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The M Dash

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On Celebrating Your Compassionate Coworkers

October 06, 2018 | Filed in: Your Brain

Compassion is a highly underrated feature of the best-functioning teams and workplaces. And while they don’t always get the big industry awards or bring in the highest sales, compassionate employees are crucial to your company’s success. Here’s how to help them feel appreciated. 

Every year, Academy Awards get handed out to the film industry’s big-name stars, directors, and producers. Meanwhile, many of the hard-working crew members that made sure everything ran smoothly on set are watching from home. The same is true in most offices: The employees who win big accounts or lead major projects tend to get all the accolades, while those working in the background to lend a hand or boost morale stay, well, in the background. But it turns out that, to build a well-functioning team, it’s just as important for these compassionate employees to get their time in the spotlight.

First, a little insight into what’s behind an employee’s motivation to be compassionate. “People who show compassion at work use empathy to feel other people’s stress or concerns and want to do something about it,” says Jessica Worny Janicki, a certified executive and career coach based in Chicago. “They put the needs of others before their own on a regular basis and don’t feel successful unless they can help.” This shows up in different ways. Maybe it’s someone hearing about a coworker’s sick parent and offering to take a presentation off their hands, or a manager seeing the frustration of a junior staffer and offering to be a mentor and help with their skills development.

Compassion is also shown by people who go out of their way to help everyone in the office feel like a team—for instance, by planning group outings. “These events build relationships that can make communication and decision-making smoother and more efficient,” says Janicki. “People high in empathy and social responsibility see these kinds of morale-boosting tasks as a part of being compassionate.”

This kind of compassionate employee—the person who feels responsible to the larger group and does what he or she can to help people out—can have a big impact on the success of your company. “When people have a sense of personal connection to others in the organization, it increases engagement and a willingness to contribute,” says Janicki. “As a result, it can increase loyalty and reduce turnover.” Think about it this way: When you’re feeling burned out, knowing you have coworkers who will help you out when you need it can keep you going. “Compassion helps people feel supported, valued, and recognized,” says Janicki. “You’re seen, you matter as an individual, and it goes beyond what sales you brought in that day.”

So how do you make sure those helpful employees know that what they’re doing matters? Bosses need to make sure they’re drawing attention to it. “People don’t always notice compassion is happening,” says Kristina Workman, PhD, an assistant professor of management at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration. “It can be invisible, especially if the one doing it is not the kind of person to broadcast what they do.” To get it out in the open, have time in meetings set aside where employees can call attention to those kinds of actions. Ask them who lent a hand this month or really helped them out when they needed it. Nobody speaking up? Start it off by mentioning a time you were in the weeds and someone came to your rescue. “You have to model the vulnerability it takes to admit some kind of hardship and show the appreciation for someone who was there for you,” says Workman. Once you show there’s no stigma around needing help, others are likelier to speak up.

As for rewarding compassion, it’s important to make it part of employees’ job roles and evaluations. “If you want to create a culture where compassion is practiced, it has to be part of expected performance,” says Janicki. “Once it becomes part of the criteria for their job, you’ll be able to sit down with them and use it to determine promotions or raises.” For example, maybe someone was given the goal of volunteering for one project outside of their department or responsibilities. During their annual review, you can talk about whether or not that actually happened. This kind of focus shows your team that compassion is being taken seriously—and so are the employees who regularly practice it.