The One Fear All Managers Have Is Also Their Greatest Weapon

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Can caring be a competitive advantage?

Oftentimes leaders feel as though they have to have a disciplinary hand when it comes to dealing with employees. There is a fear that to give compassion means risking being taken advantage of. But what if utilizing compassion effectively made a better workplace and a more productive team? What if compassion, on a scientific level, created a better workforce?

Monica Worline is the founder and CEO of EnlivenWork, an organization that teaches businesses ways to tap into courageous thinking, compassionate leadership, and curiosity to bring their best work to life. She's also a research scientist at Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and her new book is Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations. I recently interviewed Monica for The LEADx Podcast to uncover the facts behind compassionate leadership and its effect on the workplace. (The interview below has been lightly edited for space and clarity.)

Kevin Kruse: Why do you think compassion is good for business?

Monica Worline: Well, what we did in this book is go into the data across many fields and look at why compassion actually matters for organizations as a whole. What we found is that there is really solid evidence that more compassion in the workplace in the wake of failures, like we were just talking about, is actually what helps people recover and innovate faster. There's solid evidence that supports the link between more compassion at work and the ability to give higher level service quality across a number of industries.

There's very good evidence that when people feel more compassion from their colleagues and their managers in the workplace they're willing to collaborate more and their collaborations are more successful for their customers. And there's really solid evidence that people are more willing to be adaptable to change when they feel like they have more compassion in their work environment.

Kruse: So you say there are four parts of compassion. What are they?

Worline: Compassion is often misunderstood as some sort of soft, fuzzy feeling. But in fact, it's a pretty complex human experience. The first part is to pay attention and notice when other people are in distress or suffering. That link to suffering is actually what sets compassion apart from other positive experiences like gratitude or happiness. The second part is that when you notice someone is in distress, you have to interpret that as relevant to your life at work and worthy of your action. That interpretation in turn is what drives the feeling of empathy or what academic researchers call “empathic concern”. Basically, you feel concerned for the other person's well-being. Once you feel that concern for another person's well-being, you are instantaneously motivated to want to act on their behalf.

Kruse: You're saying it's actually being able to feel what you're feeling and caring and giving a darn. 

Worline: Absolutely. In fact, right now, it's a very exciting time in the world of empathy because there's a ton of research going on in psychology, and the latest work suggests that when we as everyday human beings use the word “empathy,” we're actually referring to eight different psychological states that can be differentiated if we’re careful about our concepts.

One of the meanings of empathy is to tune in to your own feelings and then also be able to feel what someone else feels. So that's the form of empathy that's feeling together with another person. There's a cognitive form of empathy that we tend to call “perspective taking.” That's what you and I would say when we put ourselves in another person's shoes. That's a different form of empathy.

And then this form that I'm talking about is, maybe I am a manager and I have an employee who is really struggling to make their client deadlines and I don't actually feel what they feel. I feel even a little bit annoyed that I have to deal with this situation maybe. But what I can do is tune in to my concern for my employee's wellbeing and I can ask some questions and understand what's driving this inability to meet these deadlines. Is there something going on in your life or in the workplace that needs attention so that we can fix that? And out of my concern for your wellbeing can I help alleviate that concern so that you can perform in a different way on the job?

Kruse: For the individual manager, how can he or she implement a more compassionate approach at work? 

Worline: The number one thing in our research that people ask for, and wish they had more of when they talk about compassion at work, is flexibility. What they mean by ‘flexibility’ is a little bit of flexible time and a little bit of task flexibility. This is something that managers can often do pretty easily and they may not even think of it as compassion. In one organization that we studied it made a huge difference to single parents if they could arrive at work within a half an hour window instead of having to clock in exactly on the hour and not be penalized. They could stay a half an hour later and work the full schedule, but just having that half-an-hour flexibility to accommodate the late school bus or the sick kid or the late babysitter or whatever it was, made a huge difference in the lives of those employees and it was not a costly decision on the part of the manager. So the first thing is flexibility.

Kruse: Flexibility is highly valued these days. Above salary, above benefits.

Worline: Yeah, absolutely. We kind of underestimate how much suffering can get created by rigid rules in the workplace, and sometimes there's a very good reason for a rule to be really rigid, but oftentimes it's simply because nobody has thought about the impact that that rule or policy is having and they're not paying attention to the difficulty or the pain that it's creating in the lives of employees. I think this is an implication for leaders that we talk about when we talk about making your organization more systemically compassionate is to look at your policies and ask yourself and your other leaders and managers, “Is this routine actually activating compassion? And if it isn't, could we change it in a small way that would do that?”

You can hire with empathy and compassion in mind. You can redesign the way you do a shift change so that people have more time to connect as human beings as well as exchange whatever technical information they have to exchange. You can change your clock in and clock out system like I said. Lots of small changes on that level can actually really really change the level of compassion in an organization.

