Ethics Brief 37: Compassion

While a computer search for definitions of “compassion” typically finds language that addresses awareness of the suffering of others and a desire to relieve it, in business leadership jargon that awareness is more often coupled with a perceived obligation to prevent whatever “suffering” might be inherent in the job, the organizational culture or the dealings employees have with each other, leadership, vendors/suppliers, competitors or customers.


How Does That Make You Feel?


Frank J. Navran

© navran associates


Throughout this series, we begin with definitions. It is critical that we have a shared understanding when discussing abstract concepts such as those describing our core values and how we are using those terms in a management/leadership context. Absent that understanding we cannot draw any viable conclusions.

Of all the values discussed in this series, “compassion” may be the most difficult to define. Dictionary definitions of compassion typically refer to things like awareness of the suffering of others and a desire to relieve it. In business jargon, “suffering” may be too dramatic a word. For the purposes of this discussion I suggest we define “compassion” in the workplace as a concern for the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of others. And, in the context of “leadership”, it is the concern for the impact of our decisions and actions on those we lead and any others who may be affected by what we say and do (or fail to say and do). Simply put, compassion refers to caring about the wellbeing of others and, when taken from a leader’s perspective, especially about how our actions and decisions impact that wellbeing.

It became popular to talk about compassion in management circles starting in the 1960s and peaking in the 1970s. After two decades of silent stoicism following WWII the veterans of that “greatest generation”, many of whom now occupied the seats of corporate leadership, began to talk about their feelings. Managers went on sensitivity training retreats where they could get in touch with those feelings. The goal of those workshops was introspection. The popularity of sensitivity training was evidenced in the number of larger corporations that adopted it as a routine component of supervisor and manager training. While the effectiveness of sensitivity training remains a subject that generates divergent opinions, at the individual level, it was an interesting opportunity for many of my generation, and the baby boomers who followed us, to explore the most human side of leadership – the impact of one’s leadership decisions on the “feelings” of others. For an entire generation of post WWII leadership the role of the leader was redefined to include concern for the intangible impact of how one leads on the self-esteem of those being led.

This was the time of Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y[2], with the highest of those needs being “self-actualization”. Management and leadership (and the two terms were not deemed interchangeable) was, in large part, about empowering employees to become “all that they could be” based on their natural talents and the resources provided by their employer.

Under these theories leadership required one to create/sustain the right management culture and then, get out of the way. Allow employees to rise to their inherent highest potential. Managers were tasked to create the environment that would allow their employees to excel. They were tasked to hone their “people skills” as a necessary compliment to their technical and managerial expertise. And, beware, lest your management style prevents your workforce from fulfilling their inherent potential.

Defining Compassion

While a computer search for definitions of “compassion” typically finds language that addresses awareness of the suffering of others and a desire to relieve it, in business leadership jargon that awareness is more often coupled with a perceived obligation to prevent whatever “suffering” might be inherent in the job, the organizational culture or the dealings employees have with each other, leadership, vendors/suppliers, competitors or customers.

With that as preamble, let’s explore the role of compassion, as a core value that still informs the decisions and actions of organizations and their leaders. Most effective leaders experience concern for the feelings of others and they typically try to prevent any harm, especially to those they lead and those others who are in their care. This sentiment is often captured in the notion that, “My people take care of me by getting the job done and I take care of them by ensuring that they have what they need to do the job and that they are insulated from whatever “distractions” might interfere with their work. How I treat “my people” says a lot about who I am and what I value.

In pragmatic terms, what form does compassion take in the workplace? What does it look like? The phrase, “I take care of my people” suggests several things. It means, as a minimum, that I’m certain that those working for me have the tools and resources available to them that are necessary to do the work at hand. It also means that I will facilitate the resolution of any disagreements or issues with others in the chain of events: the people whose work precedes theirs and the people who continue the work following what they have done.  It also means that I will represent their best interests up the management chain and work towards ensuring that they are treated fairly by “the system”.

