Defining Compassion

Compassion is the heart’s response to suffering. Compassion — from the roots passio (suffering) and com (with) — means to suffer with another. Compassion is an innate part of human response to suffering, which is comprised of a three-part experience of noticing another’s pain, feeling with another, and responding in some way. In this article we explore the meaning of compassion for work organizations by looking at the history of compassion and tracing its relationship to human communities over time. We suggest ways to think about compassion as a collective process as well as an individual characteristic.

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In this article, the authors explore compassion in work organizations. They discuss the prevalence and costs of pain in organizational life, and identify compassion as an important process that can occur in response to suffering. At the individual level, compassion takes place through three subprocesses: noticing another’s pain, experiencing an emotional reaction to the pain, and acting in response to the pain. The authors build on this framework to argue that organizational compassion exists when members of a system collectively notice, feel, and respond to pain experienced by members of that system. These processes become collective as features of an organization’s context legitimate them within the organization, propagate them among organizational members, and coordinate them across individuals.

From AMERICAN BEHAVIORAL SCIENTIST, Vol. 47 No. 6, February 2004 808-827.

“Compassion occupies a prominent role in the history of modern society, implicated in the creation and sustenance of human community (Clark, 1997; Nussbaum, 1996, 2001). Seen as virtuous and contributing to personal and social good (Blum, 1980; Nussbaum, 2001; Solomon, 1998; Wuthnow, 1991), compassion lies at the core of what it means to be human (Himmelfarb, 2001; Wuthnow, 1991). Discussions about the meaning of compassion as a human experience date back over two thousand years, spanning disciplines such as religion, philosophy, and sociology. Through early philosophical accounts to more contemporary depictions, the notion of compassion has remained remarkably constant (Nussbaum, 1996). Similarly, despite fundamental differences in philosophy and tradition, all major religions emphasize the importance of compassion. Judaism, for example, mandates to emulate God in his attribute of compassion (Sears, 1998), and Buddhist philosophy considers that the basic nature of human beings is to be compassionate (Dalai Lama, 1995). The Biblical tradition, too, teaches compassion as “a duty to divine law, as a response to divine love, and a sign of commitment to the Judeo-Christian ethic” (Wuthnow, 1991, p. 50). Compassion is a fundamental and timeless part of human existence.

Compassion is also an essential, yet often overlooked, aspect of life in organizations. Although organizations are frequently portrayed as sites of pain and suffering, they are also places of healing, where caring and compassion are both given and received (Frost, Dutton, Worline, & Wilson, 2000; Kahn, 1993). Compassionate acts can be found at all levels in an organization, from leaders who buffer and transform the pain of their employees, to officeworkers who listen and respond empathically to their colleagues’ troubles (Frost, 2003). Compassion in organizations makes people feel seen and known; it also helps them feel less alone (Frost et al. 2000; Kahn, 1993). Moreover, compassion alters the “felt connection” between people at work (Frost et al., 2000) and is associated with a range of positive attitudes, behaviors, and feelings in organizations (Dutton, Frost, Worline, Lilius, & Kanov, 2002; Lilius et al., 2003). Research and writing on compassion in organizations reveals it as a positive and very powerful force.”


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