What happens when we start talking about compassion in a team inside an international development organisation - and how might we do it?
I worked with a team at CARE to explore compassion in their workplace. Based on this experience, three practical lessons emerged for how you can approach sparking reflections in your team or organisation around this topic.
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We may think compassion is already an integral part of our work in international development because it is embedded in the core mission we care about. We assume it is present because we care about alleviating poverty with the communities we work in. What if we took the time to explore compassion consciously and internally – in our team and ways of working?
Over the years as an international development professional, I have come to appreciate how easy it is to lose touch with the original compassion-driven motives as frustrations in the work environment build up. From navigating bureaucratic and political structures to a constant lack of resources and pressing demands, it is all too easy to lose the connection to what we are really trying to improve in the world. This led me to study and explore compassion as a foundation for why we set out to make a positive difference – and crucially – for how we do it as development professionals.
What led a team to explore this concept?
During a team retreat, the CARE team had identified a need to unpack their ways of working and learn more about themselves and each other. Building on insights from individual survey responses we set out to contextualise compassion in their team and how it translates to the work they do. We introduced simple tools and exercises, and space was made for structured team reflections with a view to strengthening their ways of working.
After two sessions of two hours with 12 team members, here are some of the lessons we uncovered from our exploration of compassion in the workplace:
Lesson 1. Making time for understanding compassion in a team environment paves the way to address the urgent issues within a team.
Urgent pain points in teams may relate to challenges in communication, feedback structures, heavy workloads etc.
Looking at compassion together, what it means for our colleagues and the reasons for why it can break down in the workplace creates transparency and safety.
Understanding this from a science-backed perspective makes it easier to explore challenges openly and at a depth that enables them to be overcome - not simply skirted around.
This conversation also opens up for greater connection and cohesion between team members. It can bring a sense of relief to discover that our colleagues want a culture of compassion and want to be better equipped to contribute to one.
Communication, feedback structures, dealing with high workloads etc. are all part of the glue of a compassionate culture.
Lesson 2. Data can enhance the conversation.
When we start by gathering anonymous and aggregated data to discuss different experiences around the topic of compassion within a team, we make it easier for team members to relate to sensitive topics and we empower them to take further action within their team.
Research shows that our brains tend to concentrate on the negatives, which activates our threat instincts. This in turn reduces our ability to bring compassion to others and to ourselves, particularly in a work environment.
We can use aggregated data as an entry-point of discussion and use it to reflect on what already is a compassionate way of working. This allows us to identify what can be amplified and reduces the risk of overly focusing on challenges.
Free, scientifically validated tools around psychological safety by Professor Amy Edmondson and self-compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff can generate data for your team as a starting point for discussion. If your team is interested in exploring how compassion plays into working within the communities you serve, the dignity self-assessment tool developed by IDinsight offers great reflection questions.
Lesson 3. Prioritising compassion towards ourselves at work is valued and challenging.
Bringing compassion into our team and work can be hard to sustain if we don’t practice it towards ourselves.
Self-compassion may even be instrumental as we are more likely to 1) identify and express our needs and set boundaries in a constructive way, which benefits people around us and 2) increase our confidence and as a result bring new ideas to the table.
Engaging on this personal topic in a group setting with colleagues can however feel vulnerable and unusual.
Knowing our own, individual ways of working, triggers and needs can help contribute to our team’s success and well-being.
With the CARE team, we specifically experimented with a brief guided exercise, identifying a stressful situation and the underlying, personal needs requiring attention. Other tools, such as reflective writing exercises, sharing in pairs and additional self-coaching tools can ease a team into doing personal reflections together which in turn strengthens cohesion. This further supports a move beyond individual self-care to a focus on team members taking care of each other.
Over time, an external facilitator can employ structured conversations that allow each team member to design and implement their own self-compassion and self-coaching toolkit so they can stretch and grow with their team members.
How can we avoid compassion becoming a box-ticking exercise?
If you start reflecting on compassion internally, you may discover that your colleagues have similar questions around bringing compassion into work.
The team at CARE discovered among them a willingness to create a compassionate culture which goes beyond an individual’s responsibility to something that all team members can contribute to and shape together. The question then becomes how this reflection process can be strengthened and how team insights can be actioned.
“Compassion in the workplace requires ongoing commitment.” - was a reflection made by a CARE team member after our sessions. A few group sessions can be a great conversation starter and is a starting point for further action.
If you want to avoid compassion becoming a box-ticking exercise in your organisation and instead, you'd like to move towards a more impactful experience, your team can consider gathering regularly to:
Develop a road map on ways of working and planning how to action insights,
Check-in on action-plans developed, experiment and revise as needed,
Participate in skills-based workshops dedicated to topics and practices of compassion in the workplace (for example on dealing with conflict and difficult relationships, giving and receiving feedback, self-compassion etc.), and
Engage in relational pauses.
Building a compassionate culture improves morale in the work we do as development professionals and requires dedicated time and effort.
While the scientific case for compassion in organisations is clear* – it increases innovation and collaboration, enables greater service quality and engagement as well as improves fulfilment at work - making time to consider how you can build and sustain a culture of compassion can be hard and risks ending at the bottom of a long list of competing priorities.
In the international development sector, we are rarely offered the additional time and space to consider and implement compassion as an organisational concern but that risks negatively impacting our motivation, well-being and impact – so we need to take it.
Having a pre-defined structure and space you can lean into individually and as a team to explore, practice, implement and revise compassion in your context can – in and of itself – be an act of compassion.
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* References. See for example:
Worline and Dutton (2017), Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations.
Van Bommel (2021), The power of empathy in times of crisis and beyond.
Seppälä and others (2017), The Oxford Handbook of Compassion Science.