Compassion at Work: Five misconceptions and three ways to show it

Is it a must to show compassion at work? In the fast-paced corporate world, compassion has traditionally been seen as a nice to have. If you’re good at your job, being empathetic is a bonus. If you’re a thriving organisation, a compassionate work culture is the cherry on top. 

That view is quickly showing its cracks. In today’s working world, where mental health and inclusion are in the limelight, compassion is a core competency – both for people seeking professional success and for organisations pursuing growth. 

In a recent large-scale survey by Gartner, 9 in 10 HR leaders said that, in order to succeed in today’s work environment, business leaders need to focus on “human leadership”. And a study by EY found that employees across Asia Pacific are three times likelier to stay in their job if they feel a sense of belonging – which many respondents described as feeling that their ideas are heard and valued.

At Moments that Matter, we help organisations create inclusive work cultures where people belong and feel supported. We’ve found that employees at all seniority levels want to be more compassionate towards colleagues – but they often don’t know how to do it. What counts as compassion on a regular workday?

Whether you’re an employee seeking to enhance your interactions with colleagues, or a DEI leader striving to foster inclusivity, here’s a practical guide to help you understand what compassion really means in a work setting – and how to show it.

Compassion at work: Five misconceptions

❌ Compassion means feeling sorry for others: Feeling sorry for others is pity or sympathy. Empathy is about taking genuine interest in someone else’s experience and feelings. Compassion goes further: it’s empathy plus action. It involves communicating your desire to help.

❌ Compassionate colleagues are perceived as being “soft”: In fact, several studies have shown that compassionate leaders are perceived as stronger and are able to create more engaged, innovative and productive teams.

❌Compassion means fixing others’ problems: On the contrary – good listeners are often perceived as more empathetic than people who jump into giving advice. 

❌Compassion implies self-sacrifice: In reality, compassion should feel rewarding for the giver; not just the receiver. Research has shown that doing acts of kindness triggers feel-good dopamine and oxytocin processes. 

❌Compassion is a personality trait that you either have or you don’t: Though it’s true that affective empathy (the ability to feel other people’s feelings) may come more naturally to some, we’re all born with the capacity to be compassionate. Knowing how to behave compassionately, especially in a work setting, is an acquired skill. 

How to show compassion at work: The three C’s of compassion

We run entire seminars and workshops for leaders and employees at Fortune 500 companies on how to show compassion at work. A lot of it boils down to what we call the three C’s of compassion: checking in with yourself, cultivating a curious mindset, and having courageous conversations. Here are some ideas on how to work on these three pillars.

1.Check-ins with yourself

Have you ever felt so emotionally triggered that your intention to act compassionately goes out the window? If you have, you’re not alone. Studies have shown that states of emotional dysregulation – especially stress, anxiety and uncertainty – can act as “empathy blockers”.

The first step towards offering compassion to others is checking in with your own feelings and triggers. Before doing a performance review with a team member who you’ve been having friction with,  doing an honest self check-in and putting a name on what you’re feeling can set you up for a more compassionate conversation.

Another reason why compassion must start with yourself, especially as a leader, is because you have to walk the talk for others to believe it. People with an overly self-critical manager are unlikely to feel that they’re part of a team where mistakes will be met with acceptance and support!

2.Curious mindset

Being genuinely interested in what a colleague is experiencing, thinking and feeling breaks down some of the biggest compassion blockers: indifference, judgment and defensiveness. Leaders who look at people and situations with fresh eyes and a genuine desire to learn are better able to foster not just compassion, but also collaboration, innovation and connection.

One way to practice curiosity at work is by being an active listener. Focus on really listening to others’ words and body language instead of mentally preparing for the next thing you want to say. Listen with the desire to understand; not to give advice. And make sure the other knows you’re really listening by paraphrasing, asking questions, and validating their feelings and perspectives. 

Curiosity isn’t just something you show during a conversation with a colleague. It’s important to educate yourself on common personal challenges others go through, and how that impacts their work lives, so you’re better equipped to understand their reality. 

We regularly hold knowledge-sharing sessions about perinatal challenges, parental burnout, perimenopause, loss and grief, all with the double purpose of supporting those going through these challenges as well as educating their colleagues so they know how to offer better support. 

3.Courageous conversations

If saying nice things would be the key trait of a compassionate colleague, things would be quite straightforward. What compassion often requires is actually the opposite – it’s having the courage to have uncomfortable but necessary conversations. 

When a colleague who reports to you has been underperforming and you know they’re going through a challenging time in their personal life, the compassionate thing to do isn’t to keep praising their work and ignoring their mistakes. It’s having the courage to ask how they’re doing, and how you could support them.

Work life is full of fleeting, awkward interactions that may not feel like the right moment to delve into a deeper conversation. But when you know a conversation is needed, rather than resting on the excuse that there hasn’t been a good moment for it, try offering (or asking) to set up a time to talk about it. Scheduling a chat takes some pressure away from the here and now, and gives both parties time to mentally prepare (and emotionally self-regulate) for an empathetic exchange.


How would you rate yourself in the three C’s of compassion? If you’re not sure where you’re standing (and where others perceive you to be) on the compassionate leadership spectrum, take this Compassionate Leadership self-assessment, by renowned organisational advisors at Potential Project. More importantly than getting a rating on the compassion scale, it’ll help you reflect on your strengths and gaps to work on. 

Wanting to work on being more compassionate at work is a positive thing – but let’s also remember that we’re all human. Being aware of this is actually at the heart of true empathy. So, as we try to improve ourselves, let’s not forget to give ourselves – and our colleagues – a margin of error and a second chance! 

Ready to help your leaders and employees be the compassionate teammates they want to be? Find out more about our Compassion at Work programmes by scheduling a discovery call with us today.