Is Compassion Or Criticism More Effective?

  • Michelle McQuaid

When your colleagues are struggling – arriving late, missing deadlines, or consistently making mistakes – at work, how do you respond? Do you heave a big sigh, roll your eyes or deliver a few stern words to communicate your frustration and displeasure? Or do you take these signs as your cue to sit down and compassionately check in with what’s happening?

I have to confess my first reaction used to be frustration. After all I was working so hard to meet people’s expectations, surely I should be able to expect the same from them in return. And while my judgment and displeasure was sometimes enough to get people moving again, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that generally these outcomes were very short-term. It was a band-aid solution that completely failed to address the source of the pain.

“The truth is when it comes to our workplaces there is pain in every room,” explained Monica Worline co-author of the new book Awakening Compassion at Work when I interviewed her recently. “Be it the pressure of unreasonable deadlines, feeling unappreciated for our efforts, navigating changes, being uncertain about our future or the many sources of suffering outside of the office, pain colors the way we perform at work.”

As a result when compassion – our felt and enacted desire to alleviate suffering – is practiced in organizations, researchers are finding you’re likely to improve your resilience and adaptability in the face of change, be more engaged and committed to your organizationhave better relationships with your clients and provide a higher quality of service which in turn increases people’s loyalty to your brand.

So how can you practice compassion with others at work?

“Compassion is a four part process that involves noticing that suffering is present, making meaning of the suffering in a way that contributes to your desire to alleviate it, feeling empathetic concern for the person suffering and taking action to alleviate the suffering in some manner,” explained Monica. “The good news is compassion is wired into your brain and body in ways that motivate and reward you for responding to suffering and helps you to bond deeply with others. But because it encompasses both negative and positive, the dark and light sides of life, it isn’t always simple.”

For me, this understanding of the process of compassion completely transformed the way I see others when they’re struggling at work. Instead of blaming or trying to tame their less desirable behaviors I take this as my cue to sit down, start listening, see the strengths in them and offer my support as they try to navigate their way through what’s unfolding. It helps me to remember that there is good in every person, that no one wants to do bad work, and that we are each still learning how to consistently put our strengths to work. As a result I’ve been able to build and keep a team of incredible, loyal and high-performing people.

To improve your compassion capabilities Monica suggests practicing these four steps:

  • Notice suffering – Some people can feel too embarrassed or ashamed to talk about what’s causing them pain, so keep your eyes open for changes in people’s usual patterns. For example, they may look more exhausted, be more short-tempered, or seem less engaged in their work. By developing a gentle approach to inquiring about what’s happening you can provide a safe environment for them to explain their story.

Be willing to ask humble and kind questions, and try not to assume that their experiences are similar to any of your own. You can ask permission to share their situation to help others understand what is happening spread awareness and compassion more widely among others in your workplace. Of course, you need to respect that it is totally up to the person what details and who it can be shared with.

What can you do to better notice where your colleagues are not themselves and make space for these conversations?

  • Generously interpret suffering – When you believe that personal skeletons should be kept at home and suffering doesn’t deserve compassion in your workplace it can be difficult to open yourself up to genuine concern for others. Thinking that you don’t have the time, skills or resources to resolve any problems can also shut down the compassionate process. However by learning to be curious, and practicing the positive default assumption whereby you take it for granted that people who are suffering are good, capable and worthy of compassion you can develop a more generous interpretation of events.

A generous interpretation means you withhold any blame or critical judgments towards the person, and are present for them in the moment. It also means believing that you have the capacity to meet suffering with compassion with your existing resources, as even if you feel you can’t do anything, just being there for someone can be enough.

How can you inquire about mistakes, errors, or missed deadlines in ways that do not create blame?

  • Feel empathy and concern – Being able to ‘stand in someone else’s shoes’ and see things from their perspective, especially when your expectations are not being met can help you be more in tune with how they’re feeling and bolster your concern for them. Using mindfulness to tune off to your internal thoughts and feelings can help you be more present to the other person in the moment, and be calm and steady in the face of challenges. It also helps to focus on being an empathetic listener, giving the other person your full attention, without interrupting or feeling you need to jump in to try to fix or solve their personal problems.

How might you learn to be better at listening with empathy and acknowledging your colleagues’ stress or suffering, without interrupting or needing to jump in and fix things?

  • Act to alleviate suffering – Become comfortable with finding practical actions that can meet both the needs of the person and your workplace. Small actions or gestures don’t have to take a lot of your time or energy but can make a huge difference in helping the person feel like their suffering is acknowledged. Your expressions of concern and small actions – micro-moves – can alleviate their pain and change your work environment.

Saying sorry for what they’re going through, perhaps giving them a simple card or just checking in how they are doing can be valuable ways to provide support. If you need to assist them balance their work commitments, consider offering to help out with any tasks, providing flex-time or working from home arrangements, or lightening their immediate workload.

How could you better keep track of what would be helpful to each of your colleagues in times of stress or suffering?

For more tips grab a copy of Monica and Jane Dutton’s book “Awakening Compassion At Work” by clicking here.