Core concepts for a compassionate culture



The shared reality of the workplace requires individuals to perform and act autonomously yet cooperatively. In the compassionate workplace, the individual shifts from merely learning skills and gaining knowledge to a context where skills, combined with appropriate attitudes, behaviours and knowledge merge into a compassionate culture with which the individual identifies. Consequently, the communities comprising a culture combine with one another into the greater community, underpinned by shared values, beliefs and goals. Senior leaders and policy makers generally effect change first in strategy (externally perceived competencies and customer perceived value) and structure (internal changes in forms, processes and reporting relationships). They tend to undervalue the importance of compassion and, consequently, the ‘people’ component of change. When culture is seen in this way, transformation to a culture of compassion cannot satisfactorily be accomplished. Leadership shortcomings in this area stem from a lack of understanding of how cultural considerations connect with other approaches, such as education and behaviour change. Without addressing the existing culture, there is a tendency to set unrealistic expectations and a change in attitudes or behaviour might be a long time coming. Authenticity in relationships is vital to a compassionate organisation. When a person feels listened to, is affirmed, and recognised and when compassion exists in personal and professional relationships, almost everything else is easier and more comfortable to achieve, including problem solving, critical thinking and conflict resolution. When our actions are consistent with our words, compassion can be achieved and arises from our interdependence with others to bring about outcomes we value. A compassionate workplace is more productive, less stressful and encourages a sustainable workforce.

A compassionate workforce programme is built around principles and skills common to mediation, coaching and other conflict resolution disciplines applied to the workplace and focused on relationships as contrasted with processes and procedures. There are a number of essential elements of a compassionate culture; as outlined below.


Commentary is how you are received through your thoughts, comments, actions and demeanour, and it values you as a person acknowledging merit. Showing appreciation for another person’s point of view, acknowledging the validity of that perspective and expressing that understanding in what you say and do is key.

When you listen to understand and not just respond you offer positive commentary and invite the same for yourself; active listening is the gift we want returned. Recognising the human needs of another person is a good beginning to compassion. Ask questions and paraphrase to show you care and understand. Agree whenever you can and be prepared to offer an apology, because you are building a bridge from your side and asking them to begin theirs. Show respect and stay away from hostile bargaining; try not to use the word ‘but’, rather, follow your point with the word ‘and’. Always try to breed respect and speak from the first person. Compassion Focused Therapy teaches that there are three types of affect regulation: incentive and resource seeking, soothing and contentment seeking and threat and self-protection seeking. It is important to recognise which response people are displaying.

Recall an event when you were disappointed at how another person treated you and felt unappreciated or unrecognised. How did this make you feel? What did you do about it? How would you have better handled the situation if you had it to do over?


Self-determination is the right to make personal decisions and the freedom to do what you believe is best under the circumstances. This includes issues such as fostering a joint problem solving atmosphere, asking problem solving questions and negotiating about the rules of the game.

When you ask others for their advice few can resist opening-up because it is flattering to be asked questions. Asking questions such as ‘Why do you want this?’, ‘Help me understand why’, ‘Tell me what is important about that for you’, and other ‘what if’ questions provide clarity and move the discussion toward underlying interests and real motivations, not just what seems apparent on the surface. Treat these types of communication as an aspiration rather than a demand while focusing on the problem, which is almost always not the person, though behaviour may be difficult to deal with at times. Consult prior to deciding as a gesture of self-determination and respect. Involve the other side by giving them ownership in the resolution. Do not sell your ideas but engage them in joint problem solving. Build them a sturdy bridge; you are both going to walk across it. Help them save face. The new Golden Rule is ‘do unto others as they would have done unto them’; a person’s pride is a very intimate and private part of each of us and should be respected and protected.

Recall a time when you felt micro-managed. What did you do about it? How would you have better handled the situation if you had it to do over?


Collegiality is how you are treated by peers and associates and the distance placed between. Do not treat others as adversaries, be attentive to perspective and do not commit ‘assumicide’.

There are certain physiological responses that impact you and you may be aware of words or phrases that incite or anger – try to avoid pushing these buttons. Buy time to think; it is alright to be silent and get past the impulse to react, this is a good time for humour or diversion in order to cool down before making a decision or taking a position.

