How to make your workplace more compassionate

For decades, leaders and co-workers were told to “leave emotions out of it.” That’s terrible advice. Business is a human endeavor, and humans are emotional. It’s our superpower.

According to HBR, “In a landmark study analyzing more than 3,500 business units with more than 50,000 individuals, researchers found that acts of courtesy, helping and praise were related to core goals of organizations. Higher rates of these behaviors were predictive of productivity, efficiency and lower turnover rates.”

The data tells us what we know in our hearts to be true: Work is better when the people around us truly care.

Here are three ways you can bring compassion to your workplace:

Assume good intent

We judge ourselves on our inner intent, but others on their outward actions. It’s one of our (less helpful) human quirks. When we are running late to a meeting, it’s because there was an unavoidable delay. Not our fault. When other people run late? It’s because they don’t care or aren’t organized.

Making a practice of assuming good intent doesn’t mean you never hold people accountable. You’re simply not jumping to conclusions when you don’t know yet.

Start with yourself

If you’re tough on yourself, it’s a matter of time before you become tough on the people around you. Instead, try to treat yourself as you’d treat a good friend. Let yourself make mistakes, embrace your growth journey and take steps to tame your inner judgments.

Grant people grace (even when they’re annoying you)

Here’s a story from Steven Covey’s book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” It’s stuck with me for life:

I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly — some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.

Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt like was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know who to handle it either.”

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh I’m so sorry. Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.”

In all reality, you have no idea what’s going on beneath the surface. Some people have challenging childhoods, tough circumstances, or are facing immeasurable hardships they’ll never speak of in the workplace.

Compassion isn’t in conflict with performance, it’s connected to it. When we have compassion for each other, and for ourselves, the entire organization rises.