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Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations

Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations

by Monica Worline, Jane E. Dutton, Raj Sisodia

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Caring Is a Competitive Advantage

Suffering in the workplace can rob our colleagues and coworkers of humanity, dignity, and motivation and is an unrecognized and costly drain on organizational potential. Marshaling evidence from two decades of field research, scholars and consultants Monica Worline and Jane Dutton show that alleviating such suffering confers


Caring Is a Competitive Advantage

Suffering in the workplace can rob our colleagues and coworkers of humanity, dignity, and motivation and is an unrecognized and costly drain on organizational potential. Marshaling evidence from two decades of field research, scholars and consultants Monica Worline and Jane Dutton show that alleviating such suffering confers measurable competitive advantages in areas like innovation, collaboration, service quality, and talent attraction and retention. They outline four steps for meeting suffering with compassion and show how to build a capacity for compassion into the structures and practices of an organization—because ultimately, as they write, “Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities.”

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A remarkably thorough and compelling read that will remind you how much more potential exists if we can bring more care and compassion into our organizations.”
—Tom Rath, New York Times bestselling author of StrengthsFinder 2.0

“Awakening Compassion at Work takes a candid look at both the joy and the suffering present in our workplaces. How we frankly acknowledge that suffering and transform it is a critical competency for any leader in the 21st century. This book is a marvelous guide for that transformation.”
—Pat Christen, Managing Director, The Omidyar Group

“The definitive guide to research and practice on unleashing compassion at work. The world's leading experts reveal how we can build teams and organizations where people stop checking their values at the office door and start caring about each other.”
—Adam Grant, New York Times bestselling author of Give and Take and Originals

“Work is a place where most of us spend a large percentage of our waking hours. Yet for many, the workplace remains a source of stress and anxiety. In their landmark book, Worline and Dutton give us an overview of the problem and science based solutions. It will help individuals not only in the workplace but in their lives. For the employer, it is a powerful tool to give employees meaning in their work and to increase creativity, productivity, and ultimately shareholder value.”
—James R. Doty, MD, Clinical Professor of Neurosurgery and founder and Director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford University School of Medicine, and New York Times bestselling author of Into the Magic Shop

“The go-to book on the hottest new trend in the corporate world: compassion. Worline and Dutton have spent years researching positive deviance: how to bring greater humanity to the workplace. Their work is groundbreaking: a compassionate workplace is happier, healthier, and more productive. Packed with real-world examples of the many companies they have advised and researched, Awakening Compassion at Work is for all those who want to see themselves and their company succeed to its full potential.”
—Emma Seppälä, PhD, Science Director, Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford University, and author of The Happiness Track

“In today's ever so fast-paced, technological, and profit-driven world, our humanity in the workplace is all too often passed over or even forgotten. Awakening Compassion at Work not only contains memorable examples of noticing, interpreting, feeling, and acting on suffering in the workplace but also provides a toolkit for engaging colleagues in using compassionate actions to create new norms and routines that nurture our bonding together and resilience to innovate, collaborate, and improve our work environment. I highly recommend that you read this enjoyable and forward-thinking book to awaken your compassionate self, not only at work, but also at home.”
—Roger Newton, Executive Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer, Esperion Therapeutics, Inc.
“Seldom do we get a gift that helps us step outside of our self-centered lives into noticing and caring about others—beyond feeling for them to helping reduce suffering and make others' lives and work fulfilling. Worline and Dutton offer us the emotional glue that binds our social fabric in organizations and cultures through compassion. Steeped in rigorous research but without the obfuscation of academia, the book draws you in with engaging stories and gives you hope with the authors' exercises and guidance in how to reduce the toxicity of guilt and blame and create a new social architecture of caring. Read it—it will fill your soul!”
—Richard Boyatzis, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, Departments of Psychology, Cognitive Science, and Organizational Behavior, Case Western Reserve University, and coauthor of Primal Leadership

“Monica Worline and Jane Dutton are the world's experts on the subject of compassion in organizations. Theirs was the first research conducted on this topic almost two decades ago, and their insight and practical wisdom is captured in this volume. This is the statement on what we know and what we can do about the subject of compassion in organizations.”
—Kim Cameron, PhD, William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organizations, Ross School of Business, and Professor of Higher Education, School of Education, University of Michigan

