What Our Industry Needs Now in One Word: Compassion

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By Mike Caguin

2021 May 19

The following article was originally published in Ad Age.

As we recognize Mental Health Month in May, I wanted to offer a literal word of advice that may seem unlikely in an industry that’s known for its type A, work-till-you-drop, take-no-prisoners mentality. On the surface this word may seem weak, but it’s so powerful that it may just save you and your employees from burnout as the pandemic continues. It may even give you renewed energy and strengthen your relationships at work and at home (and we all know we could use a little more of that). This magical word? Compassion.

On a recent long-awaited family vacation, I read a book on mindfulness called “Peace Is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh. In it is a sentiment that captured everything we’ve all been through over the past year. “When we are in contact with another’s suffering, a feeling of compassion is born within us. Compassion means, literally, ‘to suffer with.’” One thing is for certain. We’ve all suffered together. Yet are we practicing enough compassion?

As we all look for ways to manage employee burnout and maximize engagement, practicing compassion can work wonders for you and your organization. Compassion can be an action toward solving real challenges. Here’s how.

Compassion breeds creativity

Last summer amid the protests and suffering, book sales about racism soared. Seeing the trend, a few people at my agency came up with an idea that we proactively pitched to Little Free Library. A few months later, Read in Color was born­—an initiative to distribute books that champion BIPOC and LGBTQ+ voices, provide perspectives on anti-racism and social justice and incorporate experiences from all races and identities for readers of all ages. Without fostering compassion throughout the agency, this idea never would have gained momentum.

Psychologist John Wakefield suggests that empathy allows problem finding, which paves the way to creative problem solving. While empathy and compassion are not the same, it’s fair to say they’re siblings who get along well.

Compassion leads to a culture of inclusion

When George Floyd was murdered last May, support for Black Lives Matter surged to 67%. Shortly thereafter, 600 & Rising was formed after 600 Black professionals in the industry signed an open letter calling for immediate change from the industry. Countless agencies, including mine, doubled down on their efforts with meaningful action. Without suffering alongside our Black co-workers and the Minneapolis community, our efforts wouldn’t have been as urgent. Compassion is bringing us together around our core values and the goal of creating real change. Inclusion is not only a recruitment and retention tool—it creates opportunities for employee involvement, increases creativity through diversity of perspectives and makes people feel proud of where they work.

Compassion can boost morale and performance

At our last monthly agency meeting, I virtually stood in front of our 200 employees and read aloud a three-page letter I had written expressing my gratitude and compassion for everything they’ve been through over the past year. Right afterward, two dozen people sent me messages saying how much they appreciated it—many even said that’s exactly what they needed to hear as we fight pandemic fatigue and burnout. According to the latest Gallup Poll, only 36% of employees consider themselves engaged at work, but when they are engaged it can increase their productivity and profitability by more than 20%. UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center sums it up perfectly as “Responding compassionately to workers not only improves their performance and loyalty, but also creates an atmosphere that is safe for learning, collaboration, and innovation—which all impact the bottom line.”

Self-compassion is a good place to start

If you’re anything like me and most leaders I know, you’re pretty hard on yourself. After all, you want to do right by your clients, employees and organization at the same time. We all know that’s quite the needle to thread, so keep in mind that in order to effectively and consistently take care of others, you must first take care of yourself. In 2020, I started dabbling with meditation and mindfulness. When 2021 arrived, I decided to double down. I meditate for 10 minutes every day to help center myself so I can be the best person, leader and coworker possible. It’s an incremental investment that’s accruing dividends as we speak. Whether it’s exercise, meditation or pursuing a hobby, engaging for even a minute or two each day will help you be kind to yourself. An article by Harvard Business Review last fall defined self-compassion this way: “Put simply, it means taking a perspective toward yourself as you would with a friend or colleague who is facing a setback or challenge.”

So, remember, the next time you’re facing that big project, winner-take-all pitch or pivotal moment as a leader, evoke these wise words of Prince. “Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.” There’s no telling where it will take you.

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