Applying Compassion in Organizations

  • July 12, 2012

By Daniel E. Martin

Economic turbulence seems normative in modern America. Our current workplace finds itself struggling on organizational, team and individual levels. The impact of financial insecurity, joblessness, short-term positions, downsizing and changing standards in technology and job skills can have significant financial, psychological, and social costs for organizations and their employees. Recent scholarship has established the positive effects of compassion at work, and we are beginning to realize the impact it can have on organizational pain points. While it is difficult for individuals to control the external economic environment, giving employees tools to effectively increase their organizations psychosocial well-being is feasible.

Considering the amount of time Americans work, related stress and the importance of work to our self-identity, compassion manifests itself frequently in organizational contexts, but is usually not made salient. Frequently, employers give no consideration until workers compensation claims are filed and their insurance costs increase. Compassion covers a broad range of emotional and behavioral constructs. At least three elements of compassion have been established: noticing suffering, empathically feeling the person's pain, and acting to ease the suffering. Importantly for organizations, compassion seems related to productivity driving pro-social behavior and organizational citizenship behavior(OCB). Compassion (including for the self by addressing personal pain) goes beyond empathy to actual action, whether or not the action achieves the goal of decreasing the suffering. We see compassion in the workplace daily, whether through helping a manager finish a task after hours, giving a new employee help, or offering banked sick time.

We are currently using an ancient and well-established productivity driver, mentoring, to understand the impact of compassion across dyads. The mentorship process benefits the protégé with more satisfaction, career mobility/opportunity, recognition and a higher promotion rate then non-mentored individuals and greater career satisfaction and a sense of fulfillment in mentors. In studies focusing on mentor gender, female mentors also benefit from their relationships with protégés in terms of organizational recognition, support, and improved performance, while across diverse (mixed gender, ethnicity, and age) dyads mentorship doesn't seem to suffer significant bias we see in compensationand selection.

While most Fortune 500 companies have mentoring programs based on a proven track record in employee development, mentoring can be emotionally challenging and involve honest (but difficult) disclosures for both protégé and mentor. Providing a benefit for an unknown commodity (protégé) can seem a wasteful activity for the mentor, especially in our competitive and individualistic business environment. At the same time, recent reviews of altruistic helping behaviors impact the actor in a range of psychological and physical well-being dimensions, such as depression, experiencing greater personal happiness, life satisfaction, and self-esteem, again suggesting benefits for mentors. Giving help is also related to higher levels of positive mental health, life adjustment, lower feelings of hopelessness and depression. In other words, it pays to be good.

Mentoring is widely understood, but little has been done in predicting mentor-protégé relationship outcomes and their subsequent impact on the relationship. As our research focus on both compassion facilitation and employee/organizations achievement, we provide spontaneous opportunities where compassion can occur (through a structured mentoring process) and explicit criteria related to occupational outcomes and compassion processes. Accordingly, our established system (Mentorum.net) uses psychometric matching tools in a gamified system to ensure both intrinsic and extrinsic motivators are used are extending current use of mentoring programs to establish 1) the impact of mentoring on compassion for both the mentor and the protégé, 2) the impact of the mentoring on a wide range of psychosocial indicators, and 3) the likelihood of protégés carrying forward compassionate engagement as mentors to future protégés.

In doing so, we establish the impact of mentoring on compassionate and altruistic behavior but also illuminate and provide participants with feedback to understand their impact on well-being, productivity (at both the organizational and individual level) making salient the impact of what is usually seen as an individual or organizational weakness. This research arrives at a moment of great economic constraints and can have a solid, measurable impact in both the organizational and the educational ecosystem. Importantly, these tools can be used to facilitate mentoring relationships in any organization, pre-selection reviews, realistic job previews, knowledge management,corporate social responsibility and other related organizational and human resource functions.

Subsequently, we'll be offering a sheep in wolf's clothing, meeting the needs of both the business as well as the human participants in its efforts. I'm thrilled to be working with scholars, professors and academics as a visiting associate professor at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) executing research on compassion and altruism. From July 19 to 21, CCARE is sponsoring the largest ever gathering of scientists studying compassion for the Science of Compassion: Origins, Measures and Interventions. Please join us!

Daniel E. Martin is an Associate Professor of Management at California State University, East Bay, a Visiting Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law & Society at UC Berkeley and a Visiting Associate Professor at CCARE, Stanford University. His research interests include: social capital, ethical behavior, racism and prejudice, human resources assessment, religiosity, spirituality and humor. Formerly a Research Fellow for the U.S. Army Research Institute as well as a Personnel Research Psychologist for the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, he has worked with private, public and non-profit organizations on pre-employment selection, training, and organizational assessment. Dan is published in a range of journals including Personnel Review, Human Organization, Ethics and Behavior, and the Journal of Applied Psychology. Dan holds a Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Howard University. His current work on the use of untapped social capital to ameliorate social problems (e.g. mentoring networks) aims to serve as a research, skills development and assessment platform.

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