Compassion’s Relevance for Work_Part I

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Compassion is acting on one’s feelings for the suffering of others.

For compassion to be relevant in the workplace, one needs to first realize that suffering exists at work.

While suffering may initially seem absent, taking time to notice suffering results in the recognition of its presence. By locating your own or others’ feelings, you might find some pain. In addition, you might locate suffering by remembering your own or others’ difficult circumstances.

Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, in their book Awakening Compassion at Work, list a number of sources of suffering:

1. External sources: Illness, injury, loss, divorce, financial pressures, addiction, and other personal and relational challenges

These sources of suffering may begin outside the workplace, but are sufficiently intense to decrease a person’s ability to work at their normal levels of capacity.

2. Internal sources: Downsizing, restructuring, change processes, heavy workloads, performance pressures, feeling devalued, disrespectful interactions, and other organizational sources

These sources begin in the workplace. They not only decrease a person’s ability to work at their normal levels, but they are also likely to negatively affect one’s life outside of work.

3. Taken for granted: Lack of appreciation, supervisors who don’t understand, unreasonable deadlines and demands, feeling devalued and disengaged when want work to be meaningful

These sources also begin in the workplace. Their impact is not due to intensity so much as their prolonged nature or the depth of their effect.

Over time, the stress that comes from these sources of suffering creates strain and limits a person’s well-being. This impacts a person’s ability to engage and perform well.

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Elevating Compassion in the Workplace

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Compassion is associated with better financial performance and higher employee and customer retention. Gallup stated, after conducting a survey about organizational responses due to 9/11, “When compassion is called for, know that your bottom line is at stake.” (See Awakening Compassion at Work.)

If compassion is so important, why do people shift in their chairs when the topic comes up? I believe it’s partly due to a perception that compassion is at odds with profitability.

Recently, I was talking with an HR professional about their difficulties with retention. She told me that they’d lost a high-performer who was a single mother with young children. They wanted to keep her, but she kept coming in late or calling off work at the last minute. They bent over backwards… even violated internal rules to keep her.

When compassion is called for, know that your bottom line is at stake.

One day, in frustration, they put their foot down. They let her go. Realizing her value, they tried to get her back… but she wouldn’t come back. HR had to make a tough call, so they did. But they regretted the outcome.

When employee behaviors are out of character, look for suffering and try to make generous interpretations. When generous interpretations aren’t easy (i.e., poor performance, broken trust, manipulation, disrespect, or other uncivil behaviors at work), work toward compassionate action rather than reaction.

I wonder if the HR professional had sat down with the high-performer to learn about her personal situation. If she had, there might have been a different outcome. In any case, I believe she would have less regret.

What’s Your Worldview?

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I don’t like to admit it, but a lot of my spiritual work over the past decade has been to shift my spiritual worldview – my fundamental conception of reality. I had to reconsider it to make sense of my experience.

When I started attending Quaker meeting, where I heard about the Inward Teacher/ Divine Guide and that “there is that of God in every person,” I realized that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore! These ideas required that I conceive of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit as within myself. But I couldn’t. My operating worldview was some amalgam of God being outside of me (usually located above my head) and a figment of religious imagination.

The writings of Walter Wink, a bible scholar and theologian, helped me. His book, Engaging the Powers, defined five different worldviews that helped me grapple with my orientation to reality.

He said that ancient people, including those who wrote and were written about in the Bible, believed that heaven was literally above the dome of the sky. They also believed that every earthly entity and event had a heavenly component. So, when human beings were engaged in a struggle on earth, there would be heavenly beings (i.e., God, the gods, angels, etc.) above them concurrently involved in the struggle.

Over the centuries, as people developed psychologically and ideas about the world changed, especially with the development and advances of science, different worldviews came to be. By the beginning of the 20th century, most people had spiritualistic, materialistic, or theological worldviews.

A spiritualistic worldview holds that heaven is good and earth is a necessary evil. People are seen as spiritual beings that are trapped in bodies that cause them to sin. Freedom from the body is seen as desirable (as matter was indifferent at best, but usually evil). This was the reason why people would hurt themselves (i.e., hair shirts, flagellation) to develop spiritually.

When science came along, which required observation and control for proof, it set the wheels in motion for people to question spiritual reality. It led to an “I need to see it to believe it” orientation. A materialistic worldview developed as a result. It contends that there is no spiritual reality – that only material and sensory experience is real.

Because religious people could not abide the materialistic worldview, and because theologians could not effectively argue against it, the theological worldview developed. This worldview suggests that the spiritual realm is not knowable by the senses. Science and religion came to apply to separate aspects of experience. Also, theology and religious people came to be seen as impractical, except perhaps when concerns about death, injustice or evil arose.

By the middle of the 20th century, due to scientific and theological developments, another worldview began to form. Like the ancient/biblical worldview, the integral worldview conceives of every entity as having a ‘heavenly’ and an ‘earthly’ component. Only now, the ‘heavenly’ aspect is within rather than above the ‘earthly’ aspect. This worldview conceives of spirituality as the inward nature of matter. The ‘heavenly’ in and of itself is unseen, but is manifested in and through matter.

The integral worldview helped me to understand spiritual insight and understand and experience God as within me. This worldview allows us to reclaim spiritual reality and integrate it into our understanding without distancing from scientific knowledge or the material world. If fact, it can help us to see the secular as sacred again.