David McInnis, President, Willard Powell, a leading retained search firm in the financial services and technology sectors
Thomas McInnis, Founder, ViaTrustUSA, a Veteran support network
Abbreviated Article (full article in addendum)
2023 has been tough for many people and companies, including ours, with over 211,000 tech workers losing jobs in just six months. This article explores if all the bad news we see online impacts our ability to show compassion, and how businesses can use compassion to grow and become more sustainable. Stanford’s Applied Compassion Training explains that compassion, which is about noticing someone’s suffering and acting to ease it, is a step-by-step process. It starts with paying attention to identify the pain, understanding it, being mindful to avoid bias, and finally acting in a compassionate way to help, which can improve relationships and create supportive environments. Humans, being naturally delicate, evolved to depend on each other for survival, making compassion part of our genes. Nowadays, our problems are more mental than physical, and our body’s primitive stress response, like the “fight, flight or freeze” reaction caused by things like the ‘Amygdala Hijack’, can be triggered more by modern worries than physical threats.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Often attributed to Steven Covey or Viktor E. Frankl
In the world of work psychology, it’s important to understand these built-in biological responses to stress so we can create ways to handle stress, improve performance, and build resilience in our challenging workspaces. Life, including business, is full of struggles, like during the COVID-19 pandemic when we had to keep distance while also working together. Even though it’s tricky to balance self-protection and forgiveness, finding this balance can help create a kind, team-oriented work culture that drives growth.
During the pandemic, our company Willard Powell had a tough time. Despite the drop in revenue, we kept our team, supported each other, and improved our plan. When our big clients cut their budgets, we adapted by working with smaller FinTech clients which affected our prices but made us work more efficiently and broadened our client base. Kindness isn’t a weakness but a strength that can boost emotional smarts, decision-making, and relationships, which are all key for a successful business, but we need to watch out for “compassion fade” as we consume more media.
Columbia University’s Center for Brain, Mind and Society is researching how being online too much can make us less happy and caring, which can make it harder to promote compassion in the workplace.
We need careful strategies to keep a good balance between kindness and effectiveness, especially during hard times, as difficulties can make us stronger and more innovative, like a muscle that gets stronger when it breaks down. It’s about surviving and growing through challenges, with kind leaders understanding their team’s struggles and using this to build resilience and solve problems better. The idea of “capitalism with a heart” means that businesses should include compassion in their decisions to balance making money with being compassionate, which involves changing deeply and using our understanding of the emotional part of our brain to alter how we make decisions, helping to create a kind and profitable work culture that can grow sustainably.
Using breathing exercises, meditation, and visualization can help in this transformation. Breathwork can calm us down, reducing stress and anxiety and helping us make more rational and compassionate decisions. Meditation boosts self-awareness and understanding of our own and others’ feelings, helping leaders make fair decisions that not only make money but also improve everyone’s well-being. Visualization, or mentally picturing something, can help leaders imagine balancing making money with looking after their employees, customers, and society, preparing the brain to make real decisions that show “capitalism with a heart.”
Making kindness a key part of business helps leaders create a team-friendly environment that boosts trust, respect, and open talk, which are all key for good teamwork. Teamwork leads to innovation, efficiency, and productivity – all important for business growth. Also, compassion and teamwork together help to build a good work culture, or the shared values, behaviors, and practices that define a company. This culture attracts and keeps talented workers and motivates them to do their best, driving growth. Building this kind, team-oriented culture takes time, with every kind act and high-quality interaction adding up, like really listening to a coworker’s ideas, offering to help when someone is busy, or saying thank you for someone’s work.
As an organization, we have supported our team during tough times, like the loss of a loved one, by investing in a culture of compassion and wellness initiatives, like hiring a wellness coach and having weekly stress management meetings. This created a safe place for our team to talk openly about life’s problems, at work and outside, and share ways to cope, such as changing a negative thought to a positive one. These small steps strengthen high-quality connections and morale, which leads to better teamwork. In this kind of safe environment, where respect, understanding, and positivity are valued, we can share ideas freely, which helps us be more creative, productive, and find joy in our work. By promoting these kind interactions, businesses can create a culture of teamwork and achievement that supports personal and business growth.