But taking care of my people also means that I will rein them in when they overstep and insulate them from blame for things that were not their fault. The most effective leaders express their compassion in ways that are blatantly visible to those within the organization but may be totally invisible to those outside. In part, that is because when we are helping those we lead we try to do so in ways that do not showcase their weaknesses or vulnerabilities, or in any way make them look bad to those on the outside.

For many in leadership the compassionate support, guidance and direction shown subordinates can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the job. And, when that support is effective, the pride leaders have in the successes of those they have led approaches the parental pride we experience when our offspring succeed.

A lot is changing in the work world and one may wonder if there is still a presumption of compassion from today’s leaders? Technology, expanding spans of control and other changes in the way work is done are having an impact on the traditional supervisor/subordinate relationship. The evidence is inconclusive, but the notion of supervisory responsibility for the effective training and development of subordinates and the resultant bond when the process is successful seems to have endured despite all the changes.  The most recent economic crises may have dampened the mood in most organizations, but leaders still demonstrate an enduring expectation that one’s supervisor, no matter how demanding, should be a compassionate leader and effective role model for those they lead.

Is compassion a necessary component of effective leadership – can a leader lacking compassion succeed?


The definition of success and the understanding of its causes are always complex. There are really two sides to the question of whether compassion is a necessary component of effective leadership: is it necessary for the leader and is it necessary for the led?

In this part of the discussion we should understand that “compassion” is not an absolute. With the possible exceptions of the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi I cannot think of a person of note who is perceived to be consistently compassionate over an extended period of time. I can however, think of several people in my own life’s experience whom I consider to be compassionate to a far greater degree than the norm for their position or the times. This also suggests that the degree of compassion we expect and that an individual exhibits is measured in relative terms.  Is this person more or less compassionate than others in similar positions: More or less compassionate in his dealings with person A than person B?  More or less compassionate regarding issue X versus issue Y?

With respect to the question of compassion as a “necessity” for today’s leaders, there are certainly ample examples throughout history of leaders who were successful, when success was measured in terms of goal attainment, yet lacked even a modicum of compassion. Consider some of the more infamous political figures of modern history. I do not know anyone who thinks that Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin or any of the notable despots and dictators in recent history was compassionate. We are more likely to think of them as ruthless. Yet, we might agree that they were “successful”, at least in the short term, in the sense of their having attained and at least for some significant period of time, maintained their positions of influence. Despite their demonstrated lack of compassion, some would judge them to be “effective” leaders, when measured in terms of having successfully attained their personal goals. That would seem to suggest that compassion is not necessary for success. Or, we could look at those examples of effective leaders who lack compassion as the exceptions that prove the rule.

Success is a complex phenomenon and the ingredients of success vary widely and can only be understood on a case-by-case basis.  I do not believe you can make the argument that compassion is an absolute precondition for success. Nor do I believe that you can argue that compassionate leaders find themselves enjoying greater support and commitment from those they lead and that it can increase the likelihood of success. One may intuit but, but the data are inconclusive.


If we move from politics to examples of compassion as a component of organizational leadership we should consider several questions:

  • If we choose to encourage compassion, must we teach it – and if so, how might we do so and how likely are we to succeed?
  • Is compassion within an organization a top-down function of the chain of command?
  • Is compassion reciprocal – does it flow up as well as down and across the hierarchy?
  • Why might some leaders choose to be more or less compassionate?
  • Is compassion a natural attribute or learned behavior? In other words, can it be taught?
  • If it is learned behavior, how might it be taught? What specific skills and/or behaviors must we teach?
  • How do we build a “compassionate” organizational culture?
  • What might motivate the less compassionate leader to become more compassionate?
  • Can compassion be objectively measured/assessed?
  • Ought compassion be rewarded, and if so, how?

Must we teach compassion – and if so, how might we do so?