“With Awakening Compassion at Work, Monica Worline and Jane Dutton bring to bear their academic brilliance, sizable hands-on experience in business and psychology, and a gift for getting to the core of a principle that is essential to individual and organizational success. Using in-depth research, collaborative explorations in first-rate organizations, a boatload of meaningful and moving examples, and practical guidelines for igniting the remarkable power of compassion, the authors have fashioned an essential, pragmatic, and fascinating book that will be riveting reading for anyone in the workplace.”
—Ari Cowan, Director General, The International Center for Compassionate Organizations

“In our rapid-change, hypercompetitive, and global economy, encountering a compassionate leader can be rare; being embraced within a compassionate organization culture even more so. In contrast to this harsh organizational anthropology, Worline and Dutton set forth with conceptual clarity and rich exemplification practices that empirically lead toward a compassionate organizational milieu. Any leader perusing this manuscript will experience a shift in consciousness. Enacting the new wisdom will radically change an organization's culture.”
—André L. Delbecq, PhD, Professor of Management and Senior Fellow, Ignatian Center for Jesuit Education, Santa Clara University

“If you are one of the many who think compassion has no place in business, read this book. Extraordinary performance comes from tapping into the full power of your team. After more than thirty years in business, one thing is clear to me: compassion is central in a culture that gets extraordinary results.”
—David Drews, founder and CE0, Justus Equity, LLC

“Suffering is inevitable and can reveal itself anytime, anywhere. This inspiring book will transport you into work worlds that dare to care. Discoveries from the Compassion Lab spring to life in vivid stories of how compassion and work go hand in hand in successful organizations. Most importantly, Worline and Dutton offer practical guidance on how to reshape the social architecture of your organizations to support the improvisation of authentic compassionate acts. This book holds the power to open hearts worldwide.”
—Barbara L. Fredrickson, PhD, Kenan Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Positivity and Love 2.0

“Groundbreaking! Based on fifteen years of scholarly research, this book makes the case for compassion in the workplace—both interpersonally and systemically—and offers a clear blueprint for how to do it. The authors offer design principles and nuanced examples that reflect the day-to-day reality of organizational life, encouraging and empowering readers to go out and try it for themselves. This book is destined to change many lives for the better.”
—Christopher Germer, PhD, faculty, Harvard Medical School, author of The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion, and co-editor of Mindfulness and Psychotherapy

“What we produce and how we produce the goods and services all around us is one of the most important human issues of our age. From the sweatshops of Asia to the boardrooms of high technology, we know that there can be considerable competitive pressures that cause great stress and at times deeply immoral behavior. Dutton and Worline are world leaders and pioneers in the extraordinarily important turn toward more compassionate work. Here is a book that outlines in detail some of the challenges a compassionate approach to work confronts and how to deal with them. This is an outstanding book that will be a classic for years to come. It will aid greatly the human endeavor to create a more compassionate world.”
—Paul Gilbert, PhD, FBPsS, OBE, Professor, Centre for Compassion Research and Training, College of Health and Social Care Research Centre, University of Derby

“Hurrah! Worline and Dutton have made the business case for compassion and created a road map for bringing it to life in any organization. Their courage and clear seeing lead us to a more productive and positive future.”
—Edi Pasalis, MBA, MTS, Director, Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living

“Workplaces are often toxic and actually give rise to human suffering. Drawing on extensive research, the authors show the many positive outcomes of recognizing and confronting this truth. With great skill they show us how to create organizations that alleviate suffering and awaken compassion. This is a must-read that will be with us for a very long time.”
—Robert E. Quinn, PhD, Professor, Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and author of The Positive Organization

“The value of this book is that it clearly articulates not only why but how to stimulate cultural elements that will make alleviation of suffering through compassion an everyday occurrence for any organization that desires to do so. I am blown away with the authors' ability to move this complex and oft-avoided concept of compassion into an easily accessible initiative for any organization. Not only does this benefit individuals experiencing suffering, but thanks to the clear strategies for implementation, profound cultural strengthening can occur.”
—Fred Keller, founder and Chair, Cascade Engineering

