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Celebrating individual grit may lead to a compassion deficit, researchers suggest

April 24, 2024

Toronto - If the world is feeling meaner and short on empathy lately, maybe it’s time to reflect on how we’ve been helped through hard times by other people.

New research from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management has identified an underrecognized aspect of individual resilience – the influence of our relationships on how we cope with personal challenges.

It might seem that facing life’s headwinds should make people more sensitive and caring towards others in the same situation. But past research findings on that are mixed – kindness prevails in some studies while others reveal remarkable hardheartedness, sometimes with a sense that “I got through it. Why can’t you?” Such was the case for Rotman organizational behaviour professors Rachel Ruttan and Katherine DeCelles who had each independently investigated compassion for many years, with occasionally contradictory results.

In comparing notes, “one key theme that emerged was that there were many different ways in how people made sense of their ability to overcome life’s hardships and that this may explain the divergent results,” said Ruttan, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management. “We decided to empirically test this together.”

The researchers ran different experiments with people who had faced challenges such as unemployment, bereavement, quitting smoking, workplace bullying and coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. Across them all, they found that crediting others for getting through difficulties was a distinct contributor to resilience – separate from other external influences such as luck or access to a helpful medication. Past research has typically lumped those external factors together rather than teasing them apart.

And only this “relational resilience” predicted that a person would respond more compassionately to those facing the same experience. Probing further, research participants who credited others’ support and showed higher rates of compassion also reported more gratitude – generally and specifically for the help they got.

The trouble is, that’s not the way we generally view our past difficulties. Among the hundreds of people who participated in the research, most revealed a tendency to believe they got through tough times largely on their own steam, a “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” idea that is commonly celebrated in Western culture.

That’s something to be careful about when thinking about how to build stronger, more collaborative and resilient societies and organizations, the researchers warn.

“Many successful business leaders and entrepreneurs have overcome serious adversity in their lives and careers, and this resilience frequently becomes a critical part about the narratives we tell about their success,” said Prof. Ruttan. “However, maintaining compassion for others at work can lead to better teamwork, leadership, and job satisfaction, and the ‘bootstraps’ narrative has the potential to interfere with this.”

Is it possible to nudge people into a more compassionate attitude by getting them to recognize how they’ve been helped by others? Possibly, but the results were mixed when the researchers tried that in this latest research -- and it’s hard to recognize the influence of outside help if you never got it in the first place: “We think a reasonable connection to make is to increase helping behaviours towards those in need,” suggested Prof. Ruttan.

The paper was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.It was co-authored by DeCelles, a professor of organizational behaviour and human resource management and the Secretary of State Professorship in Organizational Effectiveness at the Rotman School, Ting Zhang, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and Sivahn B. Barli, a PhD student at UCLA Anderson School of Management.

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Ken McGuffin
Manager, Media Relations
Rotman School of Management
University of Toronto