I am always intrigued and a little frustrated when I observe how often employers overlook accessible, and no or low-cost ways to boast employee engagement and morale. Especially when such actions can easily connect to vital and universal human ambitions- like our innate drive to pursue happiness. And especially when the same actions are considered appropriate, and in fact very desirable in our lives outside of work! That easily accessible but under-used leadership tool is kindness.
Kindness is taught in most of the world’s faith traditions as an important underpinning of how to live together and relate to others. Our parents taught it to us and they modeled it in our homes. We learned it in pre-school or kindergarten. Well, at least many of us did. Over the centuries, sages have written about it and encouraged it to generation after generation. Even Dilbert commented on its power when he said, “There is no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple effect with no logical end.”
What Are Acts of Kindness in the Workplace?
What are the acts of kindness that can be encouraged, practiced, and ingrained into your workplace’s culture? They are very simple and very accessible. Saying “thank you” more often and comments like “nice job” or “I appreciated that” or “well done!” are common examples.
You may notice a theme here is compliments. Their power is exemplified in this story. A professional driver once told me how important it was to her that her CEO not only knew her name, but also actually called her to tell her what a good job she was doing when she reached an important safety milestone. She was beyond thrilled. She went on to say this practice was not uncommon in her workplace; senior managers often reached out to “regular people” like her. Why was that so important I asked? After all, weren’t you getting an award and recognition for the accomplishment already? She replied, “Because I know he cares, and I know he notices. I know he is an important person, and he takes the time to tell me that I’m important too. He made me feel special.”
She went on to tell me that she would never think about leaving her employer, despite being recruited almost daily by other companies. And she actually recruits others to come there and work. Kindness and compliments are a big part of her workplace culture and they connect her emotionally to her employer’s business mission. That is a particularly powerful statement in the transportation industry, which has massive employee turnover.
Why is Kindness at Work so Hard?
Despite all the societal teaching and encouragement and the simplicity of performing acts of kindness, managers and peers can be hesitant to be kind, at least when it comes to giving compliments. Why is that? Research psychologists give us the answers. First, they have found that compliment givers tend to underestimate the positive impact of compliments. They tend to falsely believe that the compliment may make the receiver anxious or uncomfortable. Research actually shows the opposite is true: receiving a compliment from a peer or a supervisor consistently brightens the receiver’s day, making them feel happier. Secondly, researchers have found that while managers say they want to give compliments and praise more often, most do not act when given the opportunity. In some experiments, people even did the hard part- writing down a compliment- then failed to send it or deliver it. Thirdly, researchers have learned that when in a position to give a compliment, managers sometimes become anxious that they may not do it in the right way. They fret that they are not skillful enough, that they don’t know the right words or phrases, that they will appear “soft” or a pushover. Maybe they should focus less on the perfect words and more on conveying warmth, genuineness, and sincerity.
Why are Acts of Kindness Important in the Workplace and What are the Benefits?
Receiving an act of kindness has been shown to boost one’s self-esteem and happiness. Ironically, it usually does the same for the giver. It triggers positive emotions and actually creates the ripple effect Dilbert author, Scott Adams, referenced. And managers and business leaders know that happier employees are engaged employees- ones who are more likely to be productive and less likely to look for greener pastures elsewhere.
One key reason that kindness in your workplace is important is because it reduces employee burnout. Surveys provide evidence that being recognized by peers or supervisors helps moderate employee burnout, reduces turnover and increases employee engagement.
Secondly, when we practice kindness, we bring more meaning and happiness to our lives, individually and corporately. Practicing kindness invests oneself in something larger than ourselves – a cause and mission besides our own. Think of how both individuals and companies kindly volunteer their time and resources to do good deeds that impact their communities and help the less fortunate members of society.
Third, a culture of kindness tends to be self-perpetuating. It creates a cascade of positive activity and feelings. Research shows that workplaces that have a culture of kindness are places where recipients of kindness tend to pay it back. They tend to pass it along to someone else on their team and to reciprocate when given the opportunity. This culture often connects people to their organizations’ overall objectives and goals as in the story I mentioned earlier, while from leadership’s perspective it harnesses employees’ energy, collaboration, and innovation.
Unfortunately, the trend toward more remote working environments reduces the chances for those random, serendipitous interactions and encounters that provide opportunities for giving and receiving acts of kindness. Chance encounters at the proverbial water fountain, hallway, break room, or even the parking lot are a lot less common for remote workers. So, creating a culture of kindness can be more challenging than in the past. For remote work teams, creative ways to express kindness need to be found just as those teams found productive ways to work remotely during the pandemic.
Three Ways to Create a Culture of Kindness in Your Workplace
First, lead by example as a manager. If you are a business leader, a human resources manager or a supervisor your actions count; people in your organization look to you as models of optimal behaviors needed for success in your setting. By displaying genuine acts of kindness to your direct reports and expecting them to do likewise, you will set the tone for a culture of kindness. Leading by example also means examining your messaging- your words and your tone. Does your CEO display these desirable behaviors and serve as the same sort of model? If not, kindly carry the message of the benefits of kindness to that leader.
Secondly, secure time in appropriate meetings for peer recognition, compliments, and to say thank you. It won’t take much time, but will be time well spent. At Espyr, we have peer recognition time on every agenda of our town hall meetings. The joy, warmth and genuineness of the compliments, words of thanks, and shout-outs is palpable. Our team says it’s the best part of every meeting.
Third, look into peer bonus systems that give employees the opportunity to show appreciation for their peers and for managers to easily compliment and thank their employees. At Espyr, we use Motivosity and have outstanding levels of usage. Again, research supports the notion that even these small acts of kindness are often as meaningful and motivating to people as larger ones. (I’m hearing Dilbert again.)
If you don’t lead an organization, a department or a team that has a culture of kindness, now is a good time to start down that path. If your organization, department, or team lives and thrives in a culture of kindness already, congratulations. I know you, your employees, and your customers are reaping the benefits. Now, keep it up and please pass it on!
About the Author
Norman Winegar, LCSW, CEAP, NCAC II is the Chief Clinical Officer at Espyr For over 30 years, Norman has practiced in mental health, substance misuse, and EAP settings. He has also worked in leadership positions in both public and private sector behavioral health organizations. An author of four books, he is frequently called on for presentations and as a panelist to share his expertise and experience as a mental health professional.
For over 30 years Espyr, has provided innovative mental health solutions – solutions like our AI powered chatbot, TESS – to organizations operating under some of the most challenging conditions. Espyr’s portfolio of customized counseling, coaching and consulting solutions help people and organizations achieve their full potential by providing mental health support and driving positive behavioral change. For more information on how Espyr can help your organization, call Espyr at 888-570-3479 or click here.
A Simple Compliment Can Make a Big Difference
Erica Boothby, Xuan Zhao, and Vanessa K. Bohns
Harvard Business Review
February 24, 2021
The Power of Kindness at Work
Ovul Sezer, Kelly Nauly and Nadav Klein
SHRM via the Harvard Business Review
May 12, 2021
More than Words…
Denise C. Marigold, John G. Holmes, and Michael Ross
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology
March 2007 92 (2): 232-48