Is Compassion Possible in the Workplace?

Compassion is an emotion that arises in response to understanding that the difficult behaviours of either employees or managers are not consciously deliberate in their neglect of others but are unconsciously designed to bring attention to the individual’s inner turmoil. Is it a bridge too far to ask an employee who has been relentlessly bullied by a manager to have a compassionate understanding of the manager’s unconscious plight? Such a situation is only possible when individuals who have been bullied first of all develop a compassionate understanding of their own emotional pain and the passivity that has unconsciously prevented the emergence of an assertiveness that would have challenged the bullying behaviour when it first presented. There are two very separate issues that require consideration here – one, the plight of those who are at the receiving end of bullying and, two, the plight of those who owing to their inner securities resort to bullying to reduce perceived threats to their wellbeing. There is a further consideration – that compassionate understanding is suggesting that individuals who bully or who are passive are responsible to their defensive responses but they are not responsible for their actions. The ‘to’ and ‘for’ distinction is important because when others insist you are ‘responsible for’ your actions, they are judging that you are deliberately being neglectful, whereas when others assert the need for you to take ‘responsibility to’ your actions, I know that your bullying arises from a place of hurt within yourself; in this way they are compassionate, non-judgemental but still assert the need for you to take responsibility to the neglect perpetrated.

Returning to the issue of passivity and bullying, being totally separate issues, it is imperative that it be understood that individuals who created passivity as a powerful means of reducing hurt never invite others to bully them. People who bully do so because of their own inner turmoil and the reason why they appear to bully only those who are passive is because it would not have worked with those who are assertive. Indeed, their unconscious strategy will be to do all in their power to avoid (another defensive strategy) those who are assertive because at a deep level they know that their insecurities will be spotted by those who act from an inner stronghold.

The challenging issue is that no progress can be made unless somebody – preferably a person in a key management position – views the untenable situation with compassionate understanding. It is this person who can attempt to ensure that the person doing the bullying is provided with the emotional and social safety for whatever unconscious insecurity to come to consciousness so that he can be accountable for his threatening actions, by taking due responsibility and making recompense. When compassionate understanding is not present, the person who bullies will continue to do so and may be quite vehement that the rest of the world is out of step and that he has no problem. In a similar vein the persons who are at the receiving end of the intimidatory behaviour will continue to judge the person doing the bullying and will not come to realise their own defensive position of passivity. The key mature person will also create the opportunities for those who have been passive to become empowered so that the early experiences of being threatened are reported as soon as it happens. Of course, the latter depends upon the employee feeling that it is safe to report bullying and that decisive action will be taken to restore workplace wellbeing. The difficulty is that such safety has not been present and that those further up the line in management are often more intimidatory than those in the lower and middle management group. Those who head work organisations need to closely examine their level of maturity, but it is often the case that they too are as unconsciously imprisoned by their insecurities. What hope then is there for progress? What inevitably will emerge are major crises within the organisation and the hope is that such conflict will lead to mature help being sought outside for what has become a dark and threatening work organisation. The fall of the banks, other financial institutions, the property developers, the church and a heavily besieged government are examples of these ‘inevitable’ crises. However, there is not much evidence yet that an authentic examination is taking place of organisational heads’ insecurities, work relationships and work practices. If this does not emerge then the crises necessarily need to deepen in order to ‘wake-up’ those who hold the reins of power to take hold of the reins of maturity.

Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology including The Mature Manager