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Awakening Compassion at Work

The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations

By Monica C. Worline, JANE E. DUTTON

Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2017 Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-447-3



SUFFERING NEVER REALLY CROSSED ANDY'S mind, especially not as a hidden cost to his organization. But one day as he was running a meeting, a standout employee on his engineering team was unusually quiet and distant. Not knowing how to interpret this, Andy stood next to Xian as he was getting coffee during a break. He asked if everything was OK. Shocking Andy with the intensity of his grief, Xian told him that his sister, who lived in China and had planned to come to the United States to study, had been killed in a tragic accident. Feeling that there was nothing he could do at home, and drawn to be with his colleagues, Xian had chosen to come to work. Xian told Andy that sinking into the technical details of the meeting provided a kind of relief from the tide of memories that otherwise washed over him.

Facing this news, Andy needed to make a choice as a manager — one that his MBA curriculum and leadership development training hadn't prepared him to make. Was he going to regard Xian's life outside of work as a valid and important part of the ongoing situation he was managing, or was he going to treat Xian's life, and the loss of his sister, as if they were outside work bounds?

Death has a way of making these considerations starker. Andy invited Xian to take time off if he needed it, to talk with him at any time, and even to come to Andy's own home and spend time with his family. Not all managers would have made the same decision. The depth and quality of relationships at work are part of the complex landscape of suffering and compassion that we will explore together in this book. Andy's choice to pay attention to Xian's grief, to understand it as relevant to the work of managing, to connect with empathy and concern, and to act on those feelings offers a lived example that is like thousands of other examples we have gathered and analyzed in our research over the past fifteen years. What may seem like small interpersonal moves on Andy's part were actually potent for alleviating suffering.

But what if Xian had not been a star performer? What if the loss of his sister hadn't seemed so obviously relevant? What if the grief had diminished Xian's capacity to contribute to the team? Would Andy's calculus as a manager have been different? What if Xian had mentioned to Andy on the coffee break that his sister had suffered from a mental breakdown? Or that she had a gambling addiction and had thrown the family into bankruptcy? The forms that suffering takes matter for compassion. How suffering resonates with cultural and organizational values is also part of the complex landscape of compassion at work. We don't aim to provide easy answers, but we do draw on two decades of work in this field to deepen your capacity to think about complicated human dilemmas and how to handle them.

Most managers like Andy worry — separate from their personal feelings of empathy and concern toward their employees — about critical questions related to compassion in the workplace. Will employees who are treated with compassion take advantage of their managers or their organizations? Will compassion toward one member of the team, like Xian, set a precedent that locks the manager or organization into a costly pattern of action in the future? Will Andy be able to be fair to others if he opens his heart to Xian's suffering? Will he look weak to the leaders who evaluate him if he offers flexibility to his staff? Addressing and overcoming these concerns is a fundamental aim of this book.


As organizational scholars, we study compassion from a social scientific point of view. Compassion is more than an emotion; it is a felt and enacted desire to alleviate suffering. We define it as a four-part process that involves: (1) noticing that suffering is present in an organization, (2) making meaning of suffering in a way that contributes to a desire to alleviate it, (3) feeling empathic concern for the people suffering, and (4) taking action to alleviate suffering in some manner. This definition highlights the fact that compassion is a multipart process. We will explore in Part Two: Awakening Compassion in Our Work Lives how each aspect is affected by both human and organizational factors.

It's also notable that compassion always unfolds in relation to suffering. This differentiates compassion from other positive interpersonal concepts such as kindness, gratitude, and happiness. Kindness, for example, is a desire to voluntarily and proactively support another person's flourishing, while happiness is a personal sense of well-being. Gratitude involves feeling and expressing appreciation for a life experience. Experiences of happiness, gratitude, and kindness are important to developing a positive side of work. They are central concepts in the study of positive psychology, and research supports their role in cultivating mental, emotional, and physical health. Compassion contrasts with these in that it is explicitly linked to the shadow or darker side of life; compassion goes hand-in-hand with suffering. But it isn't all dark. Because it deeply bonds us with others, compassion is wired into our brains and bodies in ways that motivate and reward us for responding to suffering. Compassion is central to human well-being, for those who provide it as well as for those who receive it. But because it encompasses both negative and positive, the dark and light sides of life, it isn't always simple.


