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Cultivating a Culture of Compassion and Kindness – Why Bother?

I often say that culture is ‘what seeps through the cracks and gaps of an organisation’s structure’. It’s the unseen, intangible qualities of an organisation that don’t fit neatly onto an organisation chart, a workplace plan or its processes.

Most organisations I have worked with have at least one value that expresses the desire to be innovative, another that reflects the need for team-work, another the quality of delivery or customer service. Sometimes there is a value of respect. But what about love, kindness and compassion? What value heading would they fit under, and why bother?

Terms such as compassion have historically been associated with charity work, defined as the ability to feel another’s pain and  – crucially – wanting to reach out and help. This is different to empathy, which is merely the ability to share and understand the pain without necessarily wanting to do anything about it (see: ‘Greater Good, Science of a Meaningful Life’ for more info).


But research is showing that the ability and action of helping others in the workplace produces a higher state of wellbeing; the so-called virtuous cycle which translates into higher productivity and engagement, better customer service, less stress-induced leave and associated healthcare costs. Emma Seppala Ph.D. at the Center for Compassion and Altruism and Research at Stanford backs this up in her latest article in Psychology Today.

So how can leaders and managers create a culture that promotes compassion and kindness – without appearing weak or ‘soft’? Here are a few ideas to get started:

  1. Reward random acts of kindness – a client recently awarded an employee who had spontaneously sent a customer a get well card on hearing they were ill.
  2. Promote the ‘human’ side of HR – ensure there is at least one person available who can provide a sympathetic listening ear at any time.
  3. Support a charity project – ask all staff to put forward suggestions and ensure the selection criteria is open and transparent.
  4. Don’t ‘sweep things under the carpet’ – if an employee is going through tough times (bereavement, cancer treatment etc) ensure there is space for colleagues to discuss the impact at both an activity and emotional level.
  5. Foster an environment where people are able to ask for help when needed. Overwhelm and fear of job security can often prevent people from saying ‘I can’t cope’ – leading to breakdowns which then impact customers and relationships at work.

Compassion and kindness are both inherent qualities in human nature. Balancing the rational and cognitive aspects of work with the relational, emotional aspects of working in community with others is one of the biggest challenges for leaders, and indeed everyone working in business today.

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