A tense meeting. A critical performance review. A failed project. A costly mistake. A delayed promotion. The world of work is filled with challenges … and opportunities to foster greater compassion in your staff. To successfully navigate work (and life) your employees must be able to care for themselves when they fall short of their or others’ expectations — or when they face disappointment, setbacks and other difficult moments beyond their control. In short, they need compassion to skillfully manage the human experience.
Sometimes employees come to your organization with this essential character skill. More often, especially for young professionals just entering the workforce, this skill needs to be developed. As a leader, manager, or HR professional, you can help.
To get a solid understanding of compassion, it’s helpful to break down the word by its Latin roots. “Com” means “with,” and the word “passion” from the Latin word “patior” means “to suffer.” When you put those two definitions together, compassion literally means “to suffer with.”
For our purposes, we’ll define compassion as “being with or caring about your own or another’s suffering AND doing something about it.” Compassion always has an action element.
Research from The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education out of Stanford University shows that people who have more compassion for themselves and others are happier people. They are more motivated, less afraid of failure, have less anxiety and depression, and have the resilience needed to cope with life’s stressors.
Clearly, there are many benefits to cultivating compassion, especially when your team has ambitious personal and professional goals to meet. But what does showing compassion to ourselves look like in practice?
According to self-compassion experts Dr. Kristen Neff and Dr. Christopher Germer, self-compassion includes the capacity to: comfort, soothe, validate, protect, provide for, and motivate ourselves.
In the context of self-compassion, to comfort yourself means leaning into difficult emotions and supporting your emotional needs by encouraging yourself. To soothe means to help your body become physically calmer; validate — to accept and be open to what is; protect — to say no to people, situations and practices that are harmful to us; provide — figuring out what you need and giving it to yourself; motivate — using positive words with yourself to do something about solving your situation and getting into action.
As you coach your team, it’s important to keep in mind that the capacity you might need to lean into in the face of a particular painful moment may not be the same as what the employee in front of you needs. So how can you grow compassion and its various capacities in your staff?
You know your team well and are invested in their development. But sometimes the only person who can really know what the employee in front of you needs is that employee. However, they may not yet have the vocabulary, framework or understanding required to meet that need.
One of the first steps you as a leader, manager or HR professional can take to support your employees in challenging moments is to help them notice what they are experiencing. By asking questions that encourage your employees to turn inward with curiosity and kindness, you enable them tune into their thoughts and emotions and make a conscious decision about how to move forward from there — to choose what kind of compassionate action to take.
Beyond directing your team’s attention to their experiences, you can also share the definition of compassion, its related capacities and why you see this as an important area of growth for each individual, for your organization’s culture and ultimately your collective success.
Depending on each employee’s willingness to engage in the work of cultivating compassion, you can provide them with resources to deepen their learning, like Dr. Neff’s or Dr. Germer’s books, articles from The Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, or our “6 Days to More Compassion” free download with compassion tips, challenges and journal prompts.
If your team needs a more guided introduction to this skill-building, you can intentionally weave these concepts into team and organizational processes like check-ins, employee reviews, development days, lunch and learns and beyond. Once your team — and your entire staff — has that common language, it can serve as a shortcut to greater understanding and personal and organizational growth.
Shared experiences can also be a powerful way to cement learning. The compassion workshop in our Character Academy series is a great entry point to compassion for your young staff. Through multimedia content, dynamic storytelling, and interactive small- and large-group discussion, our incredible facilitators leverage our expertise in bringing character-based content to life to expand your team’s understanding of compassion, deepen their connection to each other and solidify a shared commitment to grow individually and as a community.
Lastly, and most importantly, the best way to encourage your staff to practice compassion is to model it yourself. The next time you experience a failure, painful moment or even a small mistake, be thoughtful of your response. Ask yourself, “What do I need right now?” Then give yourself the space and permission to comfort, soothe, validate, protect, provide or motivate yourself. When you do, not only will you build your own resilience, but you will also have more energy left to support and encourage your team.
Our free “6 Days to More Compassion” workbook is designed to give your staff a light overview of compassion and the six self-compassion capacities. Each day of the challenge comes with ideas and journal prompts to help your team practice each of the compassion capacities for themselves and deepen their learning through thoughtful reflection. Share the resource with your team and discuss it together or launch your staff on a self-guided journey they can take at their own pace.
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For 35 years, Youth Frontiers has been inspiring character, civility and community through our dynamic retreats. Since our founding, we have reached more than 2 million people. Through our powerful programs, we equip youth and adults alike with the common language of character and challenge them to live with greater kindness, courage, curiosity and respect. Our newest series, Character Academy, is designed to help Gen Z build the character skills needed to navigate the road of life.