By actively adding kindness to your company’s routine, you can create a work culture that not only makes your company a good place to work but also boosts its performance. This kind culture leads to many benefits, including confident and caring leadership, a safer and more trusting work environment, and more engaged and collaborative employees. It helps reduce burnout by recognizing and addressing emotional stress quickly. With a supportive culture, teams are more eager to innovate, leading to better services. This positive work environment also helps keep employees, reducing the costs of hiring and training new ones. As a company gets known for its kind culture, it gets more attention from the community and better brand recognition, which boosts its market intelligence. This focus on compassion also leads to happier clients, which increases earnings. Plus, this environment promotes personal growth among employees and can inspire positive changes in the larger community. In short, a kind-oriented work culture is a smart choice for long-term business success.
By focusing on kindness, encouraging teamwork, and embedding these values in their work culture, leaders can help their businesses succeed like never before while still keeping their human touch. The challenges of too much media and the risk of becoming less kind can be managed with careful, strategic efforts. Compassion isn’t a confusing idea but rather an untapped power source in the business world, one that can drive growth and new ideas, especially during uncertain economic times and global unrest. As we face possible economic downturn and ongoing issues in Ukraine, we should remember the power of kindness to lessen suffering, create shared value, and bring about big changes. In the midst of current economic troubles, companies must avoid the urge to just look out for themselves. Instead, they should see the benefits of kind leadership and the power of teamwork. Compassion lets leaders understand their employees, customers, and other stakeholders’ needs and concerns, helping them make better and more responsible choices. This is especially important during an economic downturn, when tough choices often have to be made. Similarly, teamwork can help create new ideas, resilience, and adaptability – qualities that are invaluable in navigating a shaky economy. As for the global situation, the war in Ukraine shows us how connected our global economy is and the wide-reaching effects of conflict.
Businesses should be kind and consider the human side of their operations. This means checking their supply chains for human rights issues, buying conflict-free resources, or supporting humanitarian work in areas affected by conflict. By doing this, businesses can help lessen the immediate effects of the war and contribute to a more peaceful, stable global economy in the future. This idea also applies to how businesses interact with each other. Instead of harsh competition, businesses can think more about working together. They can share resources, ideas, and best practices to get through the economic storm together. This approach benefits individual businesses and strengthens the overall economic system. Lastly, we must remember that kindness and teamwork shouldn’t just be one-time things but need to be part of the work culture. They should show up in every part of a business, from its mission statement to its day-to-day operations. In tough times, it’s the organizations that keep these values who will not just survive but do well. By adding teamwork, and a strong, kind culture to their main strategies, businesses can get through these tough times. They can contribute to sustainable growth, lessen the impacts of the economic and geopolitical crises, and pave the way for a more fair and resilient future.
ADDENDUM (full article)
For many folks, 2023, so far, has been an extremely difficult year. Many firms have had to reduce headcount, including our own. This is most difficult on the individuals impacted, but also a challenging time for remaining employees. According to layoffs.fyi, as of today, 806 tech companies have let go 211,363 employees in the first six months of this year. Each day, we see more green-colored “open to work” posts on LinkedIn. As our society increases its exposure to media, an intriguing question arises: how does this impact our ability to express compassion? This article will explore the transformative power of integrating compassion into the core of a corporate strategy, thereby sparking business growth and fostering a sustainable business environment.
According to Stanford University’s Applied Compassion Training (ACT) model, “compassion is a distinct response to suffering, that includes taking action to relieve it.” It isn’t an automatic response, but rather an outcome of a progression that begins with attention, evolves into awareness, transforms into mindfulness, and culminates in compassion. The progression towards compassion is a sequential cognitive and emotional process that begins with attention to identify suffering, develops into awareness to comprehend the pain, evolves through mindfulness to deepen understanding and prevent bias, and ultimately culminates in compassionate action to alleviate the recognized suffering, thereby enhancing interpersonal relationships and fostering supportive environments.
