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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Dalai Lama and Monica Worline

A Conversation between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Academic and Business Leaders - Monica Worline

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I would like to begin with two expressions of gratitude:

First, for the invitation to participate in this dialogue, and for all of the members of the CompassionLab who been engaged in this research for almost 15 years.

And second, to His Holiness. I had the privilege to be present for a dialogue between scientists and His Holiness at Emory University in 2007. At the end of the day, when the moderator asked His Holiness for reflections on what the scientific findings meant, he paused and allowed a long silence.

Hundreds of people in the huge gymnasium hushed, and within 30 seconds a powerful feeling came over the crowd. When His Holiness spoke, he said a very simple sentence: this work matters because so many people in the world are suffering. As he said those words, my eyes flooded with tears. In the space of half a minute, we had moved from the dialogue of the mind to the truth of heart - and every person in the room was deepened. That experience inspired me and has fueled us to continue this research.

For over a decade now, CompassionLab's research has investigated one main question: what are the factors, beyond the individual, that amplify compassion in an organization and what are the factors that inhibit it?

As we have investigated this question, we have made three important assumptions:

  • Organizations are filled with human pain.
  • Organizations are filled with people who are capable and good, and who generally want to respond to suffering with compassion;
  • Organizations are complex social systems that often block people's basic impulse toward compassion, make suffering invisible, or make compassionate response difficult.

To help illustrate what I mean by amplifiers and inhibitors, I want to tell a story of one organization's response to three members who lost their belongings in a fire.

This fire broke out in the middle of a cold winter night. No one was injured, but everyone who lived in the apartment building lost all of their belongings and their homes. The organization had no legal or formal responsibility for the building, the fire, or for the response to these members.

Two of the members involved in the fire were reluctant to alert others in the organization, because they assumed it was their individual responsibility to cope with the loss. This points to the first major inhibitor of compassion, which we find time and again across organization types: it is far more difficult to discern suffering in organizations that we think it is. Concerns over professional reputation and appearing competent, along with emotional display rules that suggest it isn't appropriate to display grief or sorrow at work often block people from sharing suffering with others.

The third person affected by the fire was more intent on seeking help from the organization, however. She arrived physically present in the organization, dressed in her pajamas, coat, and boots, looking disheveled and reeking of smoke, to ask for help. Her physical presence, appearance, and smell (along with her request for help) made her suffering real for others and activated members of the organization to put out calls for help across several networks. We have found that the more of these networks that get alerted to suffering, the more amplified the response becomes.

You could think of this in today's terms as the call for compassion “going viral” in the organization. When it went viral-as it did in this case-it unleashed an incredible array of resources: physical donations, financial donations, social support and help, and emotional support, care, and concern.

Regardless of the type or size of organization, or even the type of suffering, we find that managers and leaders often experience a dilemma that inhibits the expression of compassion. Whey leaders or managers are worried that expressing compassion will make them look 'weak,' or that by expressing compassion to one person, others will begin to take advantage of them, compassion is often blocked from being organized.

In the case of the fire, the organization had a full-service hotel used to house executive visitors. The director of this hospitality unit refused to grant housing to the members affected by the fire, because the policy of the organization stated that the housing was to be used for executives only. The leader of the unit was worried that this exception would open the door to many other requests.

This kind of situation shows us that even an individual who feels empathy-as this unit leader did-in an organization that values compassion-as this organization did-can be blocked by organizational policies that make flexible response to suffering difficult.

Luckily, intervention from other leadership of the organization allowed the hospitality director to make an exception to the policy, which points to the power of leadership as an amplifier. Leaders can amplify the expression of compassion in their organizations in at least three ways:

First, they can introduce flexibility and remove sanctions for customized response to suffering.

Second, leaders can model an appropriate response - such as when the leader in this case made a public donation to the growing fund for supporting those who had lost their homes.

And finally, leaders also amplify the expression of compassion when they give explicit and consistent messages affirming the humanity of people in an organization. Leaders remind us that we are all in it together, and that it's good to take care of one another. This value matters a lot for how people make sense of what to do in the face of suffering in the organization. This value - we take care of our own, for instance, or everyone deserves our care - amplifies the likelihood that someone in the organization who hears about suffering will feel empathy rather than indifference or even aversion when they encounter someone in pain.

In this case, the leader interrupted a large public speech that was planned for the day of the fire to draw attention to the need, to remind the organization that it is good to take care of one another, and to encourage people to participate in the response.

Organizational values like common humanity tend to get a lot of attention when we talk about compassion in organizations, but the final amplifiers I want to mention are routines. Routines are not so glamorous - they get far less press than values. But there is a case to be made that routines are dramatically more important as amplifiers of compassion in organizations. Routines are what help organizations make noticing and responding to suffering easier and more reliable as part of the daily experience of work.

In relation to the fire, the organization had strong routines for citizenship and volunteering, so people had established ways of cooperating to support the needs of others. Communication routines made it legitimate and easy to share information about the state of others via email, helping to speed up widespread coordination. It is hard to overstate the importance of understanding the basic routines that amplify compassion. The point is that these routines enable people to more easily know what to do in response to suffering, because they can do something similar to what they do every day. When people use daily routines to address suffering, organizations build compassion capability.

When we think about compassion in organizations this way, through the lens of amplifiers and inhibitors, we find that compassion has profound effects not just for those who suffer, but for all of our businesses.

For instance, without witnessing compassion at work, many employees feel a lack of commitment to our organizations, and we lose talented people who could contribute to our success. Others disengage-showing up physically, but not full present with their hearts and minds ready to contribute.

Without compassion for changing circumstances and an ability to touch into the experiences of others who are in pain, we cannot deliver high-quality service to our customers, patients, or partners.

Without compassion for the difficulty of working together in highly complex, collaborative, interdependent work we cannot do what is demanded by today's global organizations.

And finally-especially crucial for today's audience-without empathy for our customers, without compassion for errors that inevitably arise, and without sensitivity for the difficulty of navigating change, we cannot create and sustain truly innovative organizations.

Feb 24, 2014