When people prefer to relate in absolutes such as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ this creates a zero sum game of ‘I win’ and ‘you lose’. When situations are viewed through this lens, a power struggle may ensue and the relationship is held hostage to a perceived victory or win over another person. When a situation can be seen through the lens of tolerance for differences and a stated position is merely a matter of opinion, not fact, then cooperation, compromise or collaboration is possible. Identifying and understanding differences allows people to shift their position from fiat to negotiation with a willingness to listen. The gift of good listening is itself a sign of respect. Respect leads to accepting a person for who and what they are; this acceptance creates an environment of trust, which can lead to a willingness to be open to new opportunities, new collaborations, strategies, ideas, products and improved relationships. We can learn to replace unhealthy displays of power with an infusion of healthy power in a compassionate workplace.

Recall a time when you suffered a social snub and how you felt. What did you do about it? How would you have better handled the situation if you had it to do over?


Culture is your standing or status within the company you keep. It is the sea in which you swim; it is the recognition of your personal status.

Within an organisation, culture might be shared attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and relationships that compose the company’s norms and customs. There are patterns in cultures and relationships, and we do not often examine them because we are stuck in our own point of view. Misunderstandings hurt and when we hurt we tend to look outside ourselves for explanations. In that kind of linear thinking we can reduce human interactions to a matter of personalities and when we assume the other person is a jerk it reinforces our own passivity and lack of willingness to genuinely interact. When we write off people who have a pattern of non-responsiveness, assuming their character is fixed, it only proves that these individuals trigger many people to play out the reciprocal role in their dramas of two way disharmony. It is easy to objectify or apply negative attributes to another to demean, discount, invalidate, ignore or disrespect, but people believe they have the right to be who they are. We each have a universal field comprised of our individual life experiences from which we draw a construct relative to a particular point or topic. Because of the uniqueness of our construct, we may be miscommunicating with or misinterpreting the other person’s point of view.

Recall an event or situation when you were overlooked or not recognised and relate how you felt because of it.


Posture is how you see yourself within the various roles you perform. In negotiations, let the other side know the consequences and try not to be threatening or aggressive but realistic and sincere. Discuss alternatives to resolution and defuse their reaction; use objective standards or outside data; be balanced. Keep sharpening their choice and once important interests have been identified the resolution can be crafted. Forge a lasting agreement and recognise that coercion or misunderstanding will undo what was thought to be done. Be precise with expectations and aim for mutual satisfaction, not victory, because at some point you both agreed to be respectful winners and to take away what you truly need and not necessarily what you want. We should be alert to the whole person and which body is motivating them – physical, emotional, mental, environmental or transpersonal – because this insight can create a deeper understanding and greater efficacy in negotiating for agreement.

Relate a time you were reduced to rubble by someone or that you were severely critical of someone and created emotional distress in that person with your words. How would you better handle the situation if you had it to do over again?

Compassionate action

For the most part, humans are a loving, empathetic and compassionate species, and it is within our nature to feel sad, worried or upset about the troubles and pain of others. We have unavoidable emotional pain for the suffering of those we care about, but what can we do when others are not so caring of our pain? When others are not at peace with our pain they have a hard time being open, compassionate, supportive and helpful with it, and the reverse is true when we are not at peace with the pain of others.

A 2013 Gallop Workplace Poll revealed employees prefer happiness to high pay. There is a body of research that shows creating a leadership model of trust and mutual cooperation may help create a culture that is happier, where employees help each other, become more productive, and where a compassionate workplace reflects a sincere commitment to values and ethics, genuine interpersonal kindness and self-sacrifice.

If corporate cultures do not become transparent with the free flow of information and inclusiveness that millennials value, competitiveness will suffer. There is a shift in the larger culture and an evolution in all sectors of society and in individual lives toward heightened collaboration, connection, emotional attunement to others, and diverse interdependence. The youngest generation in the workplace is calling for compassion.


Tony Belak, JD is the associate director general of the International Center for Compassionate Organizations. He can be contacted on +1 (502) 413 2123 ext. 2 or by email:

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Tony Belak

International Center for Compassionate Organizations

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