Of all these questions, the one I find most compelling addresses how we might teach compassion. To begin with, I do not believe we can. If you are not inclined to be compassionate I doubt that I can teach you to be so inclined. The best I can hope for is that I can persuade you that there is a personal advantage to your acting compassionately in certain cases and help you learn how to apply the relevant knowledge and skills to those cases. Behaving compassionately is all that I can measure. “Being” compassionate presumes understanding your psyche, and that is beyond my capacity and role in the organization.

I suggest that it may not be necessary for us to encourage “compassion” as a concept, to those we lead. What is essential is that we clearly communicate and demonstrate what compassion looks like in our unique context and we make it clear to others where the thresholds are for minimums and maximums. It is our obligation as leaders to articulate what we mean by compassion, what we expect and when we expect it in those we lead.

From our unique positions as leaders, encouraging compassion is most effective when we lead by example. Nothing communicates our expectations regarding “values-based” behavior better than demonstrating the behaviors we are trying to encourage and highlighting that, “this is what I am talking about”. It need not be our own behavior, or that of a colleague/peer of our employees. It need not even be from within our workgroup. Our example merely needs to be ”legitimately” compassionate behavior and the kind of behavior that is replicable – not so unique as to be unattainable by those we are trying to teach/lead.

Is compassion within an organization a top-down function of the chain of command?

Does leadership set the compassion standard or might it vary laterally or up/down the chain of command? In other words, must we demonstrate compassion as a function of our hierarchical position and/or the positions of those we are trying to influence?

The reality is that leadership is not rank/level specific. We tend to think and talk about a leadership hierarchy and the hierarchy model does apply to certain specific functions: delegating tasks, evaluating performance, awarding bonuses and /or raises are examples where hierarchy matters.

Some of the most (and least) compassionate behavior can exist within peer groups. And for those of us who are really fortunate, we find compassionate leaders at all levels of our organization – even the lowest level where leadership is not tied to position, but rather the ability of people to earn the respect and thus the right to influence others, independent of position or title. Some of the most effective leaders I have ever met were “informal” leaders – whose authority came from their subject matter expertise and the respect they had earned both as experts and as people who were available to help/support others and whose point of view re any current issue was sought.

Compassion is independent of one’s hierarchical position/authority. It is more about the human side of our existence. This can be easily illustrated by considering times/cases where you might have been able to help a person who outranks you in the organizational system but who still needed your help, or, where help was offered to you from an unexpected source/level. The manner in which you proffered or received that help can be begrudging, perfunctory and minimalistic or comprehensive, thoughtful and compassionate – offered in a manner that merely crosses the “t’s” and dots the “i’s” or provided in a manner that delivered the greatest benefit with the least cost/obligation/embarrassment to those on the receiving end. And, as with any continuum, there are an infinite number of variations between those two extremes.

Must compassion be reciprocal?


Does compassion only work if there is a realistic expectation that “what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”? Does an act of compassion create an expectation/obligation for reciprocity – a return of compassion, in kind? The answer, in my experience, is a definite “no”. Organizations may encourage it. Some might even discourage it. But, compassion is part of
human nature for a significant portion of the population and is typically offered without any explicit expectations regarding reciprocity.


And it should be noted that compassion is not position or level dependent. It can be made to be so if that is the style of the people involved, but that is neither the default position nor a necessity. Consider the variations within organizational cultures regarding how we deal with each other – the ground rules for interactions. Some organizations are very rank, level and function-specific in how employees are expected to deal with each other. There are different standards for how people interact with subordinates, peers and superiors. The same may be true for how they deal with customers, suppliers, competitors, and colleagues. Some organizational cultures encourage compassion. Others actively discourage it. And, some appreciate it when it is there but neither encourage nor discourage it. Some prefer a culture based on formality. Others try for collegiality and mutual support. All organizations seek a level of conduct regarding employee interaction that “fits” with who they are or at least who they imagine themselves to be. But, it seems that compassion can exist, perhaps even thrive, independent of the organization’s structures or intent.

Why might some leaders choose to be more or less compassionate?


