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Amy Armstrong

Ashridge Business School

Research Fellow

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Compassion at work – what’s your business case?


There’s so much rich insight coming out of the academic sector that HR professionals need to know. At Academics’ Corner we feature the best HR researchers that tell you what they’ve found and what you need to do differently on the back of the research. Get connected to the academic sector through Academics’ Corner and make sure you never miss another piece of key research again. If you’re an academic with a relevant story, please get in touch on [email protected].

In our highly commercial world, many Western companies continue to be characterised by a long hours culture, fierce competition between individuals to get ahead and a ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality whereby many managers feel pressure ignites performance.

This system, with its focus on output and results, can drive dysfunctional leadership behaviours such as acting in self-interest or an inability to show vulnerability. As recent evidence shows, these beliefs and associated behaviours are unsustainable: cases of stress and burnout continue to grow, such as Antonio Horta-Osorio who was treated for exhaustion soon after being appointed as CEO of Lloyds Banking Group.

This type of culture is based on a belief system in which people measure a person by their performance and career successes rather than on their inner qualities. David Brooks, in his recent book The Road to Character, argues that as a society we have forgotten about our inner moral lives and the importance of developing virtues such as kindness, generosity and compassion.

Over the past ten years, research has begun to focus on the workplace benefits of positive human behaviours, such as compassion. Compassion, which is about connecting and caring for others, is not just about feeling good by doing good. Compassion in the workplace can also have a profound effect on business performance.

In compassionate work environments, research has found that employees are happier and more engaged in their work; they also foster better teamwork; have more satisfied customers, and they stay longer. Compassion is therefore not just about being kind to one another, it also builds the bottom line.

In its definition, compassion is different from empathy in that it is not just about seeking to understand another person’s difficulties, compassion goes one step further and is about taking action to help someone. Research has shown that caring managers are one of the most important predictors of employee performance, therefore compassion is fast becoming one of the most important relational skills for managers. Here are three tips to help you to bring compassion into focus in your own organisations.

1. Compassion is born from life lessons shared. Recent research has found that difficult life experiences, such as critical illness or bereavement (take a look at my piece on supporting bereaved employees) can be a catalyst for learning and growth at work, with managers becoming more compassionate as a result of their own personal traumas. Disclosure is at the heart of compassion, so by encouraging leaders and managers to have the courage openly share their personal struggles, we can build trust and connection between people and foster an emotionally healthier work environment.

2. Compassion starts with the self. Compassion is relational, but it is difficult to connect and care for others if we do not exercise kindness to ourselves. In today’s competitive and commercial world, we often find that managers are highly self-critical and beat themselves up unnecessarily. However, with a little time for positive self-reflection and in discussion with a coach, mentor or friend, we can develop ways of becoming kinder to ourselves. In becoming more self-accepting and maintaining a positive self-regard, we can help others to become more compassionate for themselves.

3. Compassionate managers are careful observers. To be a compassionate manager it takes time, energy and courage. Compassionate managers are emotionally-attuned, they get to know their staff intimately and acknowledge that the ‘whole person’ comes to work. They appreciate that despite our best efforts, we cannot leave our personal lives at the door when we come to work, and that any strains of life circumstances outside work will inevitably affect employee performance within work. Compassionate managers forge deep trusting relationships with their staff and create safe spaces where staff can offload without embarrassment or fear of reprisal. Compassionate managers also encourage staff to nurture their own networks, as the support of colleagues is a critical component of compassion at work.

This article builds Dr Amy Armstrong’s recent doctoral research at Aston University entitled “I’m a better manager”: A biographic narrative study of the impact of personal trauma on the professional lives of managers in the UK.


Atkins, P.W., and Parker, S.K. (2012). Understanding individual compassion in organizations: the role of appraisals and psychological flexibility. Academy of Management Review, 37(4), 524-526.

Armstrong, A. (2014) ‘I’m a better manager: A biographic narrative study of the impact of personal trauma on the professional lives of managers in the UK’, Aston University. PhD Thesis.

Armstrong, A. (2013) Engagement through CEO Eyes, Ashridge Research Report, (May).

Barsade, S. G., & O’Neill, O. A. (2014). What’s Love Got to Do with It? A Longitudinal Study of the Culture of Companionate Love and Employee and Client Outcomes in a Long-term Care Setting, Administrative Science Quarterly, 59(4), 551-598.

Brooks, D. (2015) The Road to Character, Random House.

Cameron, K.S., Dutton, J.E., and Quinn, R.E. Ed. (2003). Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.

Charles-Edwards, D. (2009). Empowering people at work in the face of death and bereavement. Death Studies 33(5), 420-436.

Gibson, J., Gallagher, M., and Tracey, A. (2011). Workplace support for traumatically bereaved people. Bereavement Care, 30(2), 10-16.

Hall, A. (2015) A Compassionate Work Culture Benefits the Bottom Line, Compassion Journal, (May), Stanford University.

Lilius, J.M., Worline, M.C., Dutton, J.E., Kanov, J.M., and Maitlis, S. (2011). Understanding compassion capability. Human Relations, 64(7), 873-899.

Lilius, J.M., Kanov, J., Dutton, J.E., Worline, M.C., and Maitlis, S. (2012). Compassion Revealed. The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship. Cameron, K.S., and Spreitzer, G.M., Oxford University Press, 273-288. 

Author Profile Picture
Amy Armstrong

Research Fellow

Read more from Amy Armstrong

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