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Jerry Brady: How compassion can make workplaces better

How do we treat one another at work? Are we colleagues, collaborators, teammates and cheerleaders? Or are we sometimes quite the opposite? Do we embody our highest and best values at work, or is the workplace somehow more macho and bruising?

A recent New York Times story described how Amazon accumulates vast amounts of data on its employees — including employees reporting on one another — to drive performance upward. Its culture was described as “bruising” and “Darwinian,” with frequent tearful breakdowns (although some said they were “thrilled” by the tempo and accountability).

A follow-up AP report suggests modern companies may replace annual reviews with a constant stream of data about employee performance, plus frequent short surveys gauging how they’re feeling — a kind of Fit Band for corporate culture.

This is a column about compassion in business. Today’s subject is about compassion within businesses. Not so long ago this wouldn’t be a subject to consider. Owners owned, bosses bossed, and employees did as they were told and trained.

Then along came the “human resource” profession. Forty years ago, the Human Resource Association of Treasure Valley did not exist; now it has 400 members. State and federal workplace regulations go back less than 100 years. Thanks to both, workplaces are today more safe, humane and egalitarian. Yet Amazon is hardly an outlier. Another Times story reported that 50 percent of American workers reported being “treated rudely at work” the week before being interviewed in 2011. A third article said that 40 percent of bosses feel they have “no time to be nice at work,” lest they be perceived as weak and ineffective.

So do “nice guys finish last” as Leo Durocher famously said? One set of Harvard Business Review articles confirms that, yes, disagreeable and pushy individuals are more successful. Moreover, companies like Uber that ride roughshod into the market can be very successful very fast. However that’s only part of the story. Another set of HBV articles says compassionate, conscientious companies are far more successful and their employees happier, healthier, more loyal and productive than the S&P 500 average.

Twice in the week this column was written I heard about “empathy” as a newly-emphasized value in a Boise workplace. Both comments came from lawyers managing between 35-50 attorneys and support staff at large, local enterprises. “What does empathy mean to you?” I asked one. “To walk in the shoes of the other,” came the reply. Precisely.

Compassion has many definitions. Empathy is one aspect. Others are as simple as listening, affirming and caring. If you apply such virtues at work, we’d like to know about it. Perhaps next month we’ll write here about books and other sources which are driving culture in the right direction at the place where you work. Let me know.

Faced with the Times story, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos said “Our tolerance for such lack of empathy needs to be zero.” There’s that word again. Maybe even at Amazon.