Organizations matter in two ways when we want to understand compassion at work. First, workplaces provide a context that shapes what we notice, think, feel, and do as individuals. Second, workplaces are filled with people and resources that can be coordinated more or less competently to alleviate suffering. We look closely at both the individual and the organizational levels in this book.

One way to understand the powerful role of organizations in awakening compassion is to engage in a thought experiment about a specific instance of suffering, such as when members lose their homes in a fire. We have studied responses to the same kind of loss in different organizations and found very different patterns of compassion. Imagine one workplace where the organization is widely known as a great place to work, and members come to the organization with explicit values of taking care of one another. These values help position a loss of a home in a fire as relevant to the work community. Because it is important to care for people at work in this organization, it's easier for people to feel empathy for the loss and step in to begin organizing action to alleviate the impact of the fire. It is seen as an appropriate and legitimate use of time and of the organization's formal communication methods to organize action.

In another organization, an announcement about a fire that destroyed employees' homes lands in a busy, high-pressure workplace where competition is rampant. People who open the announcement in their crowded email boxes feel a fleeting sense of concern, but this concern has to compete with budget concerns that receive more discussion. Many people don't pay much attention to the announcement at all. They are focused on trying to one-up each other and keep their positions in the next round of layoffs. While the people who do hear of the loss wish there was something they could do, they don't view it as legitimate to use the organization's formal channels to organize about nontask issues, so they end up doing nothing. There's no easy way to turn their concern into action, so feelings of empathy melt away under the pressures of the next deadline.

Notice that the two organizations in our thought experiment are each composed of kind people. But despite this fact, compassion unfolds very differently. In Part Three: Awakening Compassion Competence in Organizations, we will show in greater depth how elements of an organization such as network ties between people, cultural values, work roles, routines, and actions of leaders matter in creating these patterns of compassion that vary across organizations. While cultivating compassion in the individual members of organizations is helpful and important to awakening compassion, it is not enough. Understanding how structures and processes in organizations make it easier or harder to express compassion — not just at the interpersonal level but also at the systemic level — is essential for awakening compassion at work. It is this system-level organizational focus that is the distinctive emphasis of our research and this book.


* Compassion is a felt and enacted desire to alleviate suffering.

* Compassion is defined as a four-part process involving attention, interpretation of suffering, felt empathic concern, and action to alleviate suffering.

* Suffering is pervasive in workplaces.

* Common sources of suffering flow from outside work boundaries, when people suffer from illness, injury, loss, divorce, financial pressures, addiction, or other hardships.

* Forms of suffering arise from work itself, through downsizing, restructuring, change processes, the stress of heavy workloads, performance pressure, feeling devalued, disrespectful interactions, and other organizational sources.


When we recently asked members of one organization where we were doing research to name sources of suffering, they spoke of a lack of appreciation for their talents and skills, of being at the whim of supervisors who didn't understand the difficulties of their work, of pressure of unreasonable deadlines and demands, and of feeling consistently devalued and disengaged when they wanted their work to be meaningful. These are pervasive forms of suffering at work. So pervasive, in fact, that they likely are taken for granted as part of the work environment and slip under the surface of everyday work life.

Of course there are many sources of suffering outside of work as well. Employees like Xian remind us of the suffering that flows from deaths or illnesses in families and life losses such as divorces and separations. Suffering arises from stresses in family roles, financial difficulties, addictions, and many more hardships. While these forms of suffering don't originate within workplaces, they nonetheless seep in from outside. Silent suffering colors work.

An additional source of suffering comes from organizations themselves, often through policies such as restructuring or downsizing, or as a result of change efforts and heavy workloads. It's easy to overlook or dismiss this suffering. Managers and leaders may assume it's not important or it will go away on its own without their attention. But organizations that create pain can also address it with compassion. In fact, our work shows that the very best organizations, leaders, and managers regard this as a fundamental part of their work.

