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colleagues building a culture of compassion in the workplace

All business leaders know that customer care is at the heart of growing their brand. That’s why every team, from marketing to customer support, is measured on their ability to attract and retain buyers.

Yet when it comes to applying that same compassion to their employees, most companies fall short, or worse, skip it all together. Unfortunately for them, this approach is negatively affecting their bottom line. The pandemic has shown us that compassion must come back to the workplace because happy employees lead to a successful business.

What is a culture of compassion?

Compassion is a deeply human emotion that helps us recognize suffering and respond in a genuine way to alleviate that suffering. When applied to the workplace, compassion helps leaders set realistic goals, be flexible during crises, and support employees who are passionate about their work.

It’s not just about listening and understanding. It’s about acting on your empathy to help others succeed. Work culture has very serious effects on a business. Two companies, Patagonia and Wells Fargo, serve as case studies of what happens when compassion is applied, and when it is not.

Patagonia and its commitment to social responsibility

Patagonia is well known for its active commitment to supporting green initiatives and funding campaigns to save the environment. The company has made headlines with its low employee turnover rate and support of activist employees. When employees participate in protests against the destruction of local ecosystems, Patagonia takes care of their legal fees.

But the leadership team has another important initiative. Over the last ten years, Patagonia has focused on building a living wage program for their factory workers. While still a work in progress, the public commitment to change holds Patagonia accountable to their customers.

Wells Fargo and its commitment to quarterly profits

Wells Fargo is still digging its way out of legal troubles due to a years-long scandal. It was revealed that corporate leaders were holding employees accountable for unattainable daily sales goals.

This pressure created a culture where employees were compelled to create fraudulent customer accounts to hit their sales targets and keep their jobs. Despite employee complaints, senior leaders expected every employee to act against their moral compass in order to satisfy quarterly profit goals.

Why is creating a compassionate culture important?

Many leaders, as well as some workers, believe that feelings don’t have a place at work and should be left at home. Instead, business should be all about profit and be the driving priority for all employees, from the CEO down to the inbound sales representative who just graduated from college.

The side effect of this numbers-only mindset is real harm to employee health and wellness. People spend the majority of waking hours at work, so when they are overwhelmed with stress or personal problems, it has a detrimental effect on their productivity.

When they receive compassion from their managers, it gives them a feeling of psychological safety at work. They can come forward and ask for help without fear of punishment or the loss of their job.

Companies that value compassion see real, tangible benefits:

  • Employees feel connected to, and passionate about, the company vision
  • Employee retention rates increase, avoiding interruptions to important projects
  • Employees feel safe to call out and address company shortcomings, leading to innovation

The impact of COVID-19 on the workforce

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated work stress, created employment insecurity, and deepened political and social divides across the country. HR leaders are attempting to address these problems but often, their words and actions are not aligned. Unfortunately for them, people are very attuned to this disconnect.

In fact, only one in four employees believe that empathy in their organization is sufficient. Here is an example of misalignment between words and actions:

  • Leadership words – HR encourages employees to prioritize their mental health.
  • Leadership actions – CEO stresses the dire consequences of missing this quarter’s financial goals and asks everyone to buckle down.

Why leaders struggle to adapt

Many leaders struggle with empathy. Studies show that only 40% of leaders are able to demonstrate empathy well. That’s because emotional intelligence is a muscle that must be exercised. As leaders rise to the top, their opinions carry more weight and they seek less feedback from their colleagues.

Leaders can also have a bias towards control. During a crisis they respond by attempting to control the situation, rather than opening up, being vulnerable, and being self aware of their responsibilities to their employees. By forgoing empathy, they also take away their own chance to be seen as a human being, as well as a leader.

What are the goals of creating a culture of compassion?

Developing a culture where compassion is a core company value pays off in dividends. Aside from healthy and happy employees, businesses deliver better customer care, and increase customer loyalty – the linchpin of a profitable business.

Employee Happiness

Positive work environments result in happier and healthier employees. They even improve people’s blood pressure and immune systems. This has wide-ranging effects on their commitment to the company mission, willingness to collaborate and problem solve, and accomplish their performance goals.
It even helps improve their relationships with customers, especially when they are allowed to use their own compassion to solve difficult problems. Serving customers well is highly rewarding.

Employee Recruiting

The last two years have seen a pivotal change in the power dynamic between employers and workers. There are a lot more options for employees. They can be discerning in their next career choice.

Sites like Glassdoor let your employees leave reviews on what it’s like to work for your business. A toxic work culture will hit your recruitment plans hard. To avoid this, consider what future employees are looking for:

  • Who’s winning at your company? Just the leaders and stakeholders? Are the employees and customers better off too?
  • Employee benefits for mental wellness, flexible work schedules, and training opportunities.
  • Stories from current employees that showcase how your company supports them during difficult times.

Employee Retention

In order to make cultural changes, you have to disrupt the status quo. Leaders who want to address their employees’ concerns but don’t want to lose their control over the business, can’t make those changes.

Focusing on improving your employees’ lives means acknowledging the friction caused by your current culture. Change is hard, but employees will be more committed to their work when words and actions align. Remember, just because someone isn’t speaking up now, it doesn’t mean they aren’t looking elsewhere for a more supportive employer.

Best practices for a culture of compassion

Cultural change is very daunting, but HR and business leaders are in a powerful position as role models for how companies can behave in a more compassionate way. Best practices for building a better workplace include:

  • Start with self-compassion – accept that building a new culture is hard and you’ll make mistakes. Allow yourself to be vulnerable and open to guidance from others.
  • Don’t lose sight of your intent – compassion in the workplace is about addressing your workers’ basic needs so they can do their jobs well.
  • Compassion can’t be faked – if this work feels like a burden, consider counseling to help you relate better to others in your organization.
  • Practice vulnerability – crises affect you too. Relate your personal experiences to your employees. If you feel defensive when criticized. consider that your employees also feel that way when they struggle to accomplish unrealistic goals.
  • Practice empathy – listen without judgment. When someone is struggling at work, ask “how can I help you to relieve some of the burden?” rather than saying, “I hear you, but we have to talk about your performance.”

Compassionate steps you can take now

  1. Establish compassionate policies:
    1. If an employee tests positive for COVID, or is caring for someone with COVID, provide paid leave for the duration – regardless of accrued paid time off.
    2. Encourage, or even mandate, regular vacations and rest days.
    3. Do away with the “butts in seats” mentality. If your employee has completed their work for the day, let them sign off early.
  2. Create employee resource groups (ERGs):
    1. Help create internal support groups for people of color, veterans, parents and caregivers, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, women, and neurodivergent employees.
    2. These groups are historically led by employee volunteers. They’re not responsible for fixing company culture, but they’re exactly the type of people that you should listen to when making changes.
  3. Build a support culture:
    1. Train your people managers to notice when someone is overwhelmed and how they can help lift the burden. It can be as simple as pushing out a deadline by one day or helping the employee complete a time-consuming task.
    2. Mandate a compassionate email culture to protect everyone’s inboxes. Respect work/life boundaries and schedule emails for office hours only. Consider whether a conversation can wait until your next scheduled catch-up.

Need help building a compassionate culture?

If this sounds overwhelming, we understand. Changing your company culture won’t happen overnight. Alloy has the tools to help your company align your brand, people, and performance to create a thriving and compassionate culture for your business.