3. Feeling empathy, and
  4. Taking action.

There are three judgments that can get in the way of compassion towards self or others.

First, we can fail to be compassionate because we judge that the person who is suffering is not deserving of our compassion. For example, we might judge that the person brought their suffering on themselves.

Second, we might judge that the person’s suffering is not relevant to us. Research shows we are much less likely to extend suffering to others who have different goals, or belong to groups with which we do not identify. If we make this judgment, we are more likely to feel disconnection rather than compassion.  One can easily see how this judgment is involved in the debate over immigration in this country.

Third, we make a judgment about our personal resources. If we don’t feel as though we can cope with being in the presence of another who is suffering in some way, we are more likely to feel distress rather than compassion.  The manager who cannot bear to be in the presence of a person crying is making this sort of judgment.  This judgment appears to be involved in the experience of burnout many people feel when they work in jobs that involve caring for others.

Of course, these judgments are sometimes justified.  Modern evolutionary theory suggests that such judgments are an important aspect of self-protection and effective group function.  Sometimes it is best not to feel compassion, or at least not to act upon it. Our argument is not that we should always feel more compassion. Our argument is that it is helpful to become more aware of the automatic reactions that drive our behaviour. To the extent that we can catch our reactions in motion, we can choose our responses more deliberately and improve our effectiveness.

So how might we learn to catch our automatic reactions, and act more in line with what really matters?

If you have been following this blog you will know that there are two aspects of effective training in emotional skills. First, we need to increase mindfulness. Being mindful means being aware of what is happening in each moment both within ourselves and in the world and bringing an attitude of openness to that experience. Second, we need to be clear about our values and the values of the organisation in which we work. There is no point developing awareness if we don’t know how we want to act in the world. Values act as a compass to guide our behaviour.

What has been your experience of compassion at work? Is it encouraged? Does it have a positive impact?

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