I used to tell people that I wasn’t born with the compassion gene. What I meant was that I don’t get all teary-eyed and emotional about things that might produce a flood of tears in others. I cared, of course, but from a distance and quite possibly from an analytical standpoint. Now that I’ve read the book, Awakening Compassion at Work, by Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton, I’m looking at things differently. In fact, when I recall those conversations, I hope I never came across as hard, and certainly not as having a heart of stone.
I’m wondering how you would gauge your attitude and reaction to what you will read in this guest post: Hey leader, Is Your Heart Turned to Stone? by Monica C. Worline and Jane E. Dutton. This article spoke to me and helped me see that I might not have the compassion gene, but I picked it up somewhere along the line and am able to show compassion with genuine care for others.
The power of organizations to turn our hearts to stone is a vast and underappreciated leadership problem. Did you know that over 50% of doctors in the United States are burned out? Stress is widespread. Professions that range widely, from financial services professionals to attorneys to electricians to veterinarians, suffer from high suicide rates. And to cope with work stress, many people turn to alcohol or other drugs.
Leaders who are burned out are more likely to become numb to pain—their own and that of others. And leaders are essential in either de-humanizing or re-humanizing work. The way they tip their organizations can have widespread implications for their own health and for the well-being of millions of others, too. We need leaders who face pain to ask themselves: Are their hearts turned to stone?
The very definition of burnout involves de-personalization—turning people into things. When leaders are out of touch with their own suffering, they can perpetuate the suffering of others.
Many leaders have to reach a breaking point before they recognize the need for compassion. This need is documented in the book Resonant Leadership by our colleagues Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee. They point out that compassion toward leaders themselves, and helping leaders turn their compassion inward, is an important step toward renewing the human capacity of organizations.
So what can you do when you recognize your heart has turned to stone? A first step is individual replenishment. Leaders need dedicated time and attention to their own well-being. They also need new techniques for coping with stress and strategies to handle pressure in healthier ways.
A second step is reminding ourselves and others of our basic shared humanity. Whatever your industry or profession, your level or status, we all feel stress and pressure, we all have aspirations and life demands, we all get tired and need rest. Without leaders who remind us of this shared humanity it is far easier for time pressures, institutional demands, and bureaucratic forces to continue to turn our hearts to stone.
A final step is to invite people to awaken compassion with you. The most competent systems are full of the people we call compassion architects, those who want to activate care and who are willing to redefine their roles, routines, and social networks in line with this value. Leaders who cultivate and support compassion architects throughout their organizations make it far more likely that those who are suffering will be noticed and those who are burned out will receive respite.
Embracing the values of shared humanity and activating people across your organization to engage each other with compassion is what ultimately brings hearts back to life. Re-humanize your organization and you will reduce burnout, increase well-being, and improve the quality of life for yourself and for others, both at work and beyond.
Monica Worline, Ph.D., 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, the world’s leading research collaboratory focused on compassion at work.
Jane Dutton, Ph.D., 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. She has written over 100 articles and published 13 books, including Energize Your Workplace and How to Be a Positive Leader. She is also a founding member of the CompassionLab.
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