046: ‘An Ethic of Compassion’

In This Episode: It’s a conundrum in the business world, but this idea really is about living in general. And that is, how can businesses encourage their employees to be more productive, healthier, and provide better customer service? University researchers applied some Uncommon Sense to this age-old question, and came to some surprising conclusions.

046: ‘An Ethic of Compassion’

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I’m Randy Cassingham, welcome to Uncommon Sense.

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What’s the go-to motivational style of stereotypical managers when employees slack off, make mistakes, or otherwise don’t live up to the expectations of their bosses? Demerits, yelling, or other punishments like denial of time off or favored shifts are typical. The question is, does that work?

Dr. Emma Seppala, the Science Director at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (that’s a mouth-full!), reports that such stress-inducing management styles not only don’t work, it makes things worse for both the employees and the business in the long run. “Managers often mistakenly think that putting pressure on employees will increase performance,” she says. “What it does increase is stress — and research has shown that high levels of stress carry a number of costs to employers and employees alike.”

Those costs, she says, especially include higher healthcare expenditures, and higher turnover.

You might wonder if researchers like Seppala can actually measure those supposed effects. Aren’t they just assuming that there are increases in healthcare costs and turnover just because it simply seems likely? After all, we’ve seen many so-called “obvious” research assumptions prove to be wrong — again and again. Butter is terrible for people and you should eat margarine instead …only after they do actual studies do they discover that butter really isn’t that bad, and margarine has very negative health impacts!

For these workplace effects, researchers identified businesses that used yelling, punishments, and other sorts of stress as a “motivational” tool, and compared them with similar businesses that used more positive motivational strategies, and then looked at the resulting data. And sure enough, the healthcare costs for companies in the higher stress group were 46 percent greater. In particular, Dr. Seppala says, those employees had more heart disease. And, she says, the majority of employees in that environment had looked for, or were actively looking for, new jobs. Job turnover is a huge cost to businesses. Finding quantitative data about these consequences is not just a staggering illustration of how wrong-headed these managers are, but they also make the shortcomings of such methods really clear against the bottom line of the business.

Seppala says there is a movement — supported by research — that has proven to be better: “an ethic of compassion.” It not only benefits employees’ mental and physical health, but it improves the bottom line.

“Happy employees also make for a more congenial workplace and improved customer service,” Seppala says. “Employees in positive moods are more willing to help peers and to provide customer service on their own accord. What’s more, compassionate, friendly, and supportive co-workers tend to build higher-quality relationships with others at work.”

That’s an awful lot of benefit that bad managers flush down the drain, damaging the business’s profitability.

OK, so if you agree that “compassion” is a better way to operate, that it helps increase the success of a business rather than decrease it, what does that mean? Do bosses have to “sing Kumbaya” with their employees?

Hardly. Yet Seppala argues that despite all the research, which is not exactly new here in 2019, many managers shy away from compassion for “fear of appearing weak.” It seems to me that “fear of appearing weak” in the face of this research proves those managers are weak! There’s a good selection of books available on the subject, and I’ll link to a couple on the Show Page.

Rather than hold hands around a camp fire, to succeed with these ideas managers should: be fair and self-sacrificing, promote cooperation rather than competition among employees and teams, reward employees who help their co-workers succeed, promote bonding, and demonstrate service and high ethics themselves. That is true leadership that employees can emulate.

But it can’t just be lip service: there has to be a real attitude among managers and executives to create such an atmosphere. If they do, they should see a number of benefits, Seppala says: increased productivity, higher levels of customer service, increased social connection among employees, an increase in commitment to the workplace, and higher levels of engagement with their jobs. Not to mention the bottom line effects of lower healthcare costs and employee turnover, which makes all of this to really be a huge win-win for employees and employers alike.

An “ethic of compassion” is not just the more human thing to strive for, it’s the best policy for businesses, adding to their profitability. Now that’s Uncommon Sense!

To comment on these ideas, or to see links for more information, the Show Page for this episode is thisistrue.com/podcast46

I’m Randy Cassingham … and I’ll talk at you later.

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1 Comment on “046: ‘An Ethic of Compassion’

  1. The economic benefits of good management have been obvious for years… on condition that management is competent to begin with; those who are not are perpetually afraid of being deposed by those who are and fall back on ‘divide and conquer’ to disrupt any possible competition.

    The saying “the fish stinks from the head” also applies: in the final analysis, any owner/operator will always select a manager/management style after their own heart, i.e. someone they understand.


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