013: Monica Worline: Awakening Compassion at Work


Join me with Monica Worline for an informative and compelling conversation on the importance of compassion in the workplace.  She talks about how fear can get in our way and gives us simple tools to demonstrate compassion in ways that are most meaningful. 

Did you know that practicing compassion at work is a successful business strategy? Compassionate workplaces have higher levels of service quality, increased retention of talented employees, better innovation, and collaboration.

Join us for 100 Days of Awakening Compassion at Work

ERH: I am here today with Monica Worline and she is an organizational psychologist, speaker and writer, and founder and CEO of Enliven Work, an organization that teaches businesses how to tap into courageous thinking, compassionate leadership, and curiosity to bring their best work to life. She is a research scientist at Stanford, Executive Director of Compassion Lab, the world’s leading research collaboratory, and co-author of “Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations (with Jane Dutton). Welcome, Monica. 

Monica Worline:  Thank you. I’m really happy to be here. 

ERH:   I’ve been listening to you and reading with excitement about your new book. I have only been able to read a little bit on Kindle, while I wait for the hard copy. I’m still kind of a hard copy book person.

Monica Worline:  Me too. 

ERH:  I intend to read it every night to absorb every bit; it’s about the things that I am passionate about. So, I heard your interview with Michelle McQuade on Making Positive Psychology Work, which was wonderful. I thought it might be helpful here to talk about the difference between compassion and empathy. 

Monica Worline:  Yes. I think that is an important distinction. I’m really glad to talk about that. In the research world, when we refer to empathy, there are eight different technical meanings of the word empathy in the psychological research literature. The one that’s most relevant to compassion is feeling concern for another person’s well-being. Technically, researchers call that empathic concern, but when we say the word empathy in everyday language, usually we mean to feel what another person feels, or we might mean the cognitive dimension of empathy: to take another person’s perspective or put ourselves in their shoes. When we write about compassion and do research on compassion, we try to be a little bit more precise than just thinking about all those different meanings of empathy. 

We define compassion as a four-part human experience, which involves: 1) noticing suffering in the world around you; 2) interpreting that suffering as relevant and important for you to respond in some way; 3) feeling empathic concern or concern for other people’s well-being: and 4), taking action to alleviate that suffering. In that sense, empathy is a part of the process of compassion, but you might think of compassion as broader than empathy. 

ERH:  That is interesting to have it defined in that way, to help people see a path. Some of my work with clients is focused on mindfulness; in the form of mindful breaks and being present in your work.  But when we get to the words around compassion and empathy, I wonder if you’ve experienced perceptions in the work you do where people feel that our emotions are supposed to be very tightly managed at work in order to “get the job done”?  People have expressed fear to me that emotions in the workplace will get them off track. Have you dealt with those kinds of fears?

Monica Worline:  Yes. Absolutely. In fact, I call this one of the great myths of the contemporary workplace that actually gets in the way of awakening compassion in our organizations. It’s not the case in our research findings that people can keep emotions out of the workplace, and in fact, we can see that some kinds of emotion have been acceptable in work for a long time. For instance, anger is a commonly experienced emotion at work, but usually when people are carrying around the myth of keeping emotion out of work, what they’re trying to do is keep suffering out of the workplace. They’re trying to keep out negative emotions that they think will interfere with their performance or their professionalism. 

Because of that, it becomes very difficult to know when other people are in distress and may need our support, or our help, or emotional bolstering. We try to suggest that helping other people know what the range of emotions are in a workplace, in an appropriate way, is one of the most important things we can do to introduce more compassion into a system. Because if you can’t actually share information about suffering, you will never get to the expression of compassion. 

ERH:  How do you help customers connect compassion to the bottom line, so to speak? I know a lot of CEO’s or business owners that may not know how to make those connections. 

Monica Worline:  Yes. When you’re carrying around this myth that the workplace should be an emotion-free zone, and that emotion interferes with work, it makes good sense to try to keep suffering out of the workplace. In fact, we know that that’s impossible for people to do much of the time. What we see is that when people experience compassion in their work environment, they actually become more able to respond to give higher quality service. They become more committed to their organization and more likely to stay over the long term. They become more psychologically engaged in their work, which a lot of research is showing is an important determinant of client engagement. How engaged your employees are determines how engaged your clients are with your organization. 

The other interesting link to a kind of strategic capability that many organizations are trying to build is to innovation. When you’re asking people to engage in creativity and collaborative processes, you need them to be able to fail together and recover from that failure to invent something new.  If they can’t treat each other with compassion in the wake of those failures, they actually have a very hard time being truly innovative. We document many different ways in our book that the expression of compassion in the workplace is related to important core strategic capabilities for organizations such as: service quality, retaining talented employees, building more innovation, building higher quality collaboration, and becoming more adaptable to change. 

