Not-so-news flash: Compassion really does pay dividends in connecting with people, motivating them, inspiring them and helping them see how truly remarkable they are. When you treat compassion like a critical business metric, it breeds greater loyalty within the ranks, reduces turnover and helps people feel connected to their work and the people they work with.
So why haven’t the standard metrics for business success evolved past revenue growth, working capital, customer satisfaction and client retention rate to include compassion? KPIs are meant to gauge success in pursuit of business objectives, but a closer look into the corporate landscape reveals that businesses are failing to account for a key quality that underpins all their quantitative outcomes: compassion, which Brené Brown recently defined as “the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering.”
If you Google “compassion in business,” there is no shortage of information on the topic—some 140 million hits. The importance of compassion in the workplace has grown into such a popular topic that one might believe that it has become a universal norm. That’s unfortunately not the case, and that’s a pretty serious problem because compassion is necessary for employees to feel engaged at work and enjoy healthy mental well-being.
As more employees face anxiety, depression and burnout, leaders can help by pushing real compassion to the core of companies’ cultures—but companies can’t manage what they can’t measure. For this reason, compassion needs to be instilled as a core KPI to enforce it as a cultural constant. Whether it’s measured by internal surveys, happiness quotients, regular discussions or something else altogether, we owe it to our teammates to figure out the best ways to add a heavy dose of compassion to our daily interactions.
The so-called Great Resignation is proof that people are no longer willing to settle for indifferent leaders or apathetic work environments. Everyone expects (and deserves) more, so it’s not hyperbole to say that an organization’s success in 2022 and beyond depends on leadership’s ability to cultivate genuine compassion.
The Makings of a Stronger Leader
Compassion begins with leaders who model vulnerability and understanding as a daily practice. At the height of the pandemic, our employees’ minds were occupied by concerns around their health, families, uncertainties and a million other obligations and worries (for obvious reasons). They needed vulnerable leadership who related to them as people and showed them compassion where they needed it most. Compassionate leaders grew more honest and found ways to bring their full selves to work. At the company I lead, this vulnerability and compassion struck a deep chord that reverberated throughout our team and amplified an often-missing ingredient from a leader’s playbook: heart.
Since the day I began sharing more of my whole self, our team has felt comfortable doing the same. By leading with real compassion and heart, our team has found more opportunities to personally thrive and create memorable experiences for those we serve. Together, we’ve created a highly empowered culture that is productive and proficient. As a result, we’re coming off an incredible business year, surpassing business milestones we once thought were unachievable. Compassion—and our compassionate culture—were the drivers.
Fostering Greater Compassion in the Workplace
Leaders need to treat compassion like the critical KPI it has become. For those companies striving to build a more compassionate culture, here’s where I recommend starting:
1. Learn and cultivate compassion toward yourself. Building compassion in the workplace is less about the word and more about the feelings. Compassion can’t be faked, it can be difficult to learn and it backfires when forced. One survey found that 46% of employees feel that corporate attempts to be empathetic ring hollow—and that’s the rub. Empathy is the spark that can ignite compassion, so if leaders don’t have that basic ingredient, developing full-fledged compassion is next to impossible.
It’s difficult to build compassion without empathy, so leaders need to develop enough emotional intelligence to understand what each situation within their business requires. Whether through self-reflection, coaching or some other means, accept that you don’t know everything—nor should you. Learn to lead from within.
2. Solicit and listen to feedback from the team. Effective, compassionate leadership requires you to understand how your team feels about the work they do and the processes you expect them to follow. That means you need to get comfortable asking for honest feedback. It’s easy to write about compassion and the impact it has made on our culture, but if I were to ask my team, would they share the same sentiments? People are under a tremendous amount of pressure these days, and it’s affecting their mental health. Give employees the space to share, ask clarifying questions when warranted, and then be brutally honest with yourself before any response.
I did this, and what I learned was invaluable. I reached out to about 5% of our team to ask them to share their feedback on how we are doing around compassion and mental health in the workplace. One individual shared that our employee assistance program was the lifeline she and her family needed during a challenging time. That’s the good news. That bad was that she said it took her escalating her situation to human resources to be made aware the service existed. She shared that we needed to do better to educate our team on this offering, which we promptly did. This was a great example of how a leadership blind spot could unintentionally keep employees in the dark about beneficial services.
3. Model genuinely compassionate behavior. Almost everyone would agree that people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. If you’re truly, authentically compassionate and always behave in such a fashion, your team will learn to do the same. It becomes a cultural norm. It supports the success of the company. It becomes the way, not merely an option.
During the pandemic, I took a leap of faith and started communicating with my team in a way I had never done before. I was experiencing firsthand the extreme stress of the unknown while trying to balance work and parenting responsibilities, and I wanted to make sure our team knew they were not alone. Starting in March 2020, I would send a companywide email each Friday sharing my perspective, personal challenges or triumphs, or offering an optimistic or heartfelt story to connect with the team. Members of our team, many of whom I’d never personally met, began engaging with me and sharing their own stories. The camaraderie and trust cultivated from this was more impactful than I ever could have imagined. As a result, my Friday emails live on today and have become another proof point that we do actually care, not just say we do. Writing something meaningful to share with hundreds of employees every Friday is not always easy, but the effort is worth it. It sends a clear message to everyone about who we are, and it helps us attract the type of people who can help our compassionate culture flourish.
Nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Compassion is the basis of morality.” Two hundred years later, the same can be said about business success. Leaders must answer the call to develop their compassion and create a culture that truly puts people first. Once accomplished, that’s the definition of a successful business—no matter how you measure it.