Kruse: What about the skeptics that are going to hear that and say, “But if I start giving people more flexibility they're going to take advantage of me. You give them an inch and they take a mile.”

Worline: This is the number one fear of managers that I talk to all the time. In fact, the research bears that out. Some researchers have looked at the top fears of compassion. What are the things that stop us from being more compassionate in our lives generally, and then in our lives at work? That number one fear is that if I'm compassionate towards someone they'll take advantage of me. So I would say to that skeptical manager that, first of all, because you're holding on to that fear, and that fear is very broadly held in our culture, it might be disproportionately real that that's what's going to happen. But if you try giving out a little flexibility you may find that in fact people are so grateful that they work harder, they become more committed and they become more engaged. Our research shows that when managers act with compassion they actually get extraordinary human results. They don't get worse results.

Kruse: Not to get too ‘Organizational Development’ (OD) geeky, but do you have instruments to measure compassion at work? 

Worline: Well I love to go to the OD geeky space with you, Kevin. There are several self-report scales of compassion at the individual level that you can use if you run an employee survey, and you want to include an empathy or compassion measure, there are several validated measures out there that would tell you about the baseline of how compassionate your employees feel that they are. We also are working with scholars based in Australia who are developing right now a survey-based measure of how compassionate an entire organization is.

So that's a relatively new measure but it does exist and it's getting tested. That’s the new research, as we speak.

The third thing we've done is we've developed a quiz―it’s really more of a self-assessment tool― about how compassionate your organization is. We published that self-assessment quiz together with the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley. So if you visit the Greater Good Science Center and you look in the self-assessment quiz section you can find one about compassion at work. And that is not scientifically validated evidence but it will give you, based upon our research parameters, a good sense of how much compassion is in your organization.

Kruse: Are you seeing demographic correlations to compassion at work? Are men or women more likely to be compassionate? Are certain ages more compassionate?  

Worline: Well, that's such an interesting question. We are not finding systemic demographic differences in the behavioral expressions of compassion when we look for say, “Do you help others at work? Do you offer social support? Do you offer emotional support?” These kinds of things that we geeky academics try to measure. But what we do find is that there's a huge gender difference in who resonates with the word compassion. What I know, somewhat unfortunately, is that just by having compassion in the title of the book it's going appeal far more to your female readers than to your male readers because culturally compassion is seen as part of the female nurturing domain and it isn't interpreted to be as relevant to the male domain of conquering the world and being the provider.

That's part of why I think there's a gender bias or a gender difference around the word itself but when dig down a little deeper and try to measure who is doing stuff that if we just looked at it we would say that's compassion, we don't see as much of a difference.

Kruse: You just need to write a follow-up called, ‘The Power of Compassion: It's Raw and In Your Face' and use big macho words and then you'll have the whole market covered.

Worline: That's right. Well that's why it's so important that we have people like you, Kevin, talking about the need for compassion and care in workplaces because, in fact, the more that we have leaders who are willing to use the word compassion and who are willing to stand up for the value of care in organizations, the more that we can break down the stereotypical understanding of the word. That in fact, when people have studied different organizations, the military is one of the most compassionate organizations that people describe. Because you have that ethos that you have to be tough and that you have to be caring. Those bonds that people build with others in the military when they know that they're under fire and they have to perform and they have to take care of each other in order to do that, that's the kind of message that we're talking about when we talk about compassion. So if we have to find a whole bunch of different words to describe it in ways that people will recognize, that's the mission that we're on.

Kruse: Nobody would accuse officers in Marine Corps of being soft, and yet there's that compassion side, so I think that's awesome. 

Worline: Yeah. Absolutely right. I mean, that's such a great example. When people in business are afraid of compassion because they're afraid it's gonna make them look soft or look weak I do think we can point to leaders and examples like that and say, “You can't accuse those people of being weak. Look at what they do everyday. Look at the results that they get in their organization.”

Kruse: I like to challenge our listeners to get a little bit better every single day. So what can you challenge us with to actually try out today? 

Worline: I want to challenge the LeadX listeners today to try out this saying that I remind myself of, and that I was reminded of, by one of the most compassionate leaders I know. That is whenever human beings are gathered together, there's always pain in the room. Most compassionate organizations actually get blocked because we don't notice that the suffering is there. So if we're paying more attention to other people, the state that they're in and what's going on in their lives, we're always going to be tapping into the possibility for compassion. So if we don't see it, we can't act on it. I try to remind myself as a leader in my own field and when I'm going around talking about this topic that there's always pain in the room and that means there's always the possibility for compassion.

Kevin Kruse is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the popular LEADx Leadership Podcast, and the CEO/Founder of, which provides free world-class leadership training, professional development and career advice for anyone, anywhere.

CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE demo of the LEADx platform at