Cultivating compassion

What do we mean when we talk about ethics and compassion in business? In a visit to Santa Clara, the Dalai Lama suggested three things to keep in mind.

Santa Clara University occupies an intersection where the 450-year tradition of Jesuit education meets the most innovative business environment in the world. What better place than the SCU campus for the Dalai Lama, himself a steward of a centuries-old religion, to discuss the importance of compassion in business?

In February 2014, in front of an audience of nearly 4,000 and in dialogue with Silicon Valley business leaders and in conversation with students, the Dalai Lama imparted his strong view of compassion’s place in the world. Kirk O. Hanson—the director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at SCU, which co-hosted the event with Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research—shares some of the wisdom from the Dalai Lama, and how this advice is very relevant in today’s Valley. Jeff Gire



For a generation, the 14th Dalai Lama has traveled the world speaking of the importance of compassion, not just as a Buddhist virtue but as a human trait that brings solace to the beneficiaries of the compassion—and happiness to the compassionate person. Indeed, the Dalai Lama contends that cultivating compassion as a personal trait is the only way to achieve both a peaceful world and genuine personal happiness. In recent years, he has collaborated with neuroscientists to demonstrate that in physiology and psychology, science can show how a compassionate mind is a happy mind.In his extensive travels, the Dalai Lama has spoken to every type of audience—some religious, some secular. Rarely, however, has he spoken to and with business audiences. But this was a primary purpose of his trip to the United States in February and March. He accepted invitations to speak to a group of Silicon Valley executives convened by Santa Clara University and to Washington-based business leaders convened by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. At Santa Clara he also met with students—something which clearly brings him great joy, and on which he places great value.

For the Dalai Lama’s visit to Santa Clara on Feb. 24, some 3,700 tickets for a morning public event were snapped up in less than 15 minutes. Dignity Health CEO Lloyd Dean held a dialogue with the 78-year-old spiritual leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner. For an invitation-only discussion in the afternoon, 400 Silicon Valley leaders sat in on a session featuring Adobe co-founder Charles Geschke, former biotech CEO and Intel Chair Jane Shaw, and scholar Monica Worline. They talked in greater depth with the Dalai Lama about whether compassion can and should play a strong role in business—particularly in the intensely competitive world of Silicon Valley.

The Dalai Lama had three core messages for the Silicon Valley audience, including a couple that will be hard for the Valley to accept and put in practice.


One: I think the first message was expected: Genuine compassion toward your employees, customers, communities, and business partners pays off—in more loyal employees, more enthusiastic and forgiving customers, supportive communities, efficient and productive business partnerships. So far, so good. Many, if not most, Silicon Valley leaders buy into the notion that treating your stakeholders well is good business—most of the time. The Dalai Lama added that being compassionate is also the only path to true happiness for the individual, and so is its own reward.

Two: The Dalai Lama’s second message was harder to take: You can’t fake compassion—and it cannot just be a strategy to increase earnings. Compassion can’t be just a clever and manipulative way of increasing profits. You have to actually care—deeply—about your employees and customers and communities and business partners. You have to be willing to spend money today to show care and compassion—even though you don’t know where or when you might reap future returns on that investment.

The implications: You need to have that care and compassion foremost in your mind when you develop products, design services, and deal with customer complaints and inevitable tumult in the personal lives of employees. You cannot ignore the needs of employees or aggrieved customers when it is too costly; you cannot dismiss quality or privacy concerns when you absolutely need to ship a product this quarter.

You can imagine how this sounded to a room filled with hard-driving Silicon Valley executives. They may agree in the abstract, but this kind of wisdom is hard to implement and may directly contradict much of the culture and experience of the Valley. There is, I’ve witnessed, a commendable but occasionally dysfunctional drive in Silicon Valley to “get it done” no matter what. There is a palpable fear that paying attention to anything but designing, introducing, and shipping products may be fatal to the business. We have seen that this can cause both new and established Silicon Valley businesses to put aside compassion—and occasionally even basic ethical behavior—until another day.

Three: The Dalai Lama’s third message was particularly hard for a world that encourages you to be on 24/7: You have to make a deliberate effort to cultivate compassion in yourself. This means setting aside time to develop a habit and capacity for compassion. It is not something you simply adopt one day. But even in our frantic Silicon Valley environs, it is still possible, the Dalai Lama believes, to become more compassionate. There are many techniques, among them meditation and deliberate and regular reflection on the needs of others, and on our impact on their lives.

He went further, telling leaders who want to create compassionate companies that they must teach compassion to their managers and employees—or else they will never create a consistently compassionate, ethical, and responsive organization.


How to respond to the Dalai Lama’s challenge to Silicon Valley is not immediately clear. While many Silicon Valley companies pride themselves on creating good workplaces for their employees—some characterized by fitness facilities and free food—there is almost always a tough business logic to it. Perhaps: “Feed them well and they will stay around and work longer hours.” Silicon Valley is a place where you keep up or you are cut from the team that is sprinting toward an IPO or a sale to Google or Cisco. It is a place where privacy violations repeatedly occur because every startup must “monetize its eyeballs.” The notion of compassion can sound weak in such a sink-or-swim culture.

The challenge for all of us in Silicon Valley is to find ways to integrate compassion into firms that also must remain on the cutting edge of technology and global competition.

The challenge for Santa Clara University is to integrate the Dalai Lama’s message with our long-standing commitment to create graduates that demonstrate compassion. The Dalai Lama’s visit dramatized for us how important that task is—and how difficult it is in the business culture in which many of our graduates work. The challenge is also how to harmonize the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist and secular understandings of compassion with Santa Clara’s Ignatian and Catholic frameworks.

Kirk O. Hanson is the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. He is also John Courtney Murray S.J. University Professor of Social Ethics.

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