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Compassion in the Workplace

by Deborah Rinner, Chief Learning Consultant, Tero International

Often, when we encounter stress, we unthinkingly enter fight, flight or freeze mode. If you're not familiar with those modes, here's a quick refresher for you.

Think of a time at work where you experienced stress, whether it was because of a short deadline, a difficult client, a colleague who challenged you, or something else entirely.

If your instincts caused you to fight, you might have become aggressive or competitive, and you might yell, argue or start making demands.

If your flight instinct kicked in, you might have been more passive, shutting down emotionally, becoming too accommodating, or removing yourself from the situation before you've reached a resolution.

If you froze, you might have gone totally blank, forgetting what you wanted to say or do entirely.

All of these responses are pretty bad ways to handle stress in the workplace.

One way you can handle unproductive emotions, instead of reverting to your instincts, is to practice compassion. And you can help your coworkers manage their emotions by treating them with compassion, as well.

This idea was explored in a study from Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade.

Alongside George Mason University professor Olivia O'Neill, Barsade conducted a 16-month study at a health care facility which employed 185 employees.

They asked employees to rate the amount of compassion that coworkers showed to each other. Then they surveyed employees on their engagement and satisfaction in the workplace, asking participants to rate their agreement on items like "Staff care about this team and work together to make it one of the best," and "I can count on my co-workers for help and cooperation."

Barsade and O'Neill found that the higher employees rated compassion, the lower the rates of emotional exhaustion and absenteeism were reported after 16 months.

So what can we take from this study? We don't need to resort to the old tools of fight, flight or freeze to manage our emotions. Try practicing compassion.

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