Research shows that compassion for this kind of pain leads to more adaptability and more effective change processes, which are part of the strategic significance of compassion at work that we will discuss in chapter 2. There are other benefits as well. Patty's story, which is adapted from our research, illustrates how an organization can create suffering during change. It also reveals a few ways that compassion at work would enhance both Patty's well-being and the effectiveness of the organization. Patty loved her work as an executive assistant assigned to several leaders. She found joy in building close relationships with them and used her personal knowledge about their likes and dislikes to anticipate their needs. Patty was masterful at recruiting resources that were maximally helpful, even before being asked. Executives she supported sometimes joked that Patty could read their minds. So when Patty received an email late one Friday afternoon telling her that she was being moved to a shared services group, she was surprised. The message told her that all executive and administrative assistants would now take work from a central pool. She felt shocked and devastated. None of the executives she supported were in the office this late on a Friday, so she had no one to ask about the change. Without anyone to help her make sense of the message, Patty spent the weekend worried and trying to understand what it meant for her.

First thing Monday morning, Patty arrived at her usual cubicle to find a moving trolley and boxes. She was instructed to pack as quickly as possible. She had to change locations before she'd had a chance to interact with anyone. The rush left her no time to say good-bye. The fact that she moved to a distant building made it hard for people shed worked closely with in the past to find her. Patty began to do work from the request pool. While she was still an efficient employee, her daily experience of work changed dramatically. Online requests had to be fulfilled without knowing the people or the story behind them. Patty's magic talent of "mind reading" disappeared with this lack of relational connection. The change diminished Patty's sense of her own competence and creativity. She still received warm smiles and an occasional comment like "We miss you!" from the leaders she had worked with before. But given the new structure, Patty now found herself lonely, isolated, and often bored by work that had previously been a source of joy and inspiration.

In Patty's case, an efficiency-oriented change created suffering as a by-product. Those who design and implement efficiency-oriented changes like these often give little consideration to how the process could be done in ways that minimize suffering. Managers and leaders likewise give little consideration to how they could alleviate suffering in the aftermath of change. But this book will show you that, while suffering might be inevitable, there are many opportunities for awakening compassion at work.

Let's consider Patty's case. How could her organization have implemented change with greater compassion competence? Five steps would have increased compassion without decreasing efficiency. First, the timing of the communication could have been adjusted with attention to suffering, so that Patty did not have to make sense of the change alone over a weekend. Second, those implementing the change could have explicitly linked it with the overall culture and values of the organization that gave worth and dignity to support staff, making the change more meaningful to Patty and elevating her role rather than diminishing it. Third, the organization could have adjusted the relocation routines so that people who cared about Patty knew how to find her and the sense of disconnection was minimized. Fourth, the organization could host a celebration in the service of embracing change, formally recognizing those who were moving into the support pool and also creating a chance to say a festive good-bye. And finally, the manager in the new shared services pool could involve Patty and others in crafting this new role with an eye toward making it as meaningful as possible. These five steps would have cost little, but they would have made the change easier for Patty and strengthened the overall adaptability of the system.

Without compassion, workplaces can become powerful amplifiers of human suffering. This book offers a fuller picture of how to create organizations that awaken compassion. First we define the key concepts and establish the case for compassion. The next part of the book focuses on individuals at work, and is designed to help you understand the four aspects of the compassion process more deeply and identify skills you can use to increase compassion in your work, no matter what it is. The third part of the book focuses on organizations. It is designed to help you become a compassion architect for your organization, explaining a framework for understanding and designing a social architecture that enables compassion. The fourth part of the book presents tools that bring all the ideas together and helps you apply them to awaken compassion in your own work life and across your organization.


Excerpted from Awakening Compassion at Work by Monica C. Worline, JANE E. DUTTON. Copyright © 2017 Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton. Excerpted by permission of Barrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Monica C. Worline, PhD, is CEO of EnlivenWork. She is a research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and Executive Director of CompassionLab.
Jane E. Dutton, PhD, is the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration and Psychology and cofounder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business; she is also a founding member of CompassionLab.
Foreword author Raj Sisodia is a professor at Babson College and the co-founder of Conscious Capitalism, Inc.

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