Speaking to a senior leader recently I asked her what the greatest challenge facing companies is. I expected many answers, but her candid reply bowled me over. According to her, dealing with the isolation, sadness and loneliness that people experience at work is the single biggest challenge facing leaders. Once upon a time, she said, work was a place where we worked and made friends. We spent many years, often a lifetime in the same organization and shared births, deaths and marriages with our colleagues. While the workplace of the 21st century has brought many positive changes, many of us now spend upwards of 39 of the 168 hours available to us weekly at work, striving only to be being productive and efficient. Sometimes a forgotten fact in business is that we are all human. And all of us benefit from a compassionate workplace, regardless of our rank within an organisation.
Thinking back over my own career, her words echoed with me for days. They both struck me, and stuck with me, because I know them to be true. For almost 15 years I worked with upwards of 700 people every single day. While I had amazing colleagues there were days, weeks and even months that I felt isolated, lonely and invisible. Tight deadlines, the ‘always on’ cult, and our busy lives meant that work was a place where you had to be efficient and productive. While we had plenty of work focused conversations there was little time to form meaningful relationships. Building social connections was not a leadership priority and we all suffered. This is not, and was not, just me. It is in fact an epidemic of the 21st century workplace. Research tells us that this is a workplace phenomenon. Incivility, judgment and lack of compassion chips away at the soul and the price is lack of engagement, productivity and low retention rates.
Showing compassion, kindness and extending the hand of friendship shifts the dial in ourselves and those around us. There are a few simple things that you can do to create a more compassionate workplace irrespective of your rank, title or tenure that will have a positive effect on you and those around you.
Do 5-minute favours. If someone was out sick, away on holidays or out of the office, take a few minutes to welcome them back. If you know it’s somebody’s birthday wish them a happy birthday. Make a pot of coffee rather than a cup and share it with others. Make an introduction between two people that might benefit them. Go for lunch with your colleagues. Compassion is small meaningful acts that don’t have to take up a lot of your time or cost you anything.
Say ‘Thank You’
One of the simplest phrases in the English language, thank you carries the power to transform. If somebody has done something helpful, nice or kind, make a point of saying thank you to them. Buy a card, write a note or pop their favorite treat on their desk. It doesn’t matter how you do it, the important thing is that you follow up when someone helps you out.
Take notice if somebody in the office has experienced loss, sickness, been through a tough time or is coming back from maternity/paternity leave. Do not under any circumstances ignore their return. Take notice. While they are out, pick up the phone, send a text or talk to that person. Do not ask about work, but ask if there is any help you could offer. When that person comes back to work, walking into the office for the first time is hard. Make sure that you meet them and walk side-by-side with them back to their desk.
Listen to learn
Listening to learn from others is an act of true compassion. Very often when listening what we are actually doing is formulating replies in our mind. Harvard recently found that we spend half of our waking hours doing one thing but thinking about another. Suspend judgment and avoid interrupting. Listen to really hear what is being said and give your undivided attention.
Words are powerful
Words are powerful, particularly if you are a leader, so choose them wisely. Be consistent in what you say and how you say it. Never use words to manipulate people or information, nor to insult or belittle anyone either privately or publically. If you have to give challenging feedback, focus on being honest with the intention of helping the person to improve.
Connecting with others, forming bonds and building relationships lies at the very heart of human nature. The capacity of those connections is intense. As a leader, if you build a compassionate workplace where everyone flourishes and thrives, not alone will it build a more creative, resilient and productive culture, but it will deepen the sense of fulfillment, meaning and engagement felt by your people.