How important is compassion in a company?

Apr 2, 2012, 6:05 PM | Updated: Apr 3, 2012, 6:47 am

Dalai LamaA few years ago 65,000 people filled the football stadium in Seattle to hear the Dalai Lama speak about compassion toward others. Now there’s a push to bring that good karma to local corporations.

Organizers of the Dalai Lama’s visit are expanding with a week-long effort in Seattle to help businesses develop cultures of compassion, at their request.

“Business people have looked into the abyss of what happens when selfishness is allowed to run riot and when you’re simply leeching from the community instead of putting something back,” says author Karen Armstrong, speaking on behalf of the Compassionate Action Network. “If we don’t behave in a more compassionate way treating all people as we would want to be treated, we’re not going to have a viable, sustainable world.”

Compassion isn’t just a matter of “feeling good so we all have a nice warm glow,” she says, real compassion is essential for a company’s survival in a global community.

The Seattle Times is running a series of reports that lead readers to believe Amazon.com doesn’t do much for the community. While Microsoft gave $4 million to United Way of King County and Boeing donated $3.1 million. The Times points out Amazon gave nothing, while it continues to “wring big discounts from publishers.”

Armstrong thinks we should refrain from judging Amazon from the outside, but many companies such as Google have found if they treat their employees more compassionately and give more back to the community, “the whole ethos” of the business changes for the better.

Starbucks says that has been its experience too. Howard Behar, the coffee company’s former international president says Starbucks doesn’t look at its people as “assets” but rather considers them human beings first. Behar, who is also a part of the events in Seattle this week, says he coached hundreds of leaders at every level in the company preaching the importance of “people over profits.”

Compassion – caring for another person’s situation and being empathetic with what they’re going through – doesn’t seem difficult. Armstrong believes compassion is intrinsic in all human beings, but it’s also something that’s easy to forget at work.

“We define ourselves against other people,” she says. “Sometimes when I talk about compassion I see people looking mutinous, thinking, ‘Can’t I ever sound off against my dreadful boss or a country where we’re at war?’ Being angry gives us a buzz like the first drink of the evening where you get a sort of high off it. This is an addiction and it’s dangerous.”

Our problem, she says, is that our brains are still wired to be competitive.

“Without this drive to get food and beat others to get food our species wouldn’t survive, so we need this survival mechanism. But this brain mechanism developed in a time of scarcity when there really wasn’t enough to go around, only the fittest survived,” says Armstrong. ” We haven’t figured out how to deal with this drive in an environment of plenty.”

By LINDA THOMAS

Mary Altaffer/AP photo from the Dalai Lama’s April 2008 visit to Seattle

Related: Compassion Action Network free business event in Seattle

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How important is compassion in a company?