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  • Writer's pictureSigne Jung Sorensen

The Importance of Compassion in Organisational Processes: A Human Resource Perspective





We can get carried away with buzzwords when we talk about values and culture. But if you act with compassion, that will make the difference in what you do. 

— Louise McDonald


In this conversation, I am gaining Louise McDonald’s perspectives on compassion from a human resource lens. She works at Mines Advisory Group (MAG), which has recently identified compassion as one of its core values. In this personal account, Louise shares her views on where compassion is needed in organisational processes. She also discusses where it can be hard. Why does the concept of a "compassionate way" matter and how can it be put into practice? These are some of the questions that Louise reflects on.

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This article features in a series of interviews where Signe Jung Sorensen explores how purpose-driven professionals who are dedicated to contribute towards a just, equitable and sustainable world relate to the notion of “compassion”. What does compassion mean and look like in practice in our professional lives? What opportunities, challenges and tensions arise when we think of applying compassion? This series is dedicated to professionals offering their personal stories and perspectives.


 

Louise has a career spanning over 20 years working in both national not-for-profits and international organisations. She is currently the Director of People & Culture for MAG (Mines Advisory Group).  She has held both operational and strategic HR roles for both Australian Red Cross and the International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent. Louise has also worked for Oxfam International leading culture, diversity and inclusion, and employee relations at a global level. She is currently a trustee for SOS Children’s Village UK.  She holds an MBA (Change Management). 

 

 

SJ:  What resonates with you about the word and concept of “compassion”? 


LMD: I have always been drawn to values-based organisations in my career. I am passionate about working in those types of environments. As I am moving deeper into developing culture, diversity, and inclusion, my values-based lens continues to guide me.


Approaching this work with compassion helps me listen and understand. I gain insight into how people with different experiences see things. This helps me understand the challenges, and what we can do about them.  

We can get carried away with buzzwords when we talk about values and culture. But if you act with compassion, that will make the difference in what you do. 


Compassion is interesting to explore because it can bring to life other organisational values.


SJ: Tell me more about how the value of compassion can bring other values to life in an organisation.


LMD: Compassion is an action-oriented value that can amplify others. At the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) for example, we value expertise and determination – alongside other values such as compassion, integrity and inclusiveness. If you are compassionate, you will behave in a way which moves beyond empathising with someone to doing what you can to support them. This gives an additional level to the other values.


For example, we may need to have a different composition of expertise in a team to deliver a programme. This might impact the way an individual has to work. Helping them through that process with compassion still holds our values of expertise and determination. It also respects and acknowledges the impact on the individual.


SJ: What are the behaviours you associate with bringing compassion to life?


LMD: This is an interesting and important discussion we have started having at MAG. I think there are several ways to be compassionate – some which are more obvious than others.

 

We often associate compassion with somebody who is nice, kind and who makes people feel good. That is an important part of compassionate behaviour. However, doing the right thing to help someone may also feel difficult or be quite harsh. 

 

For example, if someone is very distressed in their role, a manager can listen and help the person feel better. In some cases, it's more compassionate to say: "You seem overwhelmed. I'll remove x, y, z projects to give you time to re-balance your workload."


Instinctively, we may see that as disempowering. Yet, it could be the best thing for the individual’s and wider team’s well-being. The person may not feel in that moment that they can ask for help or may feel they will be judged if they can’t cope.

 

SJ: It's important to acknowledge that compassionate responses aren’t always “feel-good” or easy. MAG works across many different countries. How have you thought about contextualising compassion across cultures?


LMD: We are at the very early stages of thinking about this difficult question at MAG. We only recently went through the process of developing new values in the organisation. Ideally, values should be for “everyone, every day” – and simply embedded in a way of working.


One key component is thinking through how to live the compassion value day-to-day. It is also important to consider how to use compassion in task delivery. Some of my initial thoughts revolve around using intent as a starting point for the conversations.


There’s a cultural context as well as an individual context. So, everyone will probably need to understand what it means to act with compassion within their skill set and role.

This will be work in progress.


SJ: I'm sure other organisations grappling with this would be interested in learning from MAG’s experiences in the future. How would you begin defining and operationalising compassion in your ways of working?


LMD: For example, I think my team would define compassion as being kind and looking after each other’s well-being. The action we would take to demonstrate this would probably be different for each of us. As a team, you can agree on certain ways of working.


In a human resource team, there is a technical way of dealing with redundancies. And then there is a way to do that with compassion.

As a team, we can agree on what compassion looks like. However, how we show compassion in a redundancy conversation will vary. Some people might feel the compassionate way is to lay someone off fast. They want to be very clear and let the person get off the call or meeting as soon as possible. Others might find that the compassionate way is to spend a lot of time on the call - letting the person express their thoughts and feelings.


The key to compassion is to put yourself in another person's shoes rather than your own version of what would be the best. It's about working out how the other person will respond or what they need.

SJ: That sounds like a core characteristic of compassion: Asking what a person needs in a given situation. In your experience, what happens when compassion isn’t present in these kinds of processes?


