Compassion Organizing

Pain and suffering, though often unspoken, are ubiquitous in work organizations. Sometimes the work of the organization itself becomes painful, while at other times pain comes from tragic and unexpected events in employees’ lives. Pain and loss, though they are inevitable parts of people’s experience, are not within the usual purview of studies of organization. This paper takes up the topic of organizing to address compassion.  While it is easy to see compassion as an individual concern, it is also crucial to see it as a collective concern. In this paper, we consider compassion as a systemic organizing process manifest in dynamics that unfold over time. We propose a model of compassion organizing to describe how compassionate responses are activated, mobilized, and organized through time.

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We develop a theory to explain how individual compassion in response to human pain in organizations becomes socially coordinated through a process we call compassion organizing. The theory specifies five mechanisms, including contextual enabling of attention, emotion, and trust, agents improvising structures, and symbolic enrichment, that show how the social architecture of an organization interacts with agency and emergent features to affect the extraction, generation, coordination, and calibration of resources. In doing so, our theory of compassion organizing suggests that the same structures designed for the normal work of organizations can be redirected to a new purpose to respond to members’ pain. We discuss the implications of the theory for compassion organizing and for collective organizing more generally.

From Administrative Science Quarterly, 51 (2006): 59–96

“Organizations are often faced with situations in which their members suffer. Natural disasters (e.g., floods, earthquakes, and hurricanes), human-made disasters (e.g., accidents and errors), personal tragedies (e.g., death, illness, and divorce), and job stressors (e.g., layoffs and injuries) are just some sources of organizational members’ pain (Frost, 2003). While organizations have the opportunity to respond to this pain, not all do so, nor do it well. When individuals in organizations notice, feel, and respond to human pain in a coordinated way, we call this process compassion organizing. Compassion organizing in response to unexpected and painful events varies in how effective it is across organizations. For example, in the wake of 9/11/2001, firms responded very differently to the unexpected pain of human loss and devastation. Gittell et al. (2006) compared ten airlines’ response to the events of 9/11 and concluded that relational reserves and financial reserves explained differences in adaptation to this painful jolt. As in Meyer’s (1982) study of hospitals’ response to a doctors’ strike, features of the organization helped to predict the patterns of organizational responding. While previous research has suggested that organizational routines (Zollo and Winter, 2002) and values (Bansal, 2003) may also explain responses to unexpected events, it does not address how features of the organizational context interrelate to explain patterns of organizing. When the unexpected events are marked with emotion, as in human suffering, the process of organizing to alleviate pain is not well understood. Organizational researchers have not explained how responding to an unexpected, painful event is spontaneously organized, nor how and why some patterns of compassion organizing emerge while others do not, and some are more effective than others.”


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