ERH:  It’s so intuitive for me, yet hearing the science and understanding that you have tracked, and researched, and documented these results is just so helpful as we begin to have these conversations more broadly with business owners, and with managers, and with people who are interested in better work environments so I’m really excited to hear about your findings.

For someone who is listening right now and let’s say their leadership hasn’t started the conversation yet, what can the average person or manager do to build a more compassionate workplace?

Monica Worline:  In the definition that I gave you a minute ago about the different elements of the compassion process, one first step is to remember that whenever your employees are gathered together, there’s always pain in the room. That is something that many managers disregard or don’t think is part of the responsibility of being a manager, but when you begin to notice more of the pain and suffering that’s already there in your organization, more ways of being compassionate are often obvious to you.

The next way that managers and leaders can really help introduce more compassion into their work environment is by interpreting people’s pain and suffering more generously. That to us, when we write about that, means remembering that by default most people are pretty capable and want to do a good job, and that many people when they run into performance problems at work or are having difficulty at work can be having that difficulty because of suffering that’s going on in their life outside of work – that’s invisible to their manager.

If you interpret more generously and ask questions about what’s happening for people, you’ll often find out that they need a little bit of flexibility or they need a little bit of extra support for a particularly difficult time in their life. I think the next thing that is important for managers to do is to realize that there are often some pretty simple responses to pain and suffering at work that people deeply appreciate. In our research, we’ve found that the number one thing that employees would like when they are experiencing suffering in their life outside of work is some flexibility in either the time that they put in in the workplace or the tasks that they’re responsible for.

When we’re going through something really difficult in our lives it makes a lot of sense that having a little bit more flexibility could ease the burden. That’s something that managers can often pretty easily grant. It may not even seem like that big of a deal to a manager to help create flexibility to someone who’s suffering, but to the person who receives that flexibility it can mean a great deal.

ERH:  Oh it’s so true. I love the term generosity of interpretation. Acting with compassion doesn’t mean you’re taking on someone’s issue or wanting to solve the whole problem. You can have a big impact by doing something small. Are there things that I can do as with a co-worker to practice that?

Monica Worline:  Yes. Absolutely. One of the things I love about the way we were able to write our book “Awakening Compassion at Work” is that the first part of the book is talking about the interpersonal process of compassion in the workplace and how anybody in any kind of role at any level can do things to create more compassion in their immediate work environment. We’ve done studies of different kinds on what we call small moves that people interpret as compassion from their colleagues. The first small move is developing the capacity to be with someone who’s in distress, and just to remain present with them. Your emphasis on people taking breaks and becoming more mindful, and being able to just take a breath and be with whatever’s happening. That’s actually such an important skill in being compassionate with somebody who’s suffering.

The next very deeply important compassion move that might seem small, but it’s often so absent for people, is having the capacity to just listen, and to allow people space to talk about whatever is going on or not talk about it, but to invite people to be heard around their pain. There are many, many forms of emotional support like maybe writing a little post-it note and leaving it on somebody’s cubicle wall, or sending a quick email. Maybe it’s sharing a story or a memory of a time when that person did something wonderful for you as a way of buoying them up and giving them hope that they’ll get through this dark period in their life. Those emotional support gestures are very important from people’s colleagues.

ERH:  Really simple to do if we take a moment to notice, as you said, the people that are our friends and our workmates. In many organizations or even just organizations today you may be working in a room or near twenty people and never interact with them because they’re working 20 people in 20 different locations. I think that taking that time to really look around and be present with people that we’re sitting next to, even if we don’t necessarily get to work with them every day is important, right?

Monica Worline:  Yes. That’s so true. This can also happen in global distributed workplaces, but it does require a bit more attention and a bit more effort to learn people’s patterns and to notice when they’re outside of their typical pattern. One thing that we’ve discovered as we research compassion at work is that, for the reasons we talked about before, people will try to keep their difficulties outside of the work environment, and other colleagues who just notice subtle signals and ask about them can be an important source of unlocking more compassion. I might notice that you’re typically very gregarious and outgoing, and for the last couple of meetings you’ve been really quiet. I might just call you on the phone after a meeting and say, “Hey I just wanted to check in because it seems like you’ve been a bit more quiet than usual. Is everything okay?”

That kind of a gentle form of inquiry around people’s mental, emotional, or physical state at work can actually be a really important catalyst for compassion. Of course, it’s not intrusive, right? If everything is okay, then you just have a perfectly pleasant conversation with your colleague, but you’ve opened the door for an important conversation if that person chooses to disclose.

ERH:  That is a very helpful suggestion in terms of just doing something simple, but taking the fear from it. You’re allowing somebody to just be heard, and be acknowledged. I like the word acknowledged and witnessed at some level because in this fast-paced world we’re not doing that as much as we used to when we did take breaks. When I was in the workplace at the beginning of my career, we had much more interpersonal conversations with everybody that we worked with, even if we didn’t have a direct line of reporting or were on the same team. I love that suggestion of just looking around you. You don’t have to be on the same team to notice another human being, and in your mind, know that something’s not quite right.

