Why Compassion Is Better than Toughness


The Harvard Business Review (HBR) recently had an article on its web site titled, “Why Compassion Is a Better Managerial Tactic than Toughness” by Emma Seppälä.

The main question the article attempts to address is “How should we react when an employee is not performing well or makes a mistake?” 

Seppälä notes that frustration is of course the natural response — and one we all can identify with. The traditional approach to deal with such frustration is to reprimand the employee in some way. Some managers, however, choose a different response when confronted by an underperforming employee: compassion and curiosity.

There is research to support the notion that a manager will get more powerful results with the more compassionate response.

Compassion leads to higher levels of trust, loyalty, and creativity, and employees view such managers as more effective.

While I am thrilled to see such research since it supports my beliefs (which I have written about before: Kindness in Action, Congratulations Patty B!, Is Nice the New Black?, Thank You!), what I found most interesting in the HBR article was mention of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

At first I was surprised that such a Center would exist; do we really need to be taught how to be compassionate? So I went to the Center’s web site to learn more about it. Below is a brief excerpt from the web site about why the Center was created and what its mission is.

While science has made great strides in treating pathologies of the human mind, far less research exists to date on positive qualities of the human mind including compassion, altruism and empathy. Yet these prosocial traits are innate to us and lie at the very centerpiece of our common humanity. Our capacity to feel compassion has ensured the survival and thriving of our species over millennia. For this reason, the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University School of Medicine was founded in 2008 with the explicit goal of promoting, supporting, and conducting rigorous scientific studies of compassion and altruistic behavior.

CCARE envisions a world in which, thanks to rigorous research studies on the benefits of compassion:

  • the practice of compassion is understood to be as important for health as physical exercise & healthful diet
  • empirically validated techniques for cultivating compassion are widely accessible
  • the practice of compassion is taught and applied in schools, hospitals, prisons, the military and other community settings.

Drawing from several disciplines including neuroscience, psychology, economics and contemplative traditions, research and programs supported and organized by CCARE examine:

  • the neural correlates, biological bases and antecedents of compassion
  • the effects of compassion on brain and behavior
  • methods for cultivating compassion and promoting altruism within individuals and society-wide.

From an educational perspective, CCARE offers:

  • a compassion training program
  • a teacher training program
  • public lectures, conferences, workshops and seminars
  • web-based education and outreach: blogs, videos, and wiki.

So after learning a bit about CCARE, I was convinced of the value of its vision and grateful to those who realized the need for such a Center, particularly Dr. James Doty. I look forward to learning even more about its work.

Imagine what life would be like if everyone’s response to any given situation was to first act with compassion.

As the Dalai Lama has said, “The cultivation of compassion is no longer a luxury, but a necessity, if our species is to survive.”

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