Compassion in Action with Monica Worline

We spoke with Monica Worline, PhD, about her new book, Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations, and the workshop she will be presenting at our inaugural Compassion in Action Healthcare Conference this June in Boston.

Monica is a research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism housed in Stanford Medicine with a joint appointment at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. Awakening Compassion at Work is co-authored with Jane Dutton, Distinguished University Professor of Organization and Management at the Ross School of Business.


What first inspired you and your co-author to write Awakening Compassion at Work?

Jane Dutton and I have been doing research on compassion and organizations for 20 years now. We studied this topic when very few other people were studying it, and we have written most of our work for academic audiences, but in the past several years, there’s been a surge of interest in compassion. In healthcare, for example, there are complex challenges around managing patient medical records, technology, communication and everything else related to patient care. Compassion for the professionals working in that environment has a direct bearing on the quality of care for patients. There is such an obvious, ongoing need for more compassion in our work organizations that we thought it was time we try to make our research accessible to a broader audience.


You write that “caring is a competitive advantage.” What does this mean, particularly in a healthcare setting?

There is a lot of evidence that shows how compassion relates directly to an organization’s capacity to form a strategic advantage in its niche. In healthcare, the capacity of an organization to attract patients and to deliver high-quality care, for instance, is directly related to compassion in the work environment. We show that more compassion in the work environment helps organizations attract and retain really talented people. As you know, there is a real crisis of burnout that’s resulting in a lot of turnover in healthcare. Organizations are looking for ways that they can try to make the work environment better for the talented professionals they need to deliver the kind of high-quality care that their patients require. Beyond these types of human capabilities, other research shows that when there’s a greater level of compassion in the work environment that is manifest in greater respectful engagement among those expert teams, the collaborations are higher performing. That means better outcomes for the employees, the physicians, nurses and other staff, as well as the patients.


What are some of the warning signs of an organization that lacks a compassionate culture?

One of the big warning signs about the draining of compassion from the work environment is if you observe people being harsh or rude toward each other. Organizational researchers like Chris Porath call this incivility at work. Research shows that incivility between people really erodes the quality of work life, and you need quite a lot of compassion and respectful interactions to overcome it. Another way that you might know that a work environment is drained of compassion in healthcare is when organizations focus exclusively on technical expertise and they ignore or forget the power of touch, human warmth and emotional and social support in favor of solely technical solutions.

Compassion is so much a part of the fabric of the rhetoric about healthcare that, sometimes, professionals working in the healthcare context think to themselves, “Oh, compassion. I know all about that, I don’t need to know more about that. I have other important pressures to respond to.” But this is a danger sign because the skilled expression of compassion in healthcare requires a lot of learning and growth from everyone involved in patient care.


For the clinicians who find themselves in a challenging environment where they are juggling increasing responsibilities and time pressures, how can they take active steps toward incorporating more compassion in their work?

That’s the hardest challenge around creating compassionate work environments in healthcare because the demands are very real. In the book, we talk about four steps:

Step 1:       Noticing and giving attention to the suffering around you.
Step 2: Interpreting that suffering as in part relevant to you and something that you should care about.
Step 3: The third is the emotional part. It’s feeling concern for the well-being of the person who is suffering, or what researchers call empathic concern.
Step 4: Taking some kind of action to address or alleviate the suffering.

So first, we can notice the suffering that’s already in our work environment—not just suffering of patients, but also of colleagues. Then, we can feel more empathy and concern for each other, because we’re all suffering from the lack of time and the erosion of meaning in the work. Once we do that, then we open the door for people to be creative about how they want to express compassion to their colleagues. Our research suggests that people will find lots of different ways of taking compassionate action. It can be just a few kind words or just patting somebody on the back or saying, “Hang in there. I see how hard you’re working.” Even these small moves matter a great deal.


What can someone in a leadership position do to create a more compassionate work environment?

Leaders are really important designers of what we call “the social architecture of compassion.” This refers to aspects of the organization such as the networks that tie people together, role definitions, routines and cultural values. Leaders can make a big difference in their work environments by infusing these with compassion—even within the types of constraints we’ve mentioned. In the book, we talk about reimagining the social architecture of your organization as a leader and how, by thinking about your whole organization through the lens of compassion, you can come up with significant change efforts that are multi-faceted, valuable and very likely to increase the compassion of the workplace.

For example, leaders who understand how networks and connections are important in cultivating compassion often create space and time in the work environment through meetings or gatherings so people can acknowledge pain or stress and have conversations about how to be more compassionate toward each other. Another thing that leaders can do is listen, watch and ask when they notice that people are more overloaded than usual. Leaders can make values in action meaningful when they notice and step in to acknowledge something extraordinarily difficult—even if they can’t solve it. Sometimes leaders can bring in additional resources or create flexibility where it’s needed, and people see this as very compassionate when it happens. Finally, leaders can tell stories of times when they see a tremendously compassionate interaction. Those stories actually invoke the value of compassion and reinforce it to a group. The stories are vivid and rewarding, which is very different than telling people, “OK, everybody go be compassionate.” That’s the kind of leadership action that tends to backfire.


Can you preview some highlights about the workshop, “The Social Architecture of Compassion,” you’ll be presenting at our Compassion in Action Healthcare Conference this June?

One of the things we’re going to do at the conference is introduce the social architecture framework in more depth. When we review the four parts of the social architecture, we talk about the networks of the organization and how people are connected—then we will do activities designed to help people reimagine and redesign their networks so that they foster more compassion. We will talk about culture and values of the organization and find ways to make them truly lived on a day-to-day basis. We will talk about the different kinds of roles that people occupy and how those roles get defined with greater compassion. Then, we will talk about routines and how the basic ways that interdependent tasks get accomplished in the workplace can tip toward compassion. We have a model for walking people through that social architecture with a lens toward how each one of those things could awaken compassion in the work environment, so people will really leave with actionable, significant and achievable ideas for change that go beyond the surface level culture shifts.


To learn more and register for the inaugural Compassion in Action Healthcare Conference, visit For more information about Monica’s book, visit  

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