Courage in the Workplace: Creating a Culture of Compassion

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The School of Management at the University of San Francisco promotes its role in preparing students to enter the workforce by identifying three sectors in which they are most likely to exercise their talents: as public administrators in various levels of government; as small to corporate business managers in for-profit endeavors; and finally, in a kind of combination of the two, as employees of non-profit enterprises that often fill the gaps in government services but do so applying practical business methods.

Those who are motivated after recognizing a social problem that needs redressing or after appreciating a common good that could be shared more widely often undertake non-profit administration. But these organizations are also founded by problem solvers who recognize that their expertise, acquired not by conventional education in management, may meet a social need or produce a benefit. Previously I've written about how one can apply skills developed in humanities courses to the workplace; but here I offer an example of a non-profit that offers a technique derived from a particular discipline and its specialized knowledge of ancient traditions to create a socially engaged contemplative organization aimed at transforming the workplace itself.

Recently I spoke to one of the co-founders and current president of the Courage of Care Coalition, Brooke D. Lavelle, who described for me how her long study in cognitive psychology and Buddhist contemplative theory came together in a vision for the organization aimed at providing training for people in caring roles and professions, (educators, health care professionals, social workers, clergy, activists, etc.). What Brooke and her co-founder, John Makransky--a professor of Buddhism and Comparative Theology at Boston College--recognized was that those drawn to work that requires active and engaged compassion could benefit from an approach to their work that cultivates sustainable care and compassion as derived from Buddhism and other contemplative practices.

This approach to Buddhism's practical application is not new; twenty years ago the Dalai Lama, along with a lawyer and an entrepreneur, created Mind and Life, a non-profit committed to building a scientific understanding of the mind as a way to help reduce suffering and promote human flourishing. Courage of Care collaborates with Mind and Life approaches but with a front line focus. Courage of Care seeks to operate on the ground, meeting the needs of workers who meet needs. While they aspire to see their practices widely adapted, they operate not a global scale but on the neighborhood level.

As Brooke explained to me, her academic training in Buddhism coincided with a growing awareness among the public of the benefits of mindfulness and meditation as techniques for improving, discerning, and replenishing humans in their daily lives. "Compassion," Brooke observed, is "a stance, not a feeling, an encounter or a perspective" that has multiple signatures. Adopting a relational or dialogic approach, the coalition recognizes many ways to "create space" for compassion. Organized from multiple portals and levels of entry and enacted in workshops, seminars, and retreats, the coalition offers several options for Sustainable Compassion Training (SCT). In addition, online workshops offer a flexible tool that adapts to the schedule of busy professionals who recognize that they cannot act autonomously to renew their compassionate spirits.

Care for others involves an obligation to see one another's essential dignity and to hold each other in a "field of care," Brooke explained. Courage of Care rejects the notion of compensatory or redemptive suffering and resists individual tendencies towards martyrdom by stressing the collaborative aspect of compassionate care. The sense of community generated by Courage of Care extends beyond the formal training in workshops and seminars and is sustained as a habit of being in a nuanced idea of self-care supported by ongoing contemplative practices.

Resisting the trends toward instant gratification from applying mindfulness techniques and veering away from stress as the main stimulus to practice, Brooke describes how we can scaffold our needs to build, develop, and live empathetic lives and to reclaim spirituality as a safe, scientific, public activity. Where courage becomes part of the picture is when one chooses a professional life that requires daily acts of mercy. "Courage," Brooke observed, "is the quality of our capacity for caring." Courage of Care believes that we are empowered by others whom we serve and that the compassionate impulse generates the courage necessary to confront and respond to suffering.

This understanding of courage tracks with the research of Associate Professor Neil Walshe in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco. An organizational psychologist, Neil's work has tried to move past psychology's tendency to fixate on people's motivations towards courage and instead address the experience of courage for individuals. As he explains, "There is a paucity of research that deals with the human experience of moral behavior and even less that looks at its absence. We know far more about the conditions that can bring about morally motivated behavior but relatively little about whether this is a positive or negative experience once enacted."

While the assumption has long been that being courageous is a positive experience, Neil, like Brooke, asks "positive for whom?" In the organizational context, while it is morally admirable that organizations might encourage courage among employees, they themselves are exposed to little if any risk in the course of doing so. Ultimately, as Neil observes, "it is the individual who expends the moral and physical capital that comes with being courageous yet it is the organization that ultimately benefits through an increase in their moral perception by employees and outsiders alike." Motivated by the sharp rise in academic research in the realm of positive psychology and positive organizational scholarship, Neil has tried to understand what it feels like to be courageous as part of one's work role.

Despite the volume of research present on courage as an abstract construct, little if any attention has been paid to the experience of courage among those who perform moral and virtuous acts as part of paid employment. Most scholarship in organizational psychology has been directed at attempts to quantify or measure people's capacity for courageous action, which excludes the role of context and circumstance from the act of courage itself. Indeed, Neil has observed that organizations have begun to use and screen employees for their moral potential without really understanding the complexity of morality and its application to workplace behaviors.

Institutional efforts citied by Neil support of the work of Courage of Care, including the University of Michigan's Center for Positive Psychology and the influential CompassionLab, a research initiative aimed at giving voice to the potential that empathy and compassion could play in understanding the challenges of contemporary employment and organizational membership. Moreover, these traits also address the potential benefits that organizations might realize by way of efficiency, decreased absenteeism, reduced turnover and the simple possibility that people might enjoy their work more if the workplace was a touch more human. Courage of Care brings that touch of the better angels of our human nature.