Research & Thought Leadership

Compassion in times of crisis

Amy Bradley

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The ongoing global pandemic means we are all facing challenges, unlike anything we have seen in a generation. Be it restrictions to our movement; increased self-isolation; a wavering global economy; pressure on jobs and organizations; or anxieties about the health of our loved ones; for many of us, our primary response is to want to self-protect, as our primal instinct for safety and security kicks in. This is completely understandable given the ground is shifting beneath our feet on a daily basis.

There is, however, a counterpoint to these reactions. If we are able to respond by working and relating compassionately in a way that focuses on others rather than ourselves, we can galvanize our communities, workplaces and each other. Compassion is a core human value yet is too often overlooked in business. In fact, compassion is often positively disregarded, with many leaders believing that too much kindness is weak leadership and instead advocate toughness and strength.

In these times of unprecedented uncertainty, developing and fostering compassion could be the key to reviving our fractured workforce, as there is growing evidence that compassion lies at the heart of our well-being, engagement, and performance at work.[i] Compassion is fast becoming a business imperative since it is not money or career success that makes us happy. It is the relationships we have with friends, colleagues and loved ones that are the key to life satisfaction.[ii] Close social bonds help us to cope with life’s ups and downs; they slow down our mental and physical decline and are better predictors of life expectancy and happiness than class, IQ and genes combined.[iii]

Compassion is about more than just an understanding and caring workplace. It is about awakening the emotions within us so that when we notice that someone is struggling, we try to do something to help.[iv] It involves sensing what might be causing an individual distress and deciding what might be helpful for them at that moment. Compassion is about taking thoughtful action.[v] Compassion is not just about feeling good by doing good. It also builds the bottom line[vi] and is in many ways the hidden heart of strategic advantage.[vii] Organizations that are built around the value of compassion have been found to generate better financial performance and experience high levels of employee and customer retention,[viii] and this is due to the fact that employees will give more when they feel genuinely cared for.

Many leaders are currently facing tough decisions about the viability of their businesses. It is at times like these that compassionate leadership is needed more than ever. Companies that explicitly care for their people when times are tough, have been found to perform better in the long term as their employees work harder and are more committed to helping their employer recover from the crisis. [ix]

Compassion cannot be mandated, however, so it requires leaders to step-up and set the tone. If leaders show warmth and communicate with empathy and are seen to prioritize employee well-being in these tough times, this goes a long way in setting an organizational context for compassion to thrive. It goes without saying that If we care about each other as human beings, compassion and dignity at work are basic requirements, and the ability to exercise competent compassion an essential professional skill.[x]

Dr Amy Bradley is a Hult Professor specializing in the topics of leadership, compassion, and engagement at work. Amy’s recent book, The Human Moment, argues that organizations must find ways of becoming more compassionate in an age where our work is increasingly de-humanized.

[i] Pace, A (2010) Unleashing Positivity in the Workplace, TD Magazine, pp. 41-44.

[ii] Mineo, L (2017) Good Genes Are Nice, but Joy is Better, Harvard Gazette, 11 April.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Lilius, J., Kanov, J., Dutton, J., Worline, M., & Maitlis, S (2012) Compassion Revealed, in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, eds. Cameron, K & Spreitzer, G,Oxford University Press, pp. 273-288.

[v] Atkins, P & Parker, S (2012) Understanding Individual Compassion in Organizations: The Role of Appraisals and Psychological Flexibility, Academy of Management Review 37(4) pp. 524-526.

[vi] Hall, A (2015) A Compassionate Work Culture Can Really Benefit the Bottom Line, Too, Huffington Post, 29 April.

[vii] Worline & Dutton, J (2017) Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power That Elevates People and Organizations, Berrett Koehler

[viii] Cameron, K., Bright D., & Caza, A (2004) Exploring the Relationships between Organizational Virtuousness and Performance,American Behavioral Scientist 47(6, pp. 766-790.

[ix] Gittell, J., Cameron, K & Lim, S (2006), Relationships, Layoffs, and Organizational Resilience: Airline Industry Responses to September 11, Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 42(3), pp. 300-329.

[x] Jacoba Lilius, Jason Kanov, Jane Dutton, Monica Worline and Sally Maitlis, “Compassion Revealed,” in The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, eds. Kim Cameron and Gretchen Spreitzer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 273-288 at 276.

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