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No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” ―Aesop

Innovation and company culture. The words are common parlance in business today, and the two are often found together. Google, for example is an organization motivated by innovation, and its commitment to innovation is cultural, not process driven. But how can a company and its leaders nurture innovation?

In the 15th century, the word “culture” pertained to agriculture, as in “cultivating” the land. Over time, the definition morphed to involve the anthropological study of people, and eventually, in the 1980s, “company culture” came into usage to describe the personality of a workplace. Google didn’t stumble upon its innovative company culture by accident. Remember that “culture” stems from “cultivate”: Successful companies cultivate their culture carefully. (Yes, it’s a tongue twister.)

Innovation, the process of introducing something new or different, requires a special environment: Think back to some (hopefully) long-ago childhood moment where you or were ridiculed for blurting out a silly idea. That’s the wrong environment for innovation. Companies with successful innovative cultures have leaders who demonstrate compassion. Compassion, a cousin to empathy, is “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Without compassion, it would be too risky to share new ideas at work. A new idea, after all, isn’t always a good idea. If employees are too scared to present a new idea, innovation will never happen. Compassion builds trust in the workplace (and most anywhere else for that matter).

The good news for those of us with rusty compassion abilities is that researchers at the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center of the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently discovered that adults can be trained to become more compassionate. Participants in the study, who practiced compassion meditation through online training, behaved more altruistically toward strangers compared to another group that was taught to simply regulate or control their negative emotions. Additionally, the people who were most altruistic after compassion training also showed the most change in how their brains responded to images of suffering. (Read the published results: “Compassion Training Alters Altruism and Neural Responses to Suffering.”) The Center for Compassion offers the compassion training exercises used in the study for free online.

We’ve heard that nice guys finish last, but we don’t believe it. If you want an innovative team that enjoys coming to work and comes up with fresh ideas, approach them with compassion in order to nurture an environment that will eek out genius.