A positive culture is compassionate

The Realizing a Compassionate Planet conference took place at the same time as the Glasgow climate conference COP26. And for good reason as climate change solutions start with compassion. Does your organization care for the climate? Does your organizational culture embrace compassion? Here’s part 1 with some reflections on compassion and climate – relevant for organizations, leadership, and positive organizational cultures.

The University of Edinburgh’s Global Compassion Initiative, the Global Health Academy and the Center for Technomoral Futures, and Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) organized an abundance of conversations, art, and ideas from different perspectives: economical, political, technological, health-wise, and so on.

The conference playfully inspires with the children’s book The Lorax from Dr. Seuss. This tale from 1971 about environmental destruction features the Lorax, who “speaks for the trees” against the Once-ler who builds a business on Truffula trees and ignores the Lorax’ warnings – until the forest is gone and the business goes down. In the end, the Once-ler gives a boy the last Truffula seed and urges him to grow a forest. “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” This is for all of us. Citizens, politicians, leaders and employees in organizations. If we care, we act.

This is about my grandchildren

James R. Doty, director of the Center for Compassion says during the opening: “If we are to be successful in this existential threat we need compassion. The enormity of the climate crisis is a powerful force – we can match that with compassion to unleash the powerful force of humanity. We need to think differently and realize that our health and happiness depend on the state of the planet. Let’s combine climate science and compassion science.”
Dave Reay, Director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute, puts it simple and impactful: “This isn’t about work – it’s about my children and grandchildren. It’s so important.” What more motivation do you need? Do you care? We should help the south, for instance. We need global compassion. “We need indigenous people to help preserve the Amazone as the lungs of the world.”
Forget Shareka of the Life Hope Future Association adds: “Bangladesh is suffering from greenhouse gas and floods. We need compassion to realize that people are suffering. Ask yourself what you can do about it.”
Compassion narrows the gap between us and people far away, who are affected first by climate change. Compassion can also bridge the distance in time: how will this affect the seventh generation?

That question can be discouraging, though. Many of us are overwhelmed by the bad news and feel powerless. However, everyone makes a difference at home and at work. Influence the people around you to think differently, for instance. Influence them to act compassionately and climate-savvy. This goes for organizations as well. How can your organization contribute to society, the market, clients, to employees? How to lower your carbon emissions? How to add more compassion? Start local and do your part.

We need hope – that comes from the session with Jane Goodall, the famous researcher and activist for chimpanzees. Jane: “I grew up in Africa and I loved animals. I learned from nature at an early stage.” Based on the research of Jane Dutton and Monica Worline (see their book: Awakening compassion at work) Goodall illustrates the four stages of compassion.

Notice, connect, feel, and act!

Jane Goodall walks us through: “The first stage of compassion is to notice suffering. If you don’t notice then nothing happens. That’s why I worry about young people with ear buds listening to music but not noticing the world.
The second stage is forming the relationship between you and the other, I did that with chimpanzees. In cities, we lose connection to the natural world – there’s concrete all around. It’s a disconnect and it would help to bring nature in the cities. But also in the countryside, people are glued to their electronic devices. There’s a disconnect from nature everywhere and we suffer the consequences. Feeling connected to nature gives another meaning to life. We are not separate, we are part of the animal kingdom.
The third stage of compassion is feeling with the other – that emerges from connecting. My mentor at Cambridge said that I should number the chimpanzees not name them. It was research, I should be detached. But I disagreed. We need empathy and connection. Chimpanzees are not objectives and we can still do proper research.
We give primacy to the rational brain and forgot the relations. But only when head and heart work together can we attain our true human potential.
The fourth stage of compassion is what actions to take from noticing and connecting and feeling. In 1998 I was flying over the Gambi and I saw diminishing forests. That changed my course. I started to work with local people.”

Take action where you are

Goodall concludes: “If you’re not compassionate and hear the doom and gloom, you lose hope. Then we are doomed indeed. We have to take action where we are: we can all do something every day. Compassion and hope can help us take action. I find it encouraging how many big corporations are starting to heal the harm that was done. Some start with social issues, such as paying their workers well. And that will lead them to care about nature.”
Compassion starts somewhere and spreads. If your workers earn living wages, they don’t have to burn down the forests for extra money, for instance. Social and environmental issues are often intertwined.

“If you feel overwhelmed and doomed – don’t hide in your home”, says Olga Bloemen, grassroots trainer and facilitator. “Just choose one topic you’d like to improve. Connect with a local group and start working on it.” You’re not alone. Together we must take action – we still have a chance. This is the critical decade until 2030.

The good news is that more and more people are waking up to the notion that we must act quick to slow down climate change. More governments, NGO’s, and companies, too. Business is doing its part – it’s not all greed. B-corporations try to be a force for good in the world. If you want optimism and actionable ideas: read Net Positive, the new book by Paul Polman (Unilever’s ex-CEO) and Andrew Winston. Organizations can do a lot to contribute to the world – while making a profit and repairing what was broken. A positive culture has a positive purpose and makes it happen. A positive culture is compassionate and cares. Climate challenges aren’t a separate topic that you read about in the paper. The climate is crucial and relevant to your work, your organization, your leadership, and your organizational culture.

Change is a numbers game that starts slowly with a handful of ideas and then takes on. Climate and social challenges that were dismissed before, are now taken seriously by more people. It takes 20 to 25% of a population to start thinking and doing differently before you reach a tipping point in a system. Hopefully, we’re reaching that soon: the point where it has become mainstream thinking and acting to solve the environmental and social challenges we face today. Your customers want to engage with good and green organizations. Get together and review your vision, mission, strategy and goals. Practice compassion and start developing a positive culture.

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