Compassion holds a path to profound social change, and such a change starts within every individual. If you can accept who you are, your humanity and imperfections, your strengths and weaknesses, and love yourself, you can change your life. But it’s not an intellectual change. It is an emotional shift where meditation is a key component to support the transition.
When I started compassion training and meditation, I naturally found ways to create a life that allowed me to be myself, accept suffering, and embrace happiness. And once I saw that I could help people through their suffering just by being myself, by being present, I regained my personal power. I didn’t need to pretend to be someone else to contribute to the world. I realized that I was enough as I am right now.
I also realized that if I held myself accountable for being true to myself, and for my own happiness, all aspects of my life improved. I discovered that because we all have different values and preferences, everyone experiences happiness and contentment differently. And all of those experiences and expressions are valid. In some cases, people may not see a way to be different than they are, even if they are sad, lonely, and depressed. Although one may not find happiness, some may find comfort rather than contentment. It’s hard to watch that, but I discovered that we need to allow others the space to experience their prioritization of comfort over contentment. We can’t tell someone how to choose for their lives; we need to accept that they believe that those choices fulfill their definition of happiness. But if you know who you are and embrace your true being, then you will inevitably find contentment. That’s how I continue to find it.
What can this mean for work environments? Profound changes.
Before describing how compassion can transform a workplace, let’s outline how suffering appears in workplaces today for employees. There may not be physical abuse, but other tragedies occur. Often, employees may not feel comfortable to be themselves. Or their role is unclear or duplicates another team member’s role, so they don’t understand how they fit into the team and are confused about how to contribute best. Or they may feel they have unfair expectations by management to be a “perfect employee.” Or their work hours aren’t respected, and they feel taken for granted. Add to that other biases, stereotypes, and discriminations, and workplaces can be highly destructive to one’s sense of self. It doesn’t need to be that way.
As a first step to resolving many of these issues, we can construct work environments and processes to remove those elements of suffering. These actions may not foster feelings of warmth and love among individuals on the team, and they probably shouldn’t because this is work, but they will remove some of the suffering that can be present in a workplace today. And that’s a step in the right direction toward building a compassionate work environment.
We often underestimate how clearly defining what the company does and its cultural values can reduce suffering. Roles and responsibilities with well-defined processes define approaches for collaboration and ensure that everyone on the team has clear ways to contribute. Everyone is part of something meaningful, part of a mission bigger than themselves. And they are free to collaborate more openly without competition because they know where they can best add value. But this also means that the company has a clear vision of what it does and where it wants to be so all employees know how to help best.
Next, create an environment to help employees get to know themselves better and provide them ways to feel comfortable and safe to be themselves. Both aspects need to be present in an organization’s culture, and this goes beyond HR policies. Personality tests can provide an indicator to know if people are themselves at work. If there are huge gaps between who people are at work versus home, HR could brainstorm how they could adjust the culture and environment so that people could be themselves at work more often.
An organization’s culture should respect the individual and their contributions. Leaders need to accept people’s strengths and weaknesses and not force them to do a role they aren’t able to do. As in physical exercise, there are stretch goals and then breaking people. You can stretch a muscle until it gets sore, which helps it strengthen and grow. That’s what should happen with employees. They stretch, strengthen, and grow. But if you push a tendon or cartilage too hard or too far, you can hurt it permanently. That’s what happens when you try to get an employee to stretch beyond their capabilities and build upon a weakness. It may make a situation worse and cause irreparable damage to the organization, the team, and even the employee in their self-perception.
Initiatives like Google’s 20% rule can be self-serving for the organization, but it is a good way for employees to express themselves. They can explore different ways to contribute to the organization than their designated role. Leaders may discover that employees working on such projects belong in other jobs, depending on their contributions. It’s a way for them to build their strengths and grow and for leaders to discover new talents on their teams.
Such activities will build an environment supporting psychological safety and trust for the team. The team needs not only clear goals to achieve but an infrastructure that will allow them to work when they need to, be productive, be successful, and be able to live a balanced life. An organization may need to support a virtual work environment to achieve this. Let the employee choose when and where to work, either in the office or from home, and encourage flexible hours to support a family and personal life. Providing some of these basic tools for work flexibility without employees needing to ask for them will encourage them to ask for what they truly need. When employees see that the organization cares about their lives, they may be more open to ask for what they need to do a good job – from equipment to training to rest - because they know the organization is supportive of their well-being. They experience it directly. When leaders in an organization complain about tight budgets and overwork, employees won’t ask for anything to do a better job. They hear, “Not now, not today. Money issues. Your job may be at risk.” And when that happens too often, employees lose their sense of meaning towards their work, that inspiration, and will eventually leave that organization to find a place that does meet their life needs.
As employees ask for what they need, this opens a conversation for managers to be curious and ask questions so they can contribute to the organization in a better way. And if managers are seeing employees as people with strengths and weaknesses and capitalize on their strengths, then the teams can thrive.
If you have a global team, find ways to have the team’s hours overlap for a few hours each day to support collaboration. If there isn’t an opportunity to do that, find ways that they can collaborate without someone having to suck up being on calls late into the evening or early every morning.
This psychological safety will naturally extend to customers. A company with this thinking will realize that they don’t know what their customers want and that by adding customers to their community they will gain a point of view that will allow them to improve their product or service. This works for everyone. Customers are able to achieve their goals and get better solutions, while employees are encouraged to help the customers solve their problems and not just increase the company’s bottom line. In these cases, customers are encouraged to share their insights to collaborate on products and be part of the company community as a partner rather than a threat to help employees do a better job. Any organization that has a customer council understands this and the value such customers bring.
But the success of all of this comes down to one quality of leadership: a leader being willing to see things as they are, not as they want them to be. The ability of a leader to be able to see the truth has a monumental impact on the success of the company.
Such a leader can more easily find self-compassion and become themselves to bring humanity and social justice to the workplace. These leaders include employees and customers in the larger organization community, are curious about everyone’s lives, and are accountable for providing an environment that helps everyone succeed.
Is it worth being trained in compassion? Most definitely. We believe we know what it is until we experience it directly ourselves. And honestly, we don’t. The Christian tradition doesn’t embrace the more encompassing definitions of loving-kindness, compassion, or justice in the same way as the Buddhist tradition. Once explored, these new beliefs can be life-changing. They help mindset shifts so that you see who people are more clearly, their values and strengths, while you are able to acknowledge their humanity more than before.
Let’s consider the example of gratitude. In the Western Christian tradition, I learned that you should be grateful in the context of your life compared to others. That’s not gratitude. Gratitude is a humble celebration and warm feeling about what you have, not an analysis of what you have more or less of in your world. It’s not about being luckier than others. It’s a celebration of your being as you are now. That’s a whole different perspective.
And when you have compassion for yourself, you can feel gratitude for your being and your life, so when suffering hits, and it will, you will feel compassion for your experience by acknowledging that your suffering does matter. Rather than feeling pity or sympathy for yourself, you recognize what is happening, stop comparing yourself to others, and find a way to improve yourself. What I learned from this experience is that I can’t see others and recognize their experiences until I acknowledge and see my own first.
Experiencing such compassion helped me better understand how people could be greeted by the Dalai Lama for 2 minutes and feel seen. When you discover compassion and your heart is filled with love, you learn how to see the humanity in others, their value, and true worth. We need to include these sentiments in our lives and workplaces to reduce the suffering of others, even if at first, we are simply going through the motions. It’s a first step to include humanity in workplaces and see our colleagues, leaders, and customers for who they are, not whom we want them to be. Such actions and perspectives will help us collaborate better and bring meaningful change to each other and the world.