Given the inherent fragility of Homo Sapiens as a biological entity, the human species is predisposed to individual susceptibility in the face of natural threats. As a consequent evolutionary response, our lineage has progressively shaped itself as a socially-dependent organism, relying on symbiotic relationships for the perpetuation of the species. Compassion, and the relief of collective suffering are therefore hardwired into our genetic composition. These social behaviors stem from evolutionary survival strategies. In contemporary society, however, it is arguably the majority of challenges we encounter are more closely aligned with psychological terrain rather than physical. Our evolved psycho-biological mechanisms are confronted with modern challenges that often engender more cerebral threats than corporeal. One of the prime examples of this psycho-biological paradigm at work is the ‘Amygdala Hijack’, a concept introduced by psychologist Daniel Goleman. This refers to our instinctive reactions to perceived threats that often override our more reasoned and logical cognitive functions. It constitutes our primitive response mechanisms being co-opted by modern stressors, setting off a cascade of physical, emotional, and mental responses facilitated by the sympathetic nervous system. This sympathetic nervous system response corresponds to a state of heightened physiological arousal – the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ reaction – elicited by perceived threats.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Often attributed to Steven Covey or Viktor E. Frankl
In the context of industrial/organizational psychology, understanding such inherent and biologically entrenched mechanisms is fundamental in developing strategies to manage stress, optimize performance, and foster resilience within our complex and often demanding work environments.
Life is undoubtedly a labyrinth of struggles, and navigating the tumultuous waters of business is no different. Take the COVID-19 Pandemic for example. As a society, we were required to distance ourselves from each other, knowing that each individual could carry the risk of getting others sick, while working together to heal. One might argue that compassion seems paradoxical within this context. Balancing between self-protection and forgiveness, especially towards those who may inflict harm, is a delicate dance. The late David Breaux (“ The Compassion Guy”) understood this balance, the risk in life and practicing compassion, once telling his sister “If I’m ever harmed and unable to speak for myself, forgive the perpetrator and help others forgive that person.” Finding this balance can be instrumental in constructing a compassionate, collaborative corporate culture that catalyzes growth.
At Willard Powell, during the pandemic, we experienced a very challenging year and for a few months, business came to a near halt. During that time, we had the risk of incurring expenses as revenue collapsed. We kept the team together, continued regular check-ins to lift each other up, and refined our strategy. As our large Fortune 100 clients pulled back budgets, and we were required to pivot down-market, ultimately picked-up smaller FinTech clients which compressed our pricing model, but forced us to work more efficiently and diversified the firm’s portfolio.
Compassion, rather than being seen as a weakness, can be a source of strength. As psychologists and neuroscientists explore the complexity of human emotion, they are uncovering evidence that compassion can lead to increased emotional intelligence, better decision-making abilities, and improved interpersonal relationships, all of which are critical for a thriving business environment. However, it’s essential to recognize the risk of “compassion fade” as society’s exposure to media increases.
The Center for Brain, Mind and Society (CBMS) is a research center at Columbia University, led by its CoFounder, Brian Silston, Ph.D, is studying the problem of digital overexposure and found that “modern measures of happiness show a marked decline beginning around the start of the 21st century … a decline in time sleeping and in-person interaction, an increase in time spent online, and a decrease in overall happiness.”
This phenomenon, wherein individuals become desensitized to the suffering of others due to overexposure, can pose a significant challenge to cultivating compassion in the workplace.
Conscious strategies need to be put in place to avoid this pitfall and maintain a healthy balance between compassion and effectiveness. This is where the concept of post-traumatic growth comes into play. In the same way that a muscle must break down to become stronger, individuals and organizations can emerge from adversity stronger, wiser, and more resilient. Amid the pandemic, businesses had the opportunity to use the crisis as a springboard to rethink their operations and reimagine their futures. Resilience is not just about surviving but growing through and beyond the challenges. Post-traumatic growth emphasizes the understanding that difficult experiences, like the COVID-19 pandemic, can lead to positive psychological shifts and can also foster a culture of innovation, creativity, and adaptability in a business environment. In this context, compassion becomes even more critical. Compassionate leaders have the capacity to understand the pain and struggles their team faces and can utilize this understanding to foster resilience, build stronger relationships, and ultimately lead to more effective problem-solving. They view adversity not as a barrier but as an opportunity to learn, adapt, and grow.