LMD: From a human resource perspective, many processes can be difficult for people. These include under performance and misconduct. You can manage this well from a “box-ticking” perspective, where the paperwork and procedures are done well. At the same time, there is a person on the other side.


No one likes to be told they're not doing a good job. Let alone be told their job will end for that reason. Compassion comes into play when we understand the impact on people. It can make a difference.

For example, if someone is put on a performance improvement plan, compassion may look like ensuring there is adequate and genuine support available for this person to develop and change. If there isn’t this degree of compassion in the process, the person will likely scramble and fail. 


Many organisational processes have a “systems way” and a “compassionate way” to do things. The “compassionate way” entails thinking through how someone might receive something.

For example, the compassionate way may simply involve having a conversation with someone before sending an email.


SJ: What is the cost of only focusing on systems? Is there a cost of not doing it the “compassionate way”?


LMD:  I think there is a strong business case for organisations around compassion. I can see several costs:


  • A direct cost of resources, time etc. to the organisation when an employee under performs or doesn’t deliver.

  • A reputational cost to the organisation. When an employee leaves an organisation on bad terms, they can share their experiences on social media or within their networks.


Ultimately, you always want people to leave as well as possible. If they feel better, they will likely move on with their lives faster. At the same time, it also leaves an organisation in a better place reputationally.

  • A human cost to the manager who is heading the process. If a manager is told to have hard conversations in a "systems" kind of way, they are likely to carry a negative experience with them after the person leaves the team. That takes a human toll. In my personal experience, if a manager can let someone go or put them through an improvement plan with compassion, they also feel better.


SJ: On the flip side of the costs, what do you think are the biggest gains from introducing a “compassionate way”?


LMD:  That's a good question because you assume it's a good thing to do, don't you? Beyond caring about how people feel, I think there is a gain around how engaged we are as employees.

 

As an organisation, the more you act with compassion, the more you uphold the psychological contract. This contract is the unwritten, often unspoken expectation an employee has of their organisation about the way it will treat them.

 

If you feel that the compassion you give in your job isn’t returned from the organisation, you can lose faith in the organisation. So, I would imagine more compassion in an organisation to translate into higher productivity and other key outputs.

 

It matters that we take a measured approach and don’t swing too far. If the most important thing is that everyone always feels okay, for example, about a deadline, we may never meet any deadline in practice.

 

SJ: What do you think gets in the way of bringing forth more compassion?

 

In a professional context, and probably in a personal one too, our own "stuff" gets in the way. This doesn't give us the space to be compassionate with someone else. Maybe you simply don’t have the capacity to handle an update colleague. You might have a tight schedule and need to meet deadlines.

 

Our perception of what leadership “should” be and our worries about how we are perceived can prevent us from demonstrating compassion. Especially in the early stages of a career, we might worry more about delivery and being “results-driven”.

The more confident you get, the easier it is to let go of the expectations you think people have of you to perform. This gives you space to be more compassionate.

 

SJ: What tiny steps might you consider for operationalising compassion further?

 

LMD: Some kind of reflection skills could potentially be brought into an organisation.


Personally, I try to find just a tiny bit of space for personal reflection every day. This helps me reset, be more open, and in tune.

 

From a human resource perspective, it's important to understand how to show compassion in difficult discussions.


How do we “do compassion” when it is not so easy? It’s important to recognise the “hardness” to compassion.

Is it compassionate to keep an employee who has been around for a long time but who isn’t performing? Who is feeling lost and complained about behind their back? Or, is it more compassionate to have a hard conversation and say: “We think this may no longer be the right thing for you. What do you think?”


SJ: I am curious about the self-reflections you do. What structure have you found helpful?


LMD: This doesn’t come naturally to me. I lean on a framework that I have adapted over time from The Third Space by Adam Fraser. It revolves around the concept of resetting yourself between the end of your workday and home life.


It can be as short as a sentence or two about:

1) what went well today

2) what is the story you are telling yourself about what you do

3) what is your intention for tomorrow.


It might only take 5 minutes, but this process – and dwelling a bit longer on the third question – helps me recenter.


SJ: I wonder how much power there is in these small practices to make space for more compassion. For example, if everyone at MAG did a reflection practice like this, I would be curious to see the impact.

 

LMD: Personal development is an important piece to compassion. It could benefit everyone – not just leaders in an organisation.

 

SJ: What other thoughts do you have around this topic as we wrap up?

 

LMD: It’s interesting to explore how we can use compassion to broaden traditional HR to how we strengthen culture, diversity, and inclusion.


I also think compassion can be positively infectious in an organisation. If colleagues experience and witness compassion, they're much more likely to demonstrate it themselves.  And thus it spreads and becomes the norm.


 

This conversation is based on Louise McDonald’s personal views. They do not represent the views of MAG or any organisation that Louise has worked for previously.

 

In the future, we hope to share more lessons about MAG's journey to embed and operationalise compassion as an organisational value. We want to inform and inspire other organisations who tackle this question.


 

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