Compassion and Courage at work

Compassion at work?

With Mental Health Awareness Week upon us it felt a very appropriate time to be joining a conference on Compassion in Leadership. The conference was the brainchild of Professor Paul Gilbert, author of The Compassionate Mind (2009, Constable and Robinson) and founder of The Compassionate Mind Foundation.

Mr Gilbert’s opening address set a clear steer for the discussions, compassion is not an airy fairy soft topic. It is about courage, having the courage to overcome instinctive fear responses, and face the difficult challenges and situations. Offering the supporting hand, asking the difficult question, facing-down the inappropriate actions. As such he laid out a challenge; are we stimulating the right qualities and behaviours in the workplace?

What is our mind up to?

His assertion: we are over stimulating the wrong emotional systems. And this creates tension, conflict and stress. He outlines 3 base emotional systems: drive, threat and safety. The workplace has become highly effective at engaging the first two, these swamp the positive human behaviours within the third. All three are essential behaviours, but the third acts as a balance against the consuming nature of the first two; it’s role being to balance the exertions of drive and threat. A biological removing of the foot from the gas if you like.

Traditional autocratic and demanding leadership drives, and that drive creates risk, which in turn acts to overstimulate threat system, fear of failure, loss of role or status etc. We need downtime, we need to breathe.

The point? We need to know what our mind is up to. We need to understand it’s default behaviours. We need to be able to see it in action, whether it be driving us to unsupportable levels of performance, or trapping us in unproductive and unhealthy reactive states of fight or flight.

Developing a compassionate awareness of emotional behaviour, in ourselves and in others, invites us to act and to shift. It invites us to have the courage to turn and face these challenges which we know are having detrimental effects on mental-health and general wellbeing.

From my own practice as a mindfulness and somatic coach I see time and again how people are trapped in drive-fear cycles. Our behaviours are reflections of context and culture, it is too easy to point the fingers at individuals. The challenge is more systemic. The challenge is to create a space where we can return to the moment, and to reflect without judgement. This gives us a chance to gain some relief, even if it is only to turn down the dials for a few moments. Perhaps with time and practice we might change.

A new practice

Knowing how our brain works is liberating. It makes it less personal, it makes us less self critical. Such awareness facilitates a place where we might engage with alternative positive action. This is why Passe-Partout created the Personal Best programme (click here) which educates by sharing findings from neuroscience. It offers ways to behave that stimulate the positive neurotransmitters, Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins. Quite simply, guiding us to develop behaviours and skills that are good for us and good for our personal wellbeing.

And so it is with Paul Gilbert’s challenge, identify those things which stimulate the compassionate and human side of our nature, not override or obscure drive and threat, but to balance them and so to balance ourselves, and those around us inside and outside of the workplace.


Graeme Green

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