How to change with compassion

Attend almost any organizational training and you will hear some version of this adage: “The only constant is change.”

The best organizations get great at handling change with care, but many organizations don’t. Unless change goes hand-in-hand with compassion, however, organizational change can also become workplace suffering.

Through our research, we developed the metaphor “compassion architect” to refer to the change agents who take on the responsibility for activating and spreading compassion in organizations and beyond. We call them compassion architects because they know how to use the social architecture of their organizations — aspects like networks that connect people, values embedded in the culture, roles that define zones of responsibility, or routines that get tasks accomplished — to also awaken compassion.

Tom is an example of a compassion architect we worked with who had to learn how to infuse change with compassion. Tom was a product manager whose organization was undergoing a merger. He was confronted with teams of engineers who were deeply saddened by losing their friends and colleagues.

While the senior leadership teams of the two organizations had been diligent about trying to save as many jobs as possible, they had reassigned people to new posts quickly.

This change broke up many long-standing work groups, sometimes without even the chance to say goodbye. One group of engineers was so upset that they told Tom it was like going through a “work divorce.” While leaders had been cognizant of the pain of layoffs, they had missed the pain created by the reorganizations.

Let’s be clear: changing with compassion does not mean things never change! As a compassion architect, Tom could not prevent or roll back the reorg. But that does not mean there’s no role for compassion in a scenario like this one. Compassion architects find ways to use their personal compassion and to activate the system as well.

Tom took four crucial steps to activate and spread compassion at his workplace:

  1. He noticed the suffering and invited a conversation about it. Then he invited others into this conversation, activating the networks in the organization.
  2. He interpreted it as important to address so he continued to engage. As he did so, he drew on values embedded in the culture to help others share his interpretation.
  3. He felt concerned for the well-being of his direct reports and colleagues and this motivated him to do something more. He used his role to draw in other people to this feeling and to coordinate others who wanted to help, too.
  4. He acted to alleviate this suffering, both by acknowledging it and by raising an alarm that the organization needed to do more. He began to improvise on some of the product management routines in the organization to make them more responsive to the pain and draw others into action as well.

Amplifying compassion

Compassion architects like Tom redesign elements of an organization in ways that will amplify compassion, including an organization’s networks, values, roles, and routines. This is what Tom was doing as he repaired the links between people in the networks that had been broken up by the re-organization.

Over time, Tom made space for some team members to request reassignment as new positions opened up, giving them more choice about their ongoing work sites and allowing people to reconnect. And Tom opened up cross-functional group assignments to colleagues who wanted to continue working together, creating new ways to restore people’s connections.

Acknowledging difficulty and distress, creating space for people to come together, reinforcing the value of human connections at work, and creating flexibility for people to continue to connect – all of these are moves that compassion architects make to infuse compassion into organizational change.

Instead of dismissing or ignoring complaints about the human costs of change, compassion architects like Tom notice this pain and use it as a catalyst for action.

 

Monica Worline, PhD, is CEO of EnlivenWork. She is a research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and executive director of CompassionLab. Jane Dutton, PhD, is the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration and Psychology and co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. Their new book, "Awakening Compassion at Work," is available now on Amazon, reveals why opening our eyes to the power of compassion is smart business.

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