Cultivating Compassion in the Workplace (why bother & taking a first step)

Mar 13, 2014


In the Fall of 2013, journalist Andy Fraser reported on his learnings at the Empathy and Compassion in Societyconference in London. He was interested in understanding more about why a recent Gallup poll had revealed that “just 13% of the world’s employees are engaged at work; about a quarter are ‘actively disengaged’ – unhappy, unproductive and liable to spread negativity to their colleagues.” He shared in two blog posts1,2what he learned about the benefits of creating a culture of compassion at work, and I summarize them here along with how I see “nonviolent communication” (NVC) training as an ideal step for organizations of all types and sizes.

First, what is Compassion in the Workplace? Fraser defines it rather simply as “a work environment where people feel valued and supported, and are encouraged to develop their skills and reach their full potential.”

Second, why does it matter? Fraser summarizes six good reasons he heard covered at the conference, including:

1.  Stress is bad for business:  studies (based on sick days, productivity and turnover rates) have put a cost of $300 billion in the U.S. just in the year 2012. Particularly in the face of high pressure deadlines, demanding, competitive, critiquing behavior can be the norm, with everyone paying a price.

2.  Compassion makes us happier and healthier:  kindness and compassion can not only act as act as a buffer against the effects of stress, they give us something like a “happy buzz,” which often creates a ripple effect. According to psychologist Daniel Goleman, we have “mirror neurons” in our brain that “make emotions contagious” which means that every interaction in and out of the workplace counts3.

3. Win-win situations:  according to Stanford University researcher, Emma Seppala, “when organizations promote an ethic of compassion rather than a culture of stress, they may not only see a happier workplace but also an improved bottom line4.” In her findings, when employees build better relationships with each other, they enjoy their work environment better and their productivity improves. As a consequence those organizations see lower employee turnover and increased customer service, as well as increased loyalty. She’s not alone; Fraser heard Richard Barrett, leadership consultant from the UK, claim that “promoting compassionate leaders who care about their employees is really good for business5.”

Third, what can organizations do to promote Compassion in the Workplace? In his second blog post, Fraser covers 10 tips (shared by the speakers at the Empathy and Compassion in Society conference) for how workplaces can transform in ways that benefits everyone. Here, I focus on “try compassion training.” Out of my passion for this issue, I provide the workshop, Cultivating Compassion in the Workplace—based on the nonviolent communication model (NVC). This workshop stems from my 16 years of professional experience in organizations and more recent personal training and practice of NVC and my firm belief that the practice of compassion can greatly lower stress and anxiety, enrich employee engagement, foster supportive collaboration, and increase productivity.

Compassion in the Workplace in practice—perhaps a real example can help with forming a better idea of what this is all about. Recently I was heading into a crisis-oriented 5 hour meeting with a board member of an organization for which I provide process management work. I have often felt unsure and unsafe in her presence. I was dreading it and decided to go against my lifelong strategy of coming across as (= often faking) a sense of calm, cool, and collectedness, which I was definitely NOT that particular morning. During my brief train ride to the meeting, I did some NVC journaling, which means I self-connected by writing out my thoughts and feelings, followed by needs and requests. I shared openly with her first thing, and it went something like this:

I would like to have a heart-to-heart before diving in. Can I share what’s going on in me, and perhaps you can reformulate so that I know I’m heard?

I really appreciate the support I’ve received lately from you and other board members. Since August, 2013, I’ve experienced a lack of communication with my main point of contact and figuring out my way a bit too much in the dark.

In this moment, I don’t feel as safe as I’d like to—a vulnerable moment for me and even my role with the organization; I have fears that due to a few things happening that are out of my control, my professional integrity might at times be on the line.

I notice that I’m telling myself stories, e.g. ‘This is really a 5-hour meeting to hold me and my work under a microscope,’ and I have many concerns about it. The thought of such scrutiny has me feeling more vulnerable and very uncomfortable. Like, the goal today is to “FIX” me and my work.

It’s important to me that I maintain a certain amount of integrity, that I’m seen in my efforts and my professional approach (far from perfect though it is!)

I have a request for you: I’d like to start off talking about the bigger picture, the complaints, then determine jointly the goals of our meeting today. I notice clarity on that would help me feel much more comfortable.

I’d also like to hear what’s important for you so that together we can get on the same page concerning all of our needs before we dive into strategies and detail.

And along the way, can you please check with me if your preferred strategies work for me? I might have resistance, and if so would like to brainstorm other options with you.

In retrospect, I showed my vulnerabilities instead of “just how professional I am” by giving the perception that I was calm and trustworthy. And though this was quite new and scary for me, I’m positive it made all the difference in our meeting—we connected to a degree for the first time, I stopped thinking and acting out of fear, I felt much safer, we saved all strategy-thinking till last, and I pretty much got all I wanted out of the meeting. And to give this particular board member a lot of the credit, she listened wholly to me and “met” me in my requests, which of course she didn’t have to do. As always, it takes two to tango!

If your organization, team, group is interested in engaging in some compassion training, contact me to learn more about the workshop, Cultivating Compassion in the Workplace—based on the nonviolent communication model (NVC), and other training/coaching opportunities:  cara(at)crislercoaching(dot)com.


1 Fraser, Andy, “Six Good Reasons to Create a Compassionate Workplace,” posted 31 Oct. 2013,

2 Fraser, Andy, “10 Ways to Create a Compassionate Workplace,” posted 13 Nov. 2013,

3 Goleman, Daniel & Richard Boyatzis “Social Intelligence and the Biology of Leadership,” Sept. 2008,

4 Seppala, Emma, “Why Compassion in Business Makes Sense,” 15 Apr. 2013,

Cara Crisler
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1 Comment. Leave new

A friend of mine who works at Red Hat says they have a weekly Crucial Conversations discussion. I think it is optional. We have a copy of that book on CD that has been making the rounds here at work and it has helped me a number of times. I think it would help more if it were an ongoing thing, though… these habits of being defensive and “faking being ok” take effort to rewire!


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