How to show compassion and grow social and emotional intelligence at work

4 minute read
Compassion is a key resource for resilience and renewal – and don’t we all need that in the workplace now. Associate professor and author Latha Poonamallee offers four tips on how you can show compassion at work

Compassion at work

I lost my father in November 2010. I traveled to India to be with him during his passing and returned to the US after spending a few weeks with my family in India. On my first day back at work, I ran into a colleague in the mailroom, not someone with whom I was close friends. This colleague, who innocently – probably did not know of or remember the situation – asked me how I was doing in a casual greeting. When I responded to this innocuous greeting with voluminous tears, this person took time off their day to sit with me, give me a hug, and was willing to witness my suffering and be there for me in that moment.

My colleague demonstrated both empathy (understanding where I was coming from and my feelings of loss and grief) and compassion (by spending time with me and trying to make me feel a bit better). I will never forget their kindness and for a moment, there was a relatedness that went beyond collegiality. We were fellow humans. This sense of connection and acknowledgement as fellow humans (or sentient beings) is foundational to compassion. Even though the magnitude of action may be different from that of volunteers from all over the world who showed up in Asia after the Tsunami, in that moment the emotional impact was the same. My colleague acknowledged my humanity, their own humanity and tried to provide some relief. 

Compassion at work can take different forms. You may notice a co-worker struggling with the workload or with some family crisis and you step up to offer help – that is a compassionate action. Sometimes it is about helping with the work itself and sometimes it is not. Ultimately, it is about being a witness to someone’s suffering and acting to alleviate their pain or suffering.

It is 2021. The world is struggling with the trauma of the pandemic. We all need compassion at work more than ever.  Major external events like natural disasters and the pandemic destroy the basic rhythm and fabric of community life, and the resulting pressure to restore and rebuild community infrastructures, including the economy, is enormous. Renewal of the shared life space requires a shift in core values to more prosociality or other orientation in these times than during times of order and status quo.

Compassion is a key resource for resilience and renewal. Foundational to compassion is emotional intelligence, and a relational and interconnected understanding of our place in the world. Compassion requires empathy, but empathy by itself is not compassion. Compassion goes beyond empathy and requires action to help others. Empathy is the ability to understand others’ feelings, desires and goals. Compassion is acting upon this knowledge. I found in my research on compassion during disasters that there are both psychological and social processes involved in generating compassion. They are attention drawing, cognitive framing, emotional arousal and behavior modeling. Here are a few tips on how to show compassion and use emotional and social intelligence at work.

  1. Recognize that it is not business as usual
    Nearly 50% of Americans are anxious about re-entry into their workplaces. Millions of Americans are quitting their jobs. Our virtual co-workers in other parts of the world continue to struggle with lack of healthcare infrastructure, including vaccines. Almost 30% of the employees in the global business centers of multinational corporations in India have gotten sick in the second wave of COVID-19. Further, the diasporic population from these countries are going through untold mental trauma exacerbated by helplessness, distance and the sheer grief from losing so many family members without a goodbye.
  2. Pay attention to people and their emotions at the workplace
    Are any of your colleagues particularly frazzled or fatigued? Are they making more errors than usual? Are they turning up late? Usually, our tendency in these situations is to treat them as problems or inefficient or simply lazy. In a compassionate culture we ask why. Are they overwhelmed? Simply said, pay attention to others. Acknowledge that workplaces are human institutions. Sit with your and their discomfort. This requires generosity of spirit and emotional self-regulation, ie, the ability to manage one’s own emotions in any given context. Emotional self-regulation is not about suppressing or denying one’s emotions. It is also not about expressing or not expressing one’s emotions to others. It is more about appropriate expression of emotions that is calibrated to context and the need of the system we operate in. It is about managing our own emotional reactivity, our need for immediate or instant gratification, and considering our actions in the context of long-term orientation.

  3. Draw others’ attention
    Communication is essential to two of the compassion processes: emotional arousal and cognitive framing. Neuroscience research demonstrates that both these processes play a key part in shaping people’s mental models and repertoires of behaviors. What you choose to amplify to elicit compassion among people in the organization. To recognize others’ suffering, we must first notice it and when we notice it, it is not only enough for us to do our part in helping, but also important to bring to the attention of others or leadership.

  4. Model empathy and compassionate behaviors in the workplace
    Reciprocity and mutuality are essential aspects of building a compassionate team or work culture. Show up and speak up for colleagues who may be marginalized or silenced in your team. Paying attention to and acknowledging their feelings and emotional cues in meetings can help you discern whether they have nothing to say or they don’t feel like saying anything to this group of people. By being empathetic and compassionate you will create a more psychological safe environment for those who may need your allyship. Is the workload and work culture punitive or supportive of people’s flourishing? Can more resources be allocated to support people? Can work be prioritized realistically? Is everything on someone’s list time-sensitive?

My colleagues and I found that even though actions by formal leaders who have the responsibility to manage the suffering are symbolic in nature, these are influential. Due to norm matching in social psychology, emotional contagion is real even if everyone may not emulate the same kind of compassionate behavior but there is a high likelihood that people feel encouraged to act similarly to others they see in their environment. Let us make generosity, kindness and compassion contagious.

Latha Poonamallee, pictured below, is an associate professor, chair of the Faculty of Management and university fellow at The New School. She is also the author of Expansive Leadership: Cultivating Mindfulness to Lead Self and Others in a Changing World

Latha Poonamallee

Published 22 September 2021

Compassion at work can take different forms. Sometimes it is about helping with the work itself and sometimes it is not. Ultimately, it is about being a witness to someone’s suffering and acting to alleviate their pain or suffering.

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