The concept of “capitalism with a heart” might sound utopian, yet it holds considerable promise. By incorporating compassion into decision-making processes, businesses can achieve a holistic approach that balances profitability with compassion. This requires not merely a surface-level change, but a deep-rooted transformation that leverages our understanding of the human brain, particularly the limbic system – the seat of emotion and memory. The limbic system’s role in emotional responses and decision-making implies that business leaders who make an effort to access and engage this part of the brain can drastically alter their decision-making landscape. Leaders can foster a compassionate corporate culture that values compassion alongside profit margins, thereby achieving more sustainable growth.
Harnessing the power of breathwork, meditation, and visualization practices can be instrumental in this transformation. Breathwork acts as a fundamental tool to access and stimulate the limbic system. Techniques such as box breathing or 4-7-8 breathing facilitate a state of calm, enabling leaders to maintain a clear mind even amidst corporate turbulence.
The calming effects of breathwork have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, both of which can inhibit rational decision-making. By consciously controlling our breath, we can fine-tune our emotional responses, making room for increased compassion in our decisions. Meditation, on the other hand, cultivates a deep sense of self-awareness and mindfulness, strengthening our capacity for compassion. This introspective practice allows leaders to recognize their biases, prejudices, and knee-jerk reactions that might hinder equitable decision-making. More importantly, it cultivates ‘emotional intelligence’, the ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions and those of others. In the context of compassionate capitalism, meditation enhances leaders’ ability to navigate the complex emotional landscape of their organization, making decisions that not only drive profit but also promote the well-being of all stakeholders. Visualization practices complement breathwork and meditation by priming the brain for compassionate decision-making. Visualization – the practice of creating a mental image or intention – is a powerful tool for cognitive restructuring. For instance, leaders can visualize a decision-making scenario where they balance profit-oriented objectives with the welfare of their employees, customers, and the broader society. This mental rehearsal rewires the brain to perform optimally in real-world scenarios, promoting decisions that embody “capitalism with a heart.”
By placing compassion at the heart of a business, leaders can foster an environment conducive to collaboration. A compassionate approach engenders trust, mutual respect, and open communication – all prerequisites for effective collaboration. And, with collaboration comes innovation, efficiency, and increased productivity – elements crucial to business growth. Moreover, compassion and collaboration go hand-in-hand in shaping a positive corporate culture. Culture is the fabric that binds an organization together; it’s the collective embodiment of values, behaviors, and practices that define a company. By nurturing a culture that values compassion and collaboration, businesses can not only attract and retain talent but also inspire employees to perform at their peak, thereby driving growth. It’s important to understand that this compassionate, collaborative culture cannot be established overnight. It’s built one interaction at a time, through little acts of kindness and connections that reverberate throughout the organization. Simple acts such as listening to a colleague’s ideas with genuine interest, offering help when someone is under pressure, or acknowledging someone’s contribution can make a significant difference.
As an organization, we have provided a support system for employees experiencing loss, in particular, loss of a loved one and navigating grief. Invest in a culture of compassion and in return, your team will support each other through great loss. One work “ritual” that has worked well, after hiring a wellness coach, we implemented weekly stress management meetings. This created a safe space for team members to openly share with a certified coach and discuss in a non-judgmental way, the challenges of life, those encountered at work and outside of work. As team members found common ground on their challenges, and felt more comfortable over time, they also shared coping strategies, like reframing a negative thought to a more positive alternative. These behaviors, though small, strengthen bonds, and boost morale, paving the way for stronger, more fruitful collaborations. High Quality Connections (HQCs), characterized by mutual respect, understanding, and positivity, likewise promote psychological safety, allowing team members to express their ideas without fear of reprisal. In such an environment, innovation thrives, productivity soars, and employees find real meaning in their work. Consequently, through fostering these day-to-day interactions of compassion and care, businesses can weave a rich tapestry of collaboration, and achievement that fuels both personal growth and organizational success.
Some other best practices are as follows.
- Transparent Communication: Encourage open and honest communication. By fostering an environment where people feel safe expressing their thoughts and feelings, you promote mutual respect and trust.
- Leadership by Example: Leaders play a crucial role in shaping the culture of an organization. As a leader, by embodying compassion in your actions and decisions can inspire others to do the same.
- Compassionate Conflict Resolution: Disputes and conflicts are inevitable in any organization. Adopting a compassionate approach towards conflict resolution can help in maintaining harmony in the team.
- Inclusive Environment: Ensure your workplace is inclusive and respects diversity. This helps in creating a sense of belonging and fosters mutual respect among team members.