Monica Worline:  That’s right. In fact, one of the biggest fears that gets in the way of more compassion in the workplace is the fear that if something is wrong and I learn about it, what if I won’t be able to fix it? What if I won’t be able to help you? That fear of not knowing what to do, or not being able to help gets in the way of our asking about other people’s wellbeing. In fact, what research shows us is that we could relax into that space even more because when people are really struggling and suffering, there’s very often not that much that other people can do to fix the situation.

What they want is exactly what you said, to be heard. To be seen. To be witnessed. To be acknowledged. That makes such a huge difference. If you are like me, and lots of other people kind of in a space where you’re feeling fear about someone suffering because you don’t know if you can help enough, it’s just a wonderful practice to breathe deeply and remind yourself that simply being with the other person is a deep form of compassion. You don’t have to do any fixing. You just have to be with them.

ERH:  Those are very practical ideas that most of us can do. if I’m with a company large or small, what are some steps that I could take to begin this work, and how can I buy your book?

Monica Worline:  Yeah. Great. I think before I said one thing I loved about the book is that the first half is about things that anybody can do in any kind of work environment to help create more compassion in their immediate work situation or organizational situation or community. The other half of the book is written about our unique focus at the Compassion Lab, which you mentioned in the introduction. The Compassion Lab is a group of scholars that are focused on compassion in organizations, and specifically how to understand and think about compassion at the level of organizational systems.

The second half of “Awakening Compassion at Work” gives people who we call compassion architects a view into how to think about the social architecture of compassion inside their organization, and then how to design aspects of the organization differently or redesign them so that you can draw out more systemic compassion. We give a lot of examples of what it looks like when compassion becomes something that’s coordinated across an entire system rather than just an individual gesture. There are four things that we help compassion architects work with:

  1. Networks are the social ties between people in organizations. If you step back and you look at who interacts with who and why, where people are left out or isolated, or where does information about suffering stop flowing; you can change things about the network in your organization that unlock more compassion.
  2. We have people look at the values and culture of the organization. A lot of people are talking about compassionate culture, and part of that is to look at the fundamental values and beliefs around what it means to be a human being. The shared humanity of people. Making sure that the organization is adopting values that make it easier for people to see themselves as interdependent and that make it easier for people to help one another when they need help and so on.
  3. Is to look at the organization’s routines, thinking about in the day-to-day accomplishing of work, could we also be creating compassion? That’s a powerful question once you get into a design process for trying to unlock compassion on a greater scale.
  4. We talk about roles and role definitions. We tend to have an assumption that if compassion is a part of work it’s probably a part of work for doctors and nurses, or social workers, or people who are responsible for doing caregiving, or caretaking work. In fact, what we help people see is that any role in an organization can be redesigned with an eye toward greater compassion.

As you help people incorporate compassion into their zone of responsibility for what they are charged with doing every day at work, you can greatly expand the compassion that’s present in the system through that redefinition of roles.

ERH:  I am so excited to share this with some of my clients. Thank you.

Monica Worline:  Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. I think that’s the part of the book that most people find to be the newest in terms of thinking about, “Oh what if you think about compassion across an entire organization instead of just between two people or a small number of people.” That is to us, a very, very exciting application of this work.

ERH:  Design thinking and the architecture; I really like bringing those terms into this work.

Monica Worline:  Yes. As we launch this book, which has just been released, we also have introduced “100 days of Awakening Compassion at Work”. Each day for the next 100 days we’ll be sharing a thought, or a reflection, or a technique drawn from the book and some beyond the book. Our goal in doing that is to connect with the compassion architects out there in the world, like yourself, who are interested in bringing this to life, and to create an easy way to grab on and share some of these ideas in a broader way. We hope that with the “100 Days of Awakening Compassion” we can really give some interesting ideas and fuel to compassionate architects.

ERH:  I’m very excited about that. Monica, I’m thrilled that you were able to spend time with the Art of the Break. Thank you for being here.

Monica Worline:  Thank you for the invitation.

Monica C. Worline, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EnlivenWork, an organization that teaches businesses how to tap into courageous thinking, compassionate leadership, and curiosity to bring their best work to life. She is a research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education; Executive Director of CompassionLab, the world’s leading research collaboratory focused on compassion in the workplace; and co-author of Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations.

Monica holds a lectureship at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and is affiliate faculty at the Center for Positive Organizations. She is an award-winning teacher who has also served on the faculties of the Goizueta Business School at Emory University; the Paul Merage School of Business at the University of California, Irvine; and the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine.

You can also learn more about Monica Worline at monicaworline.com.