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Kinder Workplaces? A Hard Sell (But Better for the Bottom Line)

Truth be told, kindness is a good prescription for a life well lived. Kind actions and a compassionate attitude bode well for both physical and mental health. And let’s face it:  We might try to be kinder than we think we are — especially at work.

Why? For one, according the Global Happiness Policy Report 2018, the majority of people are miserable at their jobs even if they say they’re happy to have one. Five years later in a post pandemic world, there is a bit of improvement in satisfaction in some parts of the world (State of the Global Workpalce: 2023 Report). Yet, the rate of  stress and “quiet quitters” leaving the workplace remains high. Two, we spend over 30% of our lives working. Might as well try to enjoy it, right? Third, when we behave in kind ways, the positivity that arises spreads to others. It’s just like that old 1970s bumper sticker: Kindness is contagious.

Yet, the topic of  kindness can be a non-starter for most businesses and HR executives. Many organizations operate on the principles for survival, namely finding self-serving ways to get ahead and stay ahead.  In spite of the billions spent in workplace wellness and leadership training, something isn’t sticking very well. It may be that we’ve been conditioned by entrenched beliefs that it’s a dog-eat-dog world. We don’t truly recognize that thriving, instead of surviving, is the key to success. Charles Darwin, after all, observed that we have a stronger instinct for caring and cooperation than for trampling over one another. It just didn’t make the headlines. Thriving means taking care of each other by focusing on wellbeing and cultivating resilience in our relationships — whether in family, at work, or in the greater community. After all that’s how the human species continues to survive.

We’ve just got things a bit mixed up in our heads.

For the skeptic out there, here’s a workplace study that was conducted at Coca Cola Iberia in Madrid, Spain. The researchers randomly assigned over 100 employees into three different groups and the employees weren’t aware of their assignment to the groups or the true purpose of the study. The employees were assigned to be Givers, Receivers, or be in a Control (people who don’t do anything).

The Givers practiced five acts of ordinary kindness a day from a specific list ideas of kind gestures (see below). This was not about flowers, balloons and cake. The Givers could choose when to do the kind acts, and for whom from a list of fellow employees assigned (unbeknownst to them) as Receivers. The Givers did this for four weeks.  Examples of the kind activities included:

  • Bringing someone a beverage
  • Cheering up a coworker who seems to be having a bad day
  • Speaking up on the behalf of another
  • Emailing a thank you note

The people in the Receiver or Control groups were not asked to do anything at all during the course of the study. It was just work as usual for them. All three groups filled out surveys before and after and two months later.

Here’s what the researchers found: Givers and Receivers mutually benefited in well-being in both the short- and long-term. They showed improvements on weekly measures of feelings of competence and autonomy, for example, acting in alignment with core values. Receivers remained happier a full month after the study and Givers became less depressed and more satisfied with their lives and jobs. They also noticed the changes in workplace. Givers’ prosocial acts inspired others to act: Receivers paid their acts of kindness forward with 278% more prosocial behaviors than Controls. That’s right, just like that ‘ol bumper sticker said so.  Surely, this is a prescription for happier workers and workplaces.

Why does this matter?  The most common contributors to low job satisfaction and causes for absenteeism include but are not limited to: bullying and harassment, burnout, stress and low morale, stress of childcare and eldercare, depression, disengagement, illness, and not surprisingly, looking for another job.  I will never forget when I was a psychology intern and was told to forge medical documentation that previous staff had failed to sign. An accreditation was at risk. I refused. My supervisor reprimanded me, “Don’t you know? Shit flows downhill.” I stood my ground and almost left the profession before I barely got started. Later I learned his wife had stage 4 cancer. He was desperate. But still.

Consider that kindness, a prosocial skill that needs to be practiced in order to grow, is about connecting with other people in genuine and transparent ways. Yes, most of us are caring and want the best for others. But life poses daily challenges and we can be easily distracted. So we have to put in the effort. All the co-opted leadership buzz words of today apply: compassion, grit, emotional intelligence, empathy, mindfulness and wisdom. Yet, practicing these skills at work is another matter entirely. 

Moreover, there is a multiplier effect when you do try. Your kind and caring action and the corresponding upswell of positive emotions will spread,  influencing at least three other people like a happy virus.  It’s likely that each of those three people will positively influence others in their social circles. A little kind intention can go a long way. It’s not all that different from raising well adjusted kids, which of course, takes time. It requires courage, consistency, calm, and true connection — no matter the successes and failures along the way. That’s the caring advantage. It flows uphill. If we can’t model such genuine attention to the people we work with every day it will be hard to expect retention, innovation and longevity. 

Survive or thrive. What would you rather do?


A version of this article originally appeared on the RethinkCare blog.

My book is “The Kindness Cure: How the Science of Compassion Can Heal Your Heart and Your World.” Drawing on research in psychology and neuroscience, this book will help teach you the benefits of practicing kindness from the inside out. Check it out today! https://www.taracousineau.com/book/

Stay tuned for a new book, The Perfectionist’s Dilemma.

Photo Credit:

Johnson Wang

Nathan Dumlao

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