- Mindfulness and Well-being Programs: Implement programs that promote mindfulness and overall well-being. This can help employees deal with stress and avoid burnout, fostering a more compassionate culture.
By consciously incorporating these practices into your organization’s routine, you can build a compassionate culture that not only makes your business a great place to work but also boosts its performance and productivity.
Building a compassion-oriented corporate culture holds the key to numerous advantages that directly affect a company’s overall performance and standing. Such an approach fosters more confident and caring leadership, which in turn creates an environment of increased psychological safety and trust, resulting in enhanced employee engagement and collaboration. This culture also reduces empathy fatigue and burnout by recognizing and addressing emotional exhaustion in a timely manner. With a culture of understanding and support, teams are more motivated to innovate, leading to higher efficiency and quality of service. This positive work environment also improves employee retention, thus lowering costs associated with hiring and training new employees. As a company becomes known for its compassionate culture, it gains community recognition and improved brand awareness, which further enhances market intelligence. The focus on compassion also inevitably results in higher client satisfaction, leading to increased revenue. Moreover, such an environment encourages personal growth among employees, and its influence often extends to spur positive changes in the broader community. Overall, a compassion-oriented corporate culture is a sound strategic choice for sustainable business success.
The integration of compassion, collaboration, and culture into the corporate sphere is more than a noble endeavor – it’s a strategic imperative for businesses seeking sustainable growth. By prioritizing compassion, fostering collaboration, and cultivating these in corporate culture, leaders can propel their organizations towards unprecedented success while retaining their humanity in the process. The challenges of increased media exposure and the risk of compassion fade can be managed with conscious, strategic efforts. Compassion is not a paradox but rather an untapped source of power in the business world, one that can fuel growth and innovation, particularly in times of economic uncertainty and geopolitical unrest.
As we face the possibility of a global recession and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, we cannot underestimate the power of compassion to alleviate suffering, create shared value, and drive systemic change. In the midst of the current economic turbulence, companies must resist the urge to retreat into self-protective modes. Instead, they should recognize the benefits of compassionate leadership and the power of collaboration. Compassion allows leaders to understand the needs and concerns of their employees, customers, and other stakeholders, enabling them to make more informed and responsible decisions. This is especially crucial during a recession, when hard decisions often have to be made. Similarly, collaboration can foster innovation, resilience, and adaptability, qualities that are invaluable in navigating a volatile economy. As for the geopolitical situation, the war in Ukraine underscores the interconnectivity of our global economy and the far-reaching impacts of conflict.
This situation calls for businesses to take a compassionate approach by considering the human aspect of their operations. From a practical standpoint, this could mean scrutinizing their supply chains for human rights violations, investing in conflict-free resources, or supporting humanitarian efforts in conflict regions. By doing so, businesses not only help alleviate the immediate effects of the war, but also contribute towards creating a more peaceful, stable global economy in the long run. This perspective also extends to the way businesses engage with each other. Rather than resorting to cut-throat competition, businesses can adopt a more collaborative mindset. They can share resources, ideas, and best practices to weather the economic storm together. This win-win approach not only strengthens individual businesses, but also fortifies the overall economic ecosystem.
Finally, it is important to remember that compassion and collaboration should not be considered as one-off initiatives, but need to be ingrained in the corporate culture. They should be reflected in every aspect of a business, from its mission statement to its daily operations. In difficult times, it is the organizations that uphold these values who will not only survive, but thrive. By integrating collaboration, and a strong, compassion culture into their core strategies, businesses can navigate through these challenging times. They can contribute towards sustainable growth, mitigate the impacts of the economic and geopolitical crises, and set the stage for a more equitable and resilient future.
- Goleman, Daniel (1995). “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ”
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- Slovic, P. (26 June, 2023). “5 Explorers Versus 500 Migrants: Why Compassion Doesn’t Scale.” TheMessenger. https://themessenger.com/opinion/5-explorers-versus-500-migrants-why-compassion-doesnt-scale.
- Oleska, P. (20 June, 2023). “You Cannot Legislate Compassion: How Business Leaders Can Use Empathy for Growth” Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/you-cannot-legislate-compassion-how-business-leaders-can-use-empathy-growth-1807306.
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