Compassion in the workplace has far-reaching impact

October 23, 2003

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Small interpersonal acts of compassion in the workplace have significant, far-reaching effects on co-workers, according to a new University of Michigan Business School study.

In their report, “What Good is Compassion at Work?” researcher Jane Dutton and colleagues identify a “cascading effect,” whereby experiencing compassion at work generates positive emotion and, in turn, shapes employees’ long-term attitudes and behaviors.

“Our findings suggest that compassion among co-workers is more than simply a momentary, humane response to pain,” said Dutton, professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at the Michigan Business School and professor of psychology at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “It fosters important organizational outcomes and leaves its imprint on the organizational landscape.”

The research, conducted by Dutton, Jacoba Lilius and Jason Kanov of the U-M, Monica Worline of Emory University and Peter Frost and Sally Maitlis of the University of British Columbia, documents compassion’s effects on daily work meanings, attitudes and behaviors. Their findings enrich the emerging field of Positive Organizational Scholarship, which is the focal point of a new research center at the Michigan Business School.

Their research also comes at a time–in the aftermath of 9/11–when more attention is being focused on how individuals and organizations cope with loss and grief and promote emotional healing. According to one estimate, firms lose $75 billion annually from employees’ grief-related incidences, which impacts bottom-line profitability.

In their study, Dutton and colleagues analyze 171 stories of compassion in the workplace and survey responses from 239 employees of a large community hospital. From the written narratives, they conclude that compassionate interpersonal interactions help people make sense of the world of work and understand positive aspects of themselves, their co-workers and the organization, i.e., “create positive meaning.”

“When people experience compassion at work–whether they are on the receiving end, the giving end, or simply observing it–these interpersonal interactions serve as powerful cues about the work context,” Dutton said.

The researchers identify 10 types of “meaning making” associated with these processes. These avenues for creating positive meaning include giving gifts, providing emotional support, contributing extra time, listening, and enabling grieving co-workers to carry on with work.

From the survey responses, the researchers found that positive emotions generated by compassion have a cascading effect on employees’ attitudes and behaviors, thereby increasing job satisfaction, lowering job stress, influencing turnover intentions and contributing to feelings of well-being and psychological safety. These linkages permeate an organization, impacting its functioning on many levels, the researchers say.

“This paper shows that acts of compassion prompt meaning and generate feeling that seeps into people’s attitudes and behaviors at work,” Dutton said. “It demonstrates quite powerfully that compassion does, indeed, count.”