“Compassionate management” sounds great, but can it sweat the tough stuff?

Last month, business writer Bronwyn Fryer blogged for the Harvard Business Review about the welcomed trend toward “compassionate management,” at least as measured by a growing number of conferences, panel discussions, lectures, and social media sites devoted to the topic. Here’s a snippet:

A growing number of business conferences are focusing in on the topic of compassion at work. There’s the International Working Group on Compassionate Organizations. There’s the Changing Culture in the Workplace Conference. Then there’s Wisdom 2.0, dedicated to “exploring living with greater awareness, wisdom and compassion in the modern age.” The speakers are no slouches: eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Bill Ford (yes, that Bill Ford), Karen May (VP of Talent at Google), and Linked In CEO Jeff Weiner top the bill. At TED, Karen Armstrong’s talk about reviving the Golden Rule won the TED prize in 2009 and has given rise to a Charter for Compassion signed by nearly 100,000 people.

It’s a very good piece, chock full of links to learn more, and well worth reading in its entirety.


Hopeful signs notwithstanding, we know that compassionate management is far from the norm, as Fryer acknowledges.

Indeed, the overall emotional state of the American workplace shows a crying need for enlightened management practices. A recent Gallup Poll indicated that 70 percent of American workers “have ‘checked out’ at work or are ‘actively disengaged,’” as Ricardo Lopez reported recently for the Los Angeles Times. These high percentages of emotional disengagement have been pretty consistent since 2000.

Furthermore, readers of this blog know very well that workplace bullying is one of the most common forms of interpersonal abuse. When presented with reports of bullying at work, employers often dismiss the complaints or make the situation worse for the targeted worker. In fact, this occurs 62 percent of the time, according to a 2007 Workplace Bullying Institute national survey conducted with Zogby International pollsters.

Among the challenges…

As I wrote in my 2008 article, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership” (Journal of Values-Based Leadership), a real test of an organizational leader is what she does when presented with a valid report about workplace bullying that implicates a top executive or, better yet, that person’s friend. Will the situation be handled fairly and honestly, or will it be swept under the rug? All of the organization’s proclaimed devotion to ethics and social responsibility go out the window if the latter occurs.

The same can be said of compassionate management generally. It’s one thing to say all the right things; it’s a lot harder to do them, especially when the circumstances are inconvenient or uncomfortable.

In addition, compassionate management must encompass genuine inclusion. This means giving workers a real voice (and backing it up with protections against retaliation for exercising it) and striving to work cooperatively with unions in organized workplaces. It’s not about creating a facade of feel-good “niceness” that dodges difficult and thorny challenges.

And don’t forget the Golden Rule…

Fryer recognized the tension between cynicism and optimism that many of us balance when it comes to dealing with our workplaces, and she suggested that the Golden Rule is a good starting place for guiding our behaviors:

It’s just a hunch, but I suspect most of us are experiencing cynicism fatigue. The overwhelmingly bad news springing from the news media leaves most people with two options: either they become cynics who drown themselves in their own pleasures, or they try to make a difference. Most of the smart people I know are little a bit of both, but they fight their cynical side. They try to work on something of worth at work and in the world. There is no better way to start doing this than to practice the golden rule on an hourly basis.

I’ve written about the Golden Rule at work before. Like compassionate management, it’s easier preached than practiced, but it’s a worthy aspiration.


Related post

Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy? (2010)

5 responses

  1. David, excellent post about a much needed topic. In business school we are taught that the numbers are the most important measure of success, regardless of how we get there. Sure, we talk about ethics, yet in the real world people are more comfortable working inside the gray areas as a result of poorly crafted incentive compensation plans.

    Treating people right. Living with compassion at work, home and the community pays off in the end. What has happened to basic civility in our society? We have become one huge reality show at work, like the Wives of New Jersey. She who is nastiest wins. Clever and cunning are rewarded behaviors.

    Compassion, in the end, wins. Thanks again for your article.

    Kevin Kennemer
    The People Group
    Tulsa, OK

  2. ” It’s not about creating a facade of feel-good “niceness” that dodges difficult and thorny challenges.” Totally agree, and I would add that this should also include being forthright in dealing with those individuals whose behaviour is disruptive or inappropriate. “Compassionate management” shouldn’t mean being kind and accommodating to everyone in every situation.

  3. Excellent and thoughtful post, David. It has made me think hard about rules in the workplace. There are no rules in the at-will workplace right now. There are “best practices” and there is preaching about “good management”. There are no rules. We are all human–it will be hard in the moment to exercise the kind of compassion or the Golden Rule when self-interest or someone we like is potentially at risk for punishment. Most of us will fail and that means most managers will fail. This is why I think workers need more rights. It’s easy to express pity for people in a bad situation. But workers don’t need pity. They need rights so that these bad situations don’t happen.

  4. Another great post, David. I appreciate your reference to “creating a facade of feel-good “niceness” that dodges difficult and thorny challenges” as I am noticing more institutions of higher ed that have instituted ‘civility campaigns’ that seem to focus more on being polite than on the manipulation and cruelity that is associated with bullying and mobbing. One of the bullies in my life was actually quite polite …. which is one reason why so many had a very hard time believing he could be a bully.

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