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September 20, 2013

Emergent Organizational Capacity for Compassion

University of Nebraska–Lincoln E. J. Faulkner Professor of Management Dennis Duchon and colleagues study how organizations can develop the capacity for compassion without formal direction.

People often speculate about why organizations aren’t more humane or what policies should be put in place to make them more compassionate. Duchon and his colleagues argue top management does not have to plan exactly how organizations can become more humane, more compassionate toward its members – compassionate qualities can emerge spontaneously. The research is based on ideas from natural and social sciences concerning how complex systems can be adaptive, self-regulating and transformed.  

Organizations are complex systems comprised of people performing a job in a specific role to achieve the goals of the organization. When the system conditions of agent diversity, interdependent roles and social interactions change, it enhances the likelihood of self-organizing around an individual response to a pain trigger.

“Commonly, systems formally ‘re-organize’ the arrangement of roles as a way of adapting to changes in the environment such as changing market conditions, a shrinking economy or changes in government regulations. But changing the arrangement of roles does not necessarily require a mandate,” Duchon said.

When agents modify their roles to incorporate compassionate responding, the system changes and a new order emerges: organizational capacity for compassion. Even though employees have considerable latitude to perform their job, a disequilibrium can spontaneously motivate modifications of normal routines throughout the network.

Under the right conditions, a compassionate act by one employee can amplify through the system, ultimately changing the entire organization. Duchon and his colleagues examined how a fire in student housing prompted the faculty and staff of a Big Ten business school to modify normal routines to care for students who did not have a place to live or clothes to wear.
“As a result of the fire, the business school incorporated the importance of human compassion into its value system, its formal policies and its arrangement of roles,” he said.  

The study was published in the Academy of Management Review in 2012. Coauthors of the study include Laura T. Madden of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Timothy M. Madden of Old Dominion University and Donde Ashmos Plowman of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Research abstract located at http://amr.aom.org/content/37/4/689.abstract.