11 qualities of compassion in the workplace

“What many managers and leaders do not recognize is that compassion at work is not soft and fuzzy” – Monica Worline & Jane Dutton

Pain and suffering in the workplace can manifest in a number of ways. Conflict between colleagues, poor customer service, under-performance and absence from work are just a few examples. In my experience, one of the main things that is missing is compassion. Be that compassion by a manager to a member of staff (or vice versa), or compassion by an employee to a customer who desperately needs help.

“Compassion for the people you love is great, I’m all in favour of that, but if you can develop open compassion beyond those people you like, your friends or circles of preference, towards the people you don’t like, the people who are different to you, the people who are not like you, then that becomes very important” – Professor Paul Gilbert in The Psychologist, Feb 2018

A recent study published in Nurse Education Today explored the qualities of compassion in nursing, along with how compassion can be taught and measured. If the study’s focus on nursing has you thinking, “this blog post isn’t for me” then think again. The findings in this study has relevance for all of us in the workplace, not just specifically nurses. If you’re in a people management role then this post is definitely for you.

The research

The UK research team focused on three questions:

  1. What are the qualities of a compassionate nurse?;
  2. How is compassion taught to nursing students?; and
  3. What types of instruments are used to measure compassion in nursing?

The researchers conducted a systematic review of the literature. Once their criteria had been applied they looked at 21 studies. 14 of the studies specifically related to the qualities of a compassionate nurse; 3 focused on how compassion is taught to nursing students; and 4 looked at how compassion is measured in nursing.

The findings


11 qualities were identified:

  1. Character;
  2. Connecting to and knowing the patient;
  3. Awareness of needs/suffering;
  4. Empathy;
  5. Communication;
  6. Body language;
  7. Involving patients;
  8. Having time for patients;
  9. Small acts;
  10. Emotional strength; and
  11. Professional competence

The researchers concluded that a clearly defined theoretical framework for compassion in nursing is missing.


A mix of online and face-to-face methods were typically used, which mainly took a modular approach. Subjects typically covered were identified as:

  • Communication skills
  • Assertiveness skills
  • Emotional strength
  • Resilience
  • Self-compassion
  • Practicing compassion toward others

In addition, four key learning themes were found:

  1. Being present;
  2. Acting to relieve suffering;
  3. Getting the basics right; and
  4. Going forward

The researchers concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence that demonstrated a consistently effective approach. This was exacerbated by the low quality and quantity of the studies.


The researchers found four instruments specifically used in the nursing field. These were:

  1. The Compassionate Care Assessment Tool (CCAT) – developed in America, this is a 28-item scale split into four sub-scales of meaningful connections; patient expectations; caring attributes; and capable practitioner.
  2. The Calm, Compassionate Care Scale (CCCS) – developed in America, this is a 10-item scale which assesses clinician confidence.
  3. The Compassion Scale – developed in America, this is an instrument which asks patients to evaluate compassion in nurses.
  4. The Compassion Competence Scale – developed in Korea, this is a 17-item scale split across three factors of communication, sensitivity and insight.

The researchers were concerned that no measure seemed to have been developed for UK nurses, thereby highlighting a potential gap in research and practice. They also raised concerns with the validity of the four instruments they did find.

Implications and solutions

While this study has a specific focus on nursing, some of the findings offer some helpful insight for managers and HR/L&D practitioners. If nothing else, the study gives a template for good questions that organisations can be asking themselves around the practice and impact of compassion.

Some key things that managers and practitioners can do:

  1. Find out what compassion means specifically for your organisation and then assess where the strengths and weaknesses are. You can always use the 11 qualities identified in the study as a starting point (swapping the word ‘patient’ for ‘customer’). Once you have a clearer idea of what compassion looks like for your organisation you can design meaningful interventions, such as workshops or online learning modules.
  2. Talk about what compassion means for your team in your next team meeting. Why not use this quote by Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, from their book Awakening Compassion, as a starting point for the discussion, “The science of compassion shows us that if you are physically present but psychologically absent, we telegraph our lack of interest and disengagement through posture, body language, lack of eye contact, and a failure to ask questions”.
  3. When measuring customer satisfaction make sure you ask specifically about compassion. This is particularly important for organisations who provide services for vulnerable people in need.
  4. Actively look for, recognise and reward acts of compassion. Adam Grant talks about the concept of moral elevation in an episode of his podcast, Work Life. Moral elevation is the feeling you get when you see someone else’s goodness which is infectious.

Did you find this post helpful? I’d love to know, so Tweet me, or drop me a note on LinkedIn. If you have any colleagues that you feel should read this, too, please share it with them. I’d really appreciate it.

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