Hr LibraryLeadership

The Road To Compassion At Work

Source | | Laurel Donnellan

I have been a student, practitioner and teacher of leadership development skills for more than four decades and over the years, I have moved from sympathy to empathy to compassion as my response to suffering in the workplace. It continues to be an education fueled by my personal experience and research that offers a business case for compassion like this academic article by Jane E. Dutton, Kristina Workman and Ashley E. Hardin.

In my teens, I learned about power, collaboration and mutiny through student government positions. In my twenties I learned about mutual respect, hierarchy, patriarchy and organizational behavior from my professors at Cornell, my employees in the hospitality industry and from Ken Blanchard who wrote The One Minute Manager and Situational Leadership. In my thirties, I learned about the simplicity of shared vision, values and wealth from my mentors Fred Eydt and Chuck Feeney and complex leadership theories from my professors in my graduate program at Columbia.  In this period of my leadership career, I focused on using sympathy when people I interacted with at work were suffering. Sympathy can be defined as feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. Sympathy allows you to keep suffering at a distance.

In my forties I learned about failure, being an artist and entrepreneurship through the ups and downs of creating my own content and business; and social impact from leaders like Eileen Fisher and the speakers and members who were part of the Social Venture Circle (formerly Social Venture Network). I also learned about using empathy in the workplace when I became a Franklin/Covey facilitator.  This is the decade where I honed my leadership coaching craft to a more professional level at the Hudson Institute of Santa Barbara. In addition, I was able to embrace empathy as a coaching, leadership and culture change practice armed with knowledge from Daniel Goldman’s work related to emotional intelligence. Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. However new research suggests that overusing empathy at work can lead to burnout.

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