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How Compassion Increases Employee Engagement While Reducing Stress

03 Jul, 2018

It’s no secret that stress is one of the most common afflictions in the modern workplace.


Stress can affect your productivity, your motivation, your energy levels and your performance in general. As an employer or a manager, it should be your aim to get the best out of every team member.


Tough love is one approach that employers may adopt to fire up their staff, but could compassion be a more valuable tool for leaders? 


So how compassion increases employee engagement?


Imagine a scenario when an employee makes a profound error. How do you react?


Do you punish them, show them up in front of others and take the hard line, or do you opt for a softer approach and try and offer your support and understanding? It’s natural to feel frustrated when a colleague or an employee lets you down, especially if there’s a lot at stake, but it’s wise to consider how you handle errors and examples of misjudgment.


You may think that issuing fines or screaming at somebody in your office will deter them from making the same mistake again. This may well but true. But what is the impact of taking that step, and could you contribute to better long-term results by replacing tough love with compassion?


Research suggests that compassion improves employee well-being, performance, and interaction, but how does employee engagement increase productivity?

Imagine how you would feel if you were humiliated in front of your workmates or your boss let loose behind closed doors.


It would be understandable to retreat into your shell, to think only about the situation in which you find yourself, and to dread the next few days, weeks or even months at work. Now think about how you would feel if somebody put their arm around you and told you that despite the mistake you made, everything would be alright.


You’d probably feel more confident about talking to others, getting on with your job and participating in meetings, and the prospect of coming back to work in the morning wouldn’t be quite so daunting. Research conducted by Jonathan Haidt, from New York University, suggests that employees who admire and look up to their employers and value their kindness are more likely to be loyal.


Another study by author and professor, Adam Grant, also claims that scorned employees can lose trust in their employer. 


You often see quotes related to the importance of bouncing back from making mistakes. It’s common to come across adages that suggest that the error itself isn’t important. Instead, we should focus on how we react and recover. As an employee, it’s a lot easier to get back on the horse if your employer is understanding and reassuring, rather than being angry and dismissive.


If you’ve been called out, it’s natural to be reticent to take risks, even if they’re as innocuous as putting ideas forward in a meeting, for example. Mistakes can knock our confidence, and this can have a negative impact on engagement and interaction and nullify creativity and innovation. 


Compassion and stress

Dr. James Doty, a neurosurgeon, and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford University draws on his own experiences to help others combat stress and create positive working environments. As a trainee, Doty recalls an incident where he was thrown out of the operating room and chastised by a senior surgeon because a bead of sweat fell from his brow and contaminated the site.


Doty has since built an incredibly successful career, but that moment haunts him. In the following weeks and months, his stress levels soared, he was anxious and he questioned his own abilities. Doty claims that if the situation had been handled differently, he would have responded in a much more positive manner.


Research shows that stress exacerbates fear and anxiety and it also suppresses confidence and innovation. When we feel like we’re safe, stress levels decrease, and this is such an important relationship to consider in the workplace. 


How to be more compassionate as a leader

Research clearly shows that compassion can have a positive impact on the workforce, but how do you go about being more compassionate?


One of the most valuable things you can do as an employer or a leader is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How would you feel if you had made that mistake, and what kind of approach would benefit you most going forward?


Try and understand what caused your employee to make the error in the first place, take time to talk and be the kind of boss people aren’t afraid to approach if they have questions or concerns. Promote activities that reduce stress and improve wellbeing both inside and outside of work. 


Studies show that a little compassion in the workplace can go a long way. Next time you find yourself in a potentially difficult situation with an employee, try and empathize rather than criticize. 


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Henrik Dannert

Henrik Dannert


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