Guest Post: Mad About A Mistake At Work? Try This.


This week I have the pleasure of helping to promote the book Awakening Compassion At Work by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton. It is a definite must read for all organizations, leaders, managers and employees too!

Awakening Compassion At Work opens our eyes to the power of and importance of compassion in organizations and reveals caring as a competitive advantage that fuels innovation, service quality, adaptability, retention, and more.

The quiet power that elevates

Suffering in the workplace can rob us of humanity, dignity, and motivation. Often silent and left unaddressed, suffering is a costly drain on organization productivity and potential. Marshaling evidence from two decades of research with organizations in a variety of industries and sectors, scholars and consultants Monica Worline and Jane Dutton show us how small actions can have big effects. Offering a view of compassion that is grounded in the best of social science research and the new science of compassion, this book teaches four ways that anyone, regardless of position or role, can bring more compassion to their work lives. 

Going beyond each individual’s role in awakening compassion at work, Monica and Jane also reveal how managers, leaders, and change agents can diagnose the social architecture for compassion in their organizations. This work belongs on every organization’s strategic agenda, because creating conditions that draw out our capacity for compassion at work confers measurable competitive advantages in areas like innovation, collaboration, service quality, talent attraction and retention, and adaptability. Ultimately, as Monica and Jane write, “Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities.

The following is a special guest post from Monica Worline and Jane Dutton.

Mad About A Mistake At Work? Try This.

Sometimes a mistake at work is harmless. Other times a mistake can derail an entire organization. When that happens, the nice words about compassion at work that are easy to say when things are going great can fall by the wayside. Mistakes and oversights at work usually spark quick anger and blame.

Consider a technology firm that depends on processing millions of transactions a minute, where we recently visited with the internal information technology (IT) team. They told us a story of a big mistake they made in launching a new payment processing system. They went ahead, even though the engineering teams had warned them about a possible bug. It seemed unlikely to matter. Upon launch the bug brought the entire payment system down. The organization couldn’t take in any money or process any customer transactions. Each minute of downtime was costing thousands of dollars.

The IT team was in a pickle. They needed data from the engineering team to restore the service. But the engineering lead was so angry about how the IT team has ignored the warning about the bug that he did not want to share any information.

In this stew of anger and resentment, a senior director of engineering, Mei, saw that the organization was at great risk of continuing to lose money and lose human capability because of the cycle of blame between the divisions. She also saw that there was no easy solution, but she knew she needed compassion.

Our research, discussed in our book Awakening Compassion at Work, shows that leaders like Mei can make a big difference in their organizations when they help people make what we call more generous interpretations of the pain that comes with mistakes.

A more generous interpretation of the pain of a mistake involves tapping into some fundamental assumptions about people at work that interrupt our blaming stories about others. These are what we call positive default assumptions: that people are generally good, that most are capable, and that all are worthy of compassion. When we find ways to tap into these assumptions, we unlock compassion.

Mei called the engineering division together on an all-hands videoconference. She asked one of her direct reports to discuss the financial loss per minute caused by the downtime. But before she did that, she asked all of the engineers to remember that they were on the same team. She reminded them of their commitment to their customers. And she called on everyone to remember that they were part of one organization. It was time to focus on how the whole organization wanted the best, was doing its best, and needed to pull together.

It wasn’t that Mei was letting the IT team’s mistake slide. But in the wake of the erroneous decision to launch, Mei was able to tap into compassion instead of blame. She interpreted the IT team’s actions generously—they were trying to enable better service, after all. They were good and capable, no matter this one error. They wanted and needed help and they deserved compassion. Mei’s leadership called attention to these generous interpretations. It stopped the bleeding and allowed the blame cycle to subside. Mei’s compassionate leadership also sped up the corrective action to get the organization’s systems up and running again as fast as possible.

So, the next time you’re mad about a mistake at work, try a generous interpretation. Instead of feeding your angry story of blame, catch yourself. Stop. Take a deep breath and see if you can call up some curiosity about what happened. Remind yourself that everyone in your organization is good, capable, and worthy of compassion. Then take your next action from that stance. You’ll find a whole new world of learning and growth opens up where you might least expect it—right there in the midst of the mistake that made you so mad.

Do you have a story of a generous interpretation of suffering and compassion for errors at work? We’d love to hear it!


About the Authors

Monica Worline, PhD, is CEO of EnlivenWork. She is a research scientist at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and Executive Director of CompassionLab, the world’s leading research collaboratory focused on compassion at work.

Jane Dutton, PhD, is the Robert L. Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Business Administration and Psychology and cofounder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the Ross School of Business. She has written over 100 articles and published 13 books, including Energize Your Workplace and How to Be a Positive Leader. She is also a founding member of the CompassionLab.

Their new book, Awakening Compassion at Work, available now on Amazon, reveals why opening our eyes to the power of compassion is smart business.


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