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Skeptics notwithstanding, business increasingly embraces care and compassion, leading management journal says

January 1, 2013

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170,

"A groundswell of interest in fostering compassionate institutions"

It was a ray of light in the dark days after 9/11: "As the bare-knuckled center of capitalism scrambled to get back on its feet, Wall Street veterans extended a helping hand to...their competitors."

So begins an unusual special number of a leading management journal, coincidentally but aptly published amid the good will of the holiday season and the optimism that accompanies a new year.

The principal message of this special issue of the Academy of Management Review is that care and compassion in the business world are not just rare occurrences that emerge in extreme circumstances, like the aftermath of 9/11. On the contrary, they are "central" to everyday organizational life, "a natural and living representation of people's humanity in the workplace."

The 18,000 members of the Academy of Management consist overwhelmingly of faculty at schools of business across the globe, and, while care and compassion are not widely viewed by the public as core values of business, they have been core interests of the Academy. "Dare to Care" was the theme of the organization's annual meeting in 2010, and the special issue of theAcademy of Management Review, accompanied by the attached panel discussion produced for the Academy's Web site, testifies to  the compelling nature of the subject for scholars and the considerable research devoted to it.

Nor is this keen interest unique to the Academy of Management. According to Prof. Jane Dutton of the University of Michigan, one of the leading researchers on this subject and a co-editor of the special issue of AMR, recent years have seen "a groundswell of interest in fostering compassionate institutions." She cites as examples the Compassion Action Network, conceived at a week-long 2008 gathering in Seattle called "Seeds of Compassion"; the International Working Group of Compassionate Organizations, scheduled to hold its first international summit in Louisville, Kentucky in May; and Stanford University's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, which will convene its first conference on compassion and business in the spring.

What accounts for these developments? A major factor, according to the article introducing the special issue, is "a paradigm shift in the social sciences that emphasizes neurological, psychological, and sociological bases of human interrelating that have other-interest as opposed to self-interest at their core. These accounts, sometimes closely aligned with evolutionary theories of human development, give new insights into the power and pervasiveness of compassion and caregiving systems as central to human survival and flourishing."

The message, in fact, seems to have reached even those traditionally most focused on self-interest as key to understanding the world -- namely, economists. Comments Harvard management professor Joshua D. Margolis, a participant in the AOM's Web-site panel: "It is fascinating to see how economists themselves are now attempting to incorporate more than self-interested behavior into their theoretical models. Relational contracting, based on a much richer concept of social interaction than pure self-interest, seems to be enjoying a growing influence in economics."

Meanwhile an increasing body of research in management and the behavioral sciences is providing evidence that the presence of caring and compassion in organizations is in large part dependent on how the organizations are structured and led and does not require a miraculous change in human nature or a golden age of altruism. Moreover, introducing into formal organizations the informal give-and-take that characterizes caring personal relationships offers a means to realize a management goal that is often yearned for but still rarely achieved - how to retain the considerable virtues of small organizations in large ones.

Spelling this out in an article entitled "Relational Bureaucracy: Structuring Reciprocal Relationships into Roles," Jody Hoffer Gittell of Brandeis University and Anne Douglass of the University of Massachusetts Boston argue for combining two organizational forms that superficially seem incompatible, the relational and the bureaucratic. "Our proposed relational bureaucratic hybrid," the professors write, "integrates the strengths of the relational form (reciprocal relationships) with the strengths of the bureaucratic form (role-based relationships) while counteracting their weaknesses -- excessive reliance on personal relationships on the one hand and excessive reliance on fragmented, hierarchical relationships on the other."

Southwest Airlines has been much praised for combining the two, but it is hardly unique in doing so, according to the panel. "I've seen health-care organizations that do it well," Prof. Gittell says. "I would guess Google does it quite well. It's really not rocket science...What makes it challenging is that we're so used to traditional bureaucracy that it takes some real thinking to move beyond it."

Another panelist, Prof. Sally Maitlis of the University of British Columbia, points to the Conscious Capitalism Institute, a group whose members include a variety of firms (such as Nordstrom, Patagonia, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, and the Container Store) companies that, in Prof. Maitlis' words, "believe in capitalism with a purpose beyond profits.'' She adds that "it is not all that unusual to find organizations that are moving in the direction that Prof. Gittell has described."

To what extent, then, does the business community believe in care and compassion? The panel concedes that there is some distance to go (Prof. Gittell estimates that "we're probably at the 25% mark"), while insisting that the evidence for their value has increased considerably. As Harvard's Prof. Margolis puts it, "We are on the cusp of concrete empirical data that can truly convince people that these things are not only consistent with high performance and profitability but, under the right conditions, conducive to them."

At the same time, Prof. Maitlis acknowledges that her MBA students react to her talk about care and compassion with some degree of confusion. "They will say, 'I thought it was this way. This is what I've seen modeled where I worked, but now you're telling us this is the other way to lead. Is it really true? Could it be possible to lead this way and still do well in my career and still run a company successfully?' "

She concludes: "There's a certain interest among students in these ideas and even an openness to considering them. But there is also this suspicion that they can't really be true, because how could life be that straightforward?"

The Academy of Management Review is published quarterly by the Academy which, with about 18,000 members in more than 100 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Perspectives, andAcademy of Management Learning and Education. The AMR special issue on care and compassion is the Oct/Dec issue.

Note: The panel discussion cited in this press release, moderated by Prof. Sara L. Rynes of the University of Iowa, as well as Prof. Jane Dutton's video introduction to the discussion are accessible from the Academy of Management website,


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