Why Do We Have To “Promote” Kindness at Work?

 “I now realize I have been working with my eyes closed. I appreciate even more a professor with whom I work occasionally: he always makes the point that leaders, managers — everyone in fact — should never underestimate the importance of kindness at work.” Gill Corkindale, Harvard Business Review

An article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) by author Gill Corkindale,  “The Importance of Kindness at Work” really got my attention. Seems kindness at work – or a lack of it – is a popular topic.  Comments on  Twitter declared  the workplace needs more kindness and asked –  is kindness lost in the workplace?
Let’s be clear, what we are discussing here is basic  human kindness – normal, everyday civility, courtesy, caring and consideration.

Have we reached a point where we have to promote kindness – sell it, monetize it and justify it – for it to become a workplace norm?  Will we have to refer to it as  a “strategy” to be more productive at work?  Does it now have to be termed a business “best practice?” 

There are many factors we can point to if we want to examine the roots of the erosion of kindness, especially in the workplace.

Certainly, highly pressurized and competitive workplaces can pit employees against one another. This, of course, is the last place co-workers need to be at this point in time., Certainly, the demands and pace of most workplaces keep people overly focused on tasks instead of interpersonal relations. Certainly, technology, albeit an essential tool, has depersonalized face-to-face contact. Certainly, fear-based management practices promote anxiety, worry, mistrust and resentment with workplace cultures – all of them are kindness killers. All of these things have the insidious effect of eroding the very essence of our humanness – our empathy.

Empathy Deficit Disorder – Kindness Killer at Work

While it’s not yet classified as a disorder in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, most psychologists will attest to the growing problem of EDD – Empathy Deficit Disorder.

According to Dr. Douglas LaBier, Based on my 35 years of experience as a psychotherapist, business psychologist and researcher, I have come to believe that EDD is a pervasive but overlooked condition with profound consequences for the mental health of individuals and of our society. People who suffer from EDD are unable to step outside themselves and tune in to what other people experience. They have become alienated from their own hearts.”

You see, we’re hard-wired for empathy. Our natural tendencies towards feeling the feelings of others usually develops at around eighteen months of age.  The evolution of empathy, made possible by mirror neurons in our brains, has allowed us to develop the social skills that make modern societies possible.  But just as we are hard-wired toward understanding and acting with compassion towards others, social scientists are finding that those impulses can get blocked when our attention is over-focused on ourselves,  our problems or crises. 

An intriguing study done at Princeton Theological Seminary demonstrated this dynamic.  A group of divinity students were told they were going to deliver a practice sermon and would each be given a topic. Half of the students were given the topic of the Good Samaritan (the biblical story about the man who stops to help a stranger in need by the side of the road).

The other half of the students were given random sermon topics.  One by one, they were told when it was time to go and give their sermon. Some were told to rush and others were not.  As they went from one building to the other, each one passed a man who was bent over and moaning in need of assistance.  It was found that over 60% of the seminarians passed by without stopping to help. It didn’t matter whether they were contemplating the parable of the Good Samaritan. What actually determined whether someone would stop and help was how much of a hurry they thought they were in.  Only 10% of those who were told to rush offered help, whereas 63% of those who thought they had extra time stopped to help.

The implications here are clear – we are hard-wired for empathy and can have the best of intentions – but our stress response can override them.

Reclaiming our Humanness at Work

The good news is that we can keep the Good Samaritan alive within us – we just have to commit to staying conscious 0f our thinking process.

Distraction is a powerful force – but a teeny tiny window of 5/10th  a second allows us to recapture conscious thought.   Speaking about that “opportunity,” Douglas LaBier stated, Just as you can develop EDD by too much self-absorption, you can also overcome EDD by retraining your brain to take advantage of what is known as neuroplasticity. Similar research shows that as you refocus your thoughts, feelings and behavior in the direction you want, the brain regions associated with them are reinforced. What’s more, changing your brain activity reinforces the changes you’re making in your thinking. The result is a self-reinforcing loop between your conscious attitudes, your behavior and your brain activity.”

To rekindle kindness in the workplace, we need to regain our focus on what we truly believe is important.  We can block our natural empathic impulses with beliefs, judgments and emotions that keep us separate from other people. We can lose ourselves in the endless demands of business imperatives – which are usually not people centric.   We can blame a harsh and uncivil vision of the world for our aloofness and cynicism. But finally, it comes down to us – to the moment by moment choices we make to look away – or extend a hand.

Because emotional contagion is real and powerful, what each one of us does matters. There’s always a witness in the workplace. Someone who watches and waits to be heard and understood. Someone who wants to reach out but is afraid to act alone.  There is an artificial separation and compartmentalization that most organizational structures impose on human connection.  Those structures and systems often inhibit open communication and contact, despite the era of teams.  But those obstacles don’t have to stop us, as individuals, from reaching out to our co-workers, even with a smile, acknowledgement or thank-you. 

Ultimately, our actions are dictated by our thinking. What we believe about kindness in the workplace (and outside of it), what we believe about people (including ourselves) and their “motives,” and what we believe about the possibilities for creating change will determine what we do.  While, it’s not always comfortable or easy to reach out to others, it’s almost always gratifying.   And it will, bit by bit, contribute a different energy to our workplace cultures. 

One of the comments in the HBR articles contained this wonderful stanza of a poem called Threads, by a former CEO and author of Love and Profit, James Autry. 

In every office
you hear the threads
of love and joy and fear and guilt,
the cries for celebration and reassurance,
and somehow you know that connecting those threads
is what you are supposed to do
and business takes care of itself.
Someone needs to say “amen”.

Thanks for reading.
Louise Altman, Intentional Communication Consultants
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