What’s the Secret of the Best Places to Work? Compassion and Connection

UPDATED: June 26, 2023
PUBLISHED: October 27, 2015

What does creating a happier workplace take? Raises all around? A retreat where everyone falls backward in a trust exercise? Beanbag chairs? Nope, nope, nope.

The answer is surprisingly simple. To improve learning, resilience and adaptation as well as overall happiness and attachment to the organization and team, people need time and space to experience positive moments with each other, says Jane Dutton, Ph.D., professor of business administration and psychology at the University of Michigan.

Relationships are composed of micro-moments of connection, and positive moments give a big boost to people emotionally, explains Dutton, who researches the impact of positivity within organizations. “Positive emotions compound quickly, and these short-term meaningful interactions stay in people’s minds. It may be as brief as looking at each other with mutual positive regard.”

Dutton visits the same Starbucks every morning, and a barista named Norma knows her well. “The moment I walk through the door, she acknowledges me with a look that makes me feel good,” Dutton says. “I may have felt hassled from the commute, but then that melts away all because of how Norma looks at me. It’s a relational vitamin that recharges me.” This same dynamic of uplifting interpersonal connection can have a great effect in the workplace.

Be willing to share micro-moments, Dutton advises. “People feel more vitality and more positive regard in the moment when they feel like they are at the same level. This idea of mutuality is particularly important in business, where there’s a lot of power and status subordination.”

Consider these high-quality connections as vessels for personal growth. Some work organizations cultivate really good soil that allows these seeds to grow, Dutton says, and they make sure that every point of human contact between suppliers, customers and team members is a positive one. “Not only do people perform better there, but they feel like they are growing into better people. There are multiple payoffs.”

She adds that people who are relationally skilled and routinely create positive moments that lead to high-quality connections are more resourceful, stronger psychologically and more likely to have a better trajectory for their own growth.

How do you create a culture that fosters high-quality connections?

• Hire people who care about connecting with others and are sensitive to building relationships.
• On-board employees wisely. Rather than inundating them with information, facilitate meaningful connections with people who will be important to helping them do their work.
• Make it safe and OK to ask for help and reward those who give it.

Says Dutton: “We are hard wired to connect. Having a high-quality connection mindset opens up a bunch of ways to think about how to build human capability by the way you interact.”

“We are happiest when helping other people,” says Corey Keyes, Ph.D., a founding fellow of Life University’s Center for Compassion, Integrity and Secular Ethics and a sociology professor at Emory University in Atlanta.

But compassion, integrity and ethics can conflict—especially in the workplace, where the bottom line and merit are important. SUCCESS asked Keyes, an expert in positive psychology, how to practice compassion that’s aligned with our own inner compasses:

Q: How do we decide who deserves our compassion?

A: Everyone deserves our compassion, and that even extends to our enemies. There’s a large body of scientific evidence that those who serve others live longer, happier and more purposeful lives.

Q: How important is compassion in the workplace?

A: Being involved in caring for your community brings your workforce or team enormous health benefits and boosts engagement. Activities that people do at work allow them to feel a sense of purpose and contribute to others’ well-being, and those companies that give their people paid time to volunteer with causes that resonate with them personally have healthier workforces. It’s important that the volunteering expresses the individual employee’s convictions and values.

Practicing more kindness isn’t at the top of the list for most human resources execs or CEOs when they are thinking about creating a healthier workforce both physically and mentally, but our research shows that it should be. Benefiting the universe is good for business.

Q: How do we practice compassion and integrity simultaneously?

A: Sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do is to fire a person who’s not aligned with our overall purpose.

Compassionate integrity is an overarching ethic that must define an organization if that organization is ultimately going to thrive. Think about the most-admired organizations. They all have strong senses of purpose designed to benefit others, their communities or the world in some way.

When I consult with companies on this sense of purpose, they almost always have to go back to their original stories. Why was their company created in the first place? When that story is resurrected and they live it out, they know what’s right for their people and company.

Compassionate integrity is the elephant in the room. People lose sight of the meaning at work when leaders don’t emphasize living out purpose.

Q: What’s the biggest impediment to compassionate integrity at work?

A: Time and money have been equated in the corporate world. Studies show that people who think of their time in terms of money are less likely to volunteer and much less likely to help colleagues.

That’s where integrity comes in. You have to stand for something other than money.

Compassionate integrity has to be lived at the top. The founder of the sportswear company Patagonia started his business because he cared about the safety of mountaineering and the environment. He embodies getting out in nature, and he spends a lot of time and resources encouraging his employees to do the same. Doing the right thing out of compassion is so much more inspiring than simply doing good because of what you think it will do for you.

Integrity is “doing the right thing all the time, even when no one is looking—especially when no one is looking.” Follow 9 tips to strengthen yours.


This article appears in the December 2015 issue of SUCCESS magazine.

Echo Montgomery Garrett is the author of My Orange Duffel Bag: A Journey to Radical Change.