At the risk of oversimplifying, we tend to have emotional inertia. We are predisposed to stay the course – to be who we are – to resist changing what we find comfortable and what seems to be working for us. To be motivated to change we need a reason more compelling than “because I said so.” Absent a good reason to do something other than what I am already doing, I will resist. If the organizational culture does not tolerate resistance, then I will mask my resistance. I will give the appearances of compliance and surreptitiously continue to do what “works for me”.

Resistance to change is common enough. Recognizing that resistance is likely suggests that any plan to implement a significant culture change needs to acknowledge the legitimacy of that resistance and its specific motivations and justifications. Then, those supporting the change need to present compelling arguments that address the resistance. Please note: acknowledging the legitimacy of resistance is a critical step and should not be omitted simply because it may be difficult or awkward.

That said, even in organizations that give no outward indications that compassion is expected or will be rewarded, it arises because some of the people in that system will find ways to be themselves despite the formal systems. Thus, the answer to why some leaders are consistently more compassionate is simply. That is their nature, and barring a deliberate effort by the organization to curtail that behavior, the compassionate among us will be themselves.

Is compassion a natural attribute or learned behavior? In other words, can it be taught?


Actually, the nature v nurture argument is irrelevant. What matters is that leadership can create a climate/culture within any organization and/or function where compassion is simply presented as “one of our values”. It can be encouraged, but is can also be discouraged or ignored by the “system”.

Independent of the organization, as individuals, we expect some degree of compassion from others and others should be able to expect it from us. We should recognize that at least some aspects of compassion are learned and some are simply in our nature. Employees need to understand what compassion means here, in this organization, and what we expect from employees in these specific circumstances. “Here is what we expect from our employees. This is how we expect you to behave. Here is what we expect you to do when dealing with X.”

Throughout this process, as leaders we need to take broad, sometimes vague concepts and “behavioralize” them. Explain to those we lead what we expect them to do. Compassion, in the context of the workplace is a behavioral issue – not a philosophical issue. And that is just as true re compassion for those outside our immediate sphere of influence in the organization. There are contextual expectations that typically define minimums and might even suggest maximums re compassion in our workplace and our employees depend on us to articulate them.

Finally, in this context, leaders also need to recognize that individuals will vary in how much or how little compassion suits them. As with so many other characteristics or traits, there is a “bell curve” that applies to how much compassion an individual may require or provide in any given circumstance

If compassion is learned behavior, what specific skills and/or behaviors must we learn?


Compassion is a human trait and for most mature, responsible adults we bring however much of it we possess to the workplace. The single most important skill we need to be successful in making compassion part of our leadership portfolio is communication - listening and speaking in terms that embrace both ideas and feelings is a start. Sadly, by the time we are working adults most of us have forgotten how to describe what we feel, other than as it regards to our physical health. We are mostly awkward and for many, uncomfortable, discussing actual “feelings” in a work setting. Feeling are reserved for more intimate contexts except for the generic, “I feel fine”.

However, compassion is an actual feeling, and if we wish to exhibit it ourselves and encourage it in others we need to know how to talk about it. When learning about how to express feelings I was advised to beware of I feel that…. “I feel that…” is a preface to a thought. I feel… is unique because what follows is a feeling. I feel sad. I feel angry. I feel confused. I feel uncertain. I feel gratified. I feel betrayed, loved, supported, proud, important, impotent, empowered, overlooked…. None of those words makes sense in an English sentence if preceded by “I feel that…” What follows “I feel that….” is a thought, not a feeling. So not only is compassion learned behavior, being able to talk about it, provide it, accept it and encourage it are also learned behaviors.

Specifically we need to learn the vocabulary of feelings and how to both express those feelings accurately and encourage others to do so as well. That is easy to say but it can be difficult, though certainly not impossible, to do.

How to build a “compassionate culture”


We build a compassionate culture exactly the same way we build a culture that embraces any other principle(s). Its all about what we say, what we do, what we measure, what we reward and the congruence between and among all the above. If we say what we will do and then do what we said, we have credibility. If we say we are invested in creating and sustaining a compassionate workplace and leading with compassion, then people will look to see what we do.

