Fake compassion (in)action?

Organisations, Values No Comments

I am just back from Sweden, where I found all train, hotel and airport staff hugely kind and helpful.  I loved the cheery greetings of ‘hay’.  I was so struck by the culture that I looked on Google to see if online troll-like behaviours, or ODE, were less likely in the land of the Trolls .  Sadly I couldn’t find anything to support this hunch!

However, when on the train to the airport (with phenomenally fast internet speeds, by the way), someone sent me this piece on compassion in health care from the Daily Mail.  At the end of the piece, I note some comments verge on the uncivil – and interestingly the ‘worst’ rated comments are the ones supporting Dr Smajdor (with some of the early trollish ones apparently removed at the time of publishing this blog).

Having read the piece, it makes me wonder more about what the vilified author was actualy trying to convey.  For me, the piece made me reflect on the difference between compassion (a feeling) and kindness (an act).

You might know of our interest in compassion in health care, at www.idenk.com/compassion from 2008 and this, a bit more recently. Actually, with hindsight, we would have probably been much better to be part of a social movement for greater warmth and kindness…and maybe the NHS Constitution is not that helpful using the ‘C’ word.


Some days it is hard to feel compassion (even after hours of mindfulness or Buddhist meditation)….and some people are hard to love at any time.

So kindness is good enough.

Actually this is true in all sectors: civility and helpfulness is the benchmark in a shop or restaurant too. The author Caitlin Moran argues that at the heart of all civil rights movements is the demand to be nice to each other. US academic Bob Sutton points out that jerks in teams are the bane of organisational life.

So all any of us need to do (in any sector and any role), is to act kindly to our customers and co-workers – act warmly, even if frustrated.  This is something I have personally learnt (and keep relearning) the hard way (!) through conflicts and judgements I would now rather avoid.

And what we might find is, that when we overrule our emotions with our logic (as in CBT), our feelings actually change.

For a few decades now, in western countries, we have all had to to be nice in public to those who are gay or from a minority ethnic community, for example. I don’t think it is unrelated that now opinion polls support gay marriage and we are more tolerant to people with different non-white skin colour.

This ‘fake it till you make it’ route might work in health care too…

…in today’s UK health system, post Mid Staffs, it is increasingly the case that staff are no longer allowed to appear unkind. However, it should be ok not to feel compassion I reckon – and be open about this in 1:1 supervisions, for example (honesty that will help avoid burnout and cynicism along the way too).  This act first (and feel it later) approach will end up shifting the culture faster, I predict.  And if you are doing this surrounded by colleagues acting the same, it actually might be quite easy…

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