Courage, Compassion, and Resilience Make Great Workplaces - November 17, 2014

Michael Pearn, PhD

Consulting Expert
Organizational Psychologist & President, Pearn Consulting LLC

Courage, Compassion, and Resilience Make Great Workplaces

Most of what is taught in business schools and executive development programs, though certainly relevant, does not contribute significantly to the creation of workplaces that enable human beings to flourish and engage meaningfully in the success of their organizations. 

With the massive and endlessly growing provision of advice and guidance and education on how to run successful and/or effective organizations, the question remains: “Why haven’t we become better at it”? With so many companies struggling to survive, let alone thrive, in the always on, 24/7, inter-connected world we live in, and with ill-health, obesity and stress levels growing at an alarming rate, one can only ask: 

  • Is there something missing in the way we design and run organizations? 
  • Why do so many people feel disengaged? 
  • Why do so many feel overwhelmed by the constant and unrelenting pressures they experience in the workplace and by extension to their lives as a whole? 

The answer lies in the disconnect between the workplace and our common humanity. Try this thought experiment. Finish these sentences with whatever comes immediately to mind:

Without courage, leaders ...
Without compassion, leaders ...
Without resilience, leaders ...

I often use this thought experiment in groups to examine the meaning and significance of these qualities in the workplace. Instead of reacting negatively and dismissing them as irrelevant or unrealistically aspirational most people respond positively and make serious points, often with a high degree of consistency across individuals and groups: 

  • Without courage, leaders do not stand up for what is right in the face of opposition and personal risk or threat to themselves. They do not oppose or they tolerate wrongdoing or dishonesty when they know in their hearts that they should. 
  • Without compassion, leaders forget that it is people, not buildings, strategies, business plans, etc. that make up organizations. Human beings have feelings and psychological needs that are frequently ignored or disregarded in many workplaces today and, as a result, they set lower expectations for themselves and become demotivated when they do not feel respected or valued as human beings.
  • Without resilience, leaders are more likely to disconnect from their humanity and succumb to stress and negative behaviors that put unreasonable pressure and stress on others and on themselves.

Another revealing exercise is to combine these qualities and see how they interconnect/interrelate. For example, think about the implications of leaders who show courage but lack compassion. Think about the leader who is compassionate but not resilient. 

These thought experiments tend to elicit a high degree of common ground across individuals and groups, which in itself indicates that the questions are tapping into powerful human needs and feelings. The next step is to pose the more personal question: “In my leadership role, if I could increase my personal courage/compassion/resilience, what might be the potential benefits to me and to the people I work with”? The answers tend to be more concrete and reveal the almost universal desire of human beings to work powerfully and effectively in socially connected, caring, and meaningful ways.

I have described this auto-didactic learning process in some detail because it illustrates that we do not need to rely on expert theories, frameworks or constructs to bring to light these deep and fundamental points. It is sufficient to be human, to address the right questions in a spirit of honest and open exploration. 

Typically, there are two broad challenges to the position I have outlined above. The first argues that we need pressure and self-seeking competitiveness in order to be successful. After all, selfishness is our natural evolutionary state and fuels competition and success and has done so from time immemorial.

This viewpoint has gone unchallenged for too long. Recent scientific research is forcing us think differently. For example, The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley is assembling compelling scientific evidence from evolutionary biology, anthropology, physiology, neuroscience and psychology that shows that compassion, kindness, forgiveness, gratitude and collaboration are natural evolutionarily evolved states that are intrinsically rewarding to us as human beings. They tend to give way when we feel stressed, threatened, fearful or anxious. Also The Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor is accumulating strong evidence that we perform at our best in positive rather than stressful or threatening environments. We do not have to risk burning out or being physically and psychologically unhealthy in order to succeed.

The second challenge asserts that courage, compassion, and resilience are pre-determined states; we either have them or we don’t. You cannot develop them if you do not already possess them. 

Again, the evidence from research is forcing us to re-think our common assumptions about these intrinsic human qualities. Courage, or more specifically courageous behavior, can be developed and nurtured. Courage can be re-framed as a set of behaviors and skills that can be learned, rather than as a fixed moral attribute. Courage can be developed through clarifying our personal values, and building a skill-set that can be mindfully harnessed and strengthened through anticipation, preparation and practice. 

Compassion can also be cultivated in small ways and in routine situations, though mindfulness meditation, and learning the mental habits of genuine listening, perspective taking, extending the range of in-group thinking, and putting ourselves in the shoes of others. 

Resilience can be increased by cultivating positive emotions and social connection in our lives, by developing intrinsically rewarding goals, having sufficient physical activity, and by eating healthily and getting good sleep. It is also strengthened by systematically countering our ANTs (automatic negative thoughts).

The worst thing we can do today is to accept the default position that the workplace is, by its nature, at best stressful and at worst toxic and alienating. There are already many positive workplaces and organizations with positive cultures that enable human beings to flourish and be energized by unavoidable pressure rather than succumb to it, but they are probably in a minority. 

There would be many more positive work environments if courage, compassion, and resilience were discussed and developed not only as part of leadership development but by all members of the organization. The goal should be to design and manage productive and efficient workplaces where courageous behavior, compassion and resilience among other human qualities become the norm and can flourish. 

Organizational culture is critical but it is but one factor among others that contribute to the positive psychological states that enable people to perform effectively and to thrive at the same time. The Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at UC Berkeley is aggregating scientific research and knowledge around the world from fourteen separate disciplines including medicine and psychology, ergonomics, public health, environmental design, and computer science that separately and in combination contribute to the creation of healthy productive workplaces. 

One day we will learn to align the never ending quest for greater organizational efficiency and effectiveness, whether for profit or not, with the fundamental and biologically determined needs of human beings for social connection and meaning, for respect, kindness and compassion. That is a long-term goal. Meanwhile we can make a lot of progress by bringing more courage, compassion and resilience into the workplace.

Michael Pearn, PhD is an organizational psychologist, and President of Pearn Consulting LLC, San Francisco. He is a Consulting Expert to The Interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Workplaces at UC Berkeley.