It starts with vocabulary. We have to be willing and able to talk about compassion. We need to master the vocabulary of feelings and legitimize that whole aspect of our humanity as a legitimate topic for the workplace.

It starts with what we talk about. What we say matters because what we say foreshadows what we will do? And we must admit that one of the reasons so few managers are successful in creating and sustaining a compassionate culture is that the vocabulary feels awkward. Most of us are unaccustomed to this very personal approach to leadership. We are dealing with the polar opposite of “familiarity breeds contempt”. In this case the lack of familiarity breeds fear, uncertainty and reluctance. If we are to build a compassionate culture we have to become comfortable with the vocabulary and responsibilities that ambition demands.

What might motivate the naturally less compassionate leader to choose to become more compassionate?


What motivates most people, when all else fails, is self-interest. If there is “something in it for me” I am likely to be more interested than if I do not see any direct benefit. The key for us, as leaders, is to understand that about ourselves, and to recognize it about those we lead. If the motivational power of self-interest is a basic human truth then it applies equally to all. I don’t need to demand compassionate behavior from others if I can point out the personal benefits they might accrue by “acting compassionately”. After all, what we do is in part about what best serves us, irrespective of what others think, feel or believe.

Can compassion be objectively measured/assessed?

There is no objective standard or scale for measuring compassion. Compassion takes whatever form the giver deems most appropriate for the specific circumstance. And it has whatever value the recipient chooses to assign it, irrespective of the value the giver might have imagined. The value of compassion, given or received, is personal and subjective.

That does not mean compassion should be dismissed or disregarded.  We should not reject encouraging, recognizing and rewarding compassion when we see it simply because it cannot be objectively measured. It can be observed, felt and acknowledged – both by its presence and its absence and can recognized and rewarded based on those observations and feelings. Not every thing that matters can be reduced to a number.

Ought compassion be rewarded, and if so, how?

The value of the compassion we express is whatever the giver or recipient perceives it to be. The issue of the value of a compassionate act rarely comes to the fore until the final step –where gratitude is expressed and acknowledged, and where the unspoken expectation of reciprocity, should circumstances warrant, is acknowledged. “I really appreciate…. If ever I can return the favor….” 

In organizational systems, such as performance reviews, or considerations for transfer or promotion, compassion can be noted as an observed “quality” of the individual and counted as a positive attribute without quantification, just as we may note and reward friendliness, reliability, or other personal traits that contribute to the person’s overall effectiveness but for which there is no objective scale. If we desire it, encourage it and observe it, we should be willing to note it and reward it even though we cannot quantify it.



Compassion may be the most abstract and hardest to define/describe of the seven
most common organizational values discussed in this series. That does not make it more or less significant. The significance of the compassion one shows, as is the case with all the values we have discussed, is situational. The importance of any value is a reflection of the situation and the potential negatives of failing to honor the applicable value(s) and/or one’s success in doing what commitment to that value demands.

The key with compassion may lie in the fact that it is perhaps the least concrete value discussed in this series. Where honesty may be the most objective value (the veracity of a given statement can typically be accurately assessed) the appropriateness of the degree to which compassion is shown or withheld in any specific situation cannot be reduced to a number. It is a measure of what feels right to those on both the giving and receiving ends of the compassionate gesture. It is a perception. It is a feeling. It is wholly subjective.

From a leadership perspective, compassion works best when it is both modeled and “wrapped” in dialog. Here is what I am doing. Here is why I am doing it and/or why I am doing it this way. This is what you can expect from me. Here is what I expect from you regarding how you will treat others. Here is what success will look like for you as a leader, since the best leaders understand compassion, when it is appropriate and how it is communicated. As noted above, compassion refers to caring about how our actions and decisions affect the wellbeing of others. Failing to teach those we lead about what we expect/demand from them, including the values we expect to guide their decision and actions, would be more than ineffective. It would lack compassion.

[2] Abraham Maslow, A Theory of Human Motivation