The evidence for being kind at work
For some time scientific research has been making the case for being kind at work. Now, increasingly work-based studies are also encouraging making kindness a conscious part of any workplace culture.
The science shows that being kind can improve heart function, lower blood pressure, slow aging and strengthen our immune systems. The author and scientist, David R. Hamilton explains that through the production of the hormone, oxytocin and the neurotransmitter, serotonin our levels of wellbeing are raised. Anxiety, stress and depression can all be reduced through preforming genuine acts of kindness. In his ground-breaking book, The Healing Power of Doing Good, Allan Luks documented the good feeling that you get from helping others and which is now referred to as the Helpers’ High.
Being kind at work builds on all these health benefits but goes further. Because kindness nurtures our instinct to connect, it helps to build better relationships and produce more effective teamwork. Whereas negativity tends to limit our scope and bring us down, kindness inspires and elevates us. It is also a key to successful innovation because people feel heard and valued and less afraid to suggest new and interesting ideas.
So why is kindness not part of every training programme and top of every staff development initiative? The answer is that although all the evidence points to its effectiveness, we still feel that being actively kind at work will leave us over-exposed and vulnerable.
A personal story
Last week I had to go along for my quarterly check-up with the rheumatology consultant. Over the years, I have had a series of doctors helping me. This was my second appointment with this new doctor and the extraordinary thing was that I came away feeling better than when I went in. There had not been any break-through, or outstanding good news but I felt heard, respected, seen and understood. The doctor had been alert, well-informed, and fully aware—and she had been kind. Her kindness was empathic but not sticky; practical but warm and most of all, she saw me as another human being.
It got me thinking about why we are so cautious about being kind at work. I came up with five reasons.
We are not always present and aware
In my story with the doctor I mentioned that she was alert and fully aware. In my experience, when people are operating from a sense of awareness, they see themselves and other people, as well as the situation they find themselves with more clarity. This gives a sense of confidence which makes showing kindness easier.
The thing is that we are not always present and aware. Research carried out at Harvard University in 2010 shows that for almost 47% of our waking hours we are thinking about something different to what we are doing. Our tendency for our minds to wander away undermines our ability to be fully present and tends to muddy our view of what we are doing, and how we are doing it.
Meditation is one of the most effective ways of working with our minds and increasing our awareness.
Stress narrows our focus
Although our brains are hard-wired for kindness, these impulses can get blocked when we are over-focused on ourselves. The pressure of the daily round at work can increase our stress levels and make this tendency worse.
When we are stressed and overwhelmed at work, then we tend to operate on survival mode. This means that we focus on managing what we need to do to get through each day. Our focus narrows and we are not inspired to reach out to others, or to try and see things from a different perspective.
It is very hard to inspire a culture of kindness in a workplace where people are overwhelmed and burnt-out.
There is often insufficient leadership culture to support kindness
It would be hard to over-state the importance of a leadership in building a culture of kindness in a workplace. Jonathan Haidt has researched something he calls elevation, or a heightened sense of wellbeing. Elevation happens when we see someone being kind to someone else—we do not even need to be involved ourselves. When a leader is fair, supportive and interested in his/her team then his/her employees experienced an increase in wellbeing. Remember that the actions of a leader are magnified by all the people they are responsible for. Their every action takes on additional importance. An ethical and people-focused boss who takes time to get to know people and their concerns will instil a greater sense of loyalty and commitment in the people they manage. In addition, people will be more likely to be kind and supportive of others. The knock-on effect is powerful.
We think we don’t have time for kindness
We can think that being kind at work is going to take extra time and effort and that there is not enough space for it at work.
A study carried out at Princeton Theological Seminary tells an interesting story. A group of divinity students were told they were going to deliver a practice sermon. Half the students were given the topic of the Good Samaritan and the other were given random topics. One by one they were told to go and deliver their sermon—some were told to hurry, others were told they were late, a third group was allowed to go at their own pace. As they went from one building to another they passed a person (an actor) lying on the floor in distress and calling for help. More than 60% of the students failed to stop and help—whether they were going to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan or not. The deciding factor in whether someone offered to help or not was how much of a hurry they thought they were in. Only 10% of those advised to rush stopped to help, whereas 63% of those who thought they had time stopped to help.
We are afraid that kindness will make us vulnerable
All too often we assume a more public persona when we go to work. We keep our ‘private self’ for when we are at home, and with people who care about us. Somehow we worry that kindness will undermine this shield we throw up around our deeper feelings and interests. If we appear vulnerable we are afraid that will leave us exposed. Author and researcher Brené Brown gave one of the most successful TED talks of all time on the Power of Vulnerability.
Judging from the millions of people who have viewed her talk, she touched on something very deep and vital for our wellbeing.
She believes that the ability to be vulnerable is the key to authenticity and to what she calls, wholehearted living. Certainly is a workplace setting, vulnerability is a key to fostering innovation because it helps to create an environment where people feel safe to challenge set ways of thinking and bring in new ideas. It can also improve motivation, teamwork and positive identification with leadership.
Some strategies we can try out straight away
Meditation helps us to calm down and settle, however busy we are. It brings us back in touch with ourselves and enables us to be more aware of ourselves and other people. From that place, kindness comes naturally.
Here’s a simple meditation that I often use in workshops:
Sit comfortably—relaxed and yet alert
Check in with your body and ease any tight spots
Check in with your mood—how are you feeling?
—Don’t judge, just notice
Become aware of your breathing
—stay with where the sensation is most vivid for you
—rest your mind on your breathing
—notice changes in the breath
—again, don’t judge – just notice
Notice when the mind is not on the breathing
—lightly notice where it has gone
—gently bring it back to the breath
—begin again as if for the first time
Continue for 5, or 10 minutes
2. Just Like Me exercise
This exercise is adapted from an exercise of the same name in the book, Search Inside Yourself. It is a reminder that whatever our differences, fundamentally we are all in the same boat.
- Sit comfortably
- Take a few gentle breaths and then just rest your attention on your breath for a few moments
- When you are settled, bring to mind someone that you work with and think about them in this way:
—this person has a body and mind, just like me
—this person has feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me
—this person has, at some point in his/her life, been sad, disappointed, angry, hurt, or confused, just like me
—This person has in his/her life experienced physical and emotional pain and suffering, just like me
—this person wishes to be free from suffering and pain, just like me
—this person wishes to be healthy and loved, and to have fulfilling relationships, just like me
This person wishes to be happy, just like me
- So what would you wish for this person?
—I wish for this person to have the strength, the resources, and the emotional and social support to navigate the difficulties in life
—I wish for this person to be free from suffering and pain
—I wish for this person to be happy
—Because this person is a human being, just like me
3. The Kindness Formula
This is an adaptation of a Kindness Formula that we use often in Awareness in Action. It acts as a reminder to be kind.
Make it a habit to do at least three kinds things every day
- one for yourself
- one for someone at work
- one for your work environment
Here are a few suggestions for kind things for someone at work:
- Say good morning and smile
- Make someone a cup of coffee
- Praise someone for a job well done
- Make sure the boss knows when someone does well
- If you see someone about to make a mistake, try and help them out
Here are a few suggestions for kind things for your work environment:
- Avoid spreading rumours about people in your workplace
- Start the week well by bringing in a treat for the team on a Monday
- Start up a meditation group in the lunch hour
- Bring in flowers
- Make sure to wash your coffee cup
4. A suggestion for a team exercise
Have people sit together in pairs for 15 minutes and share with each other something about their life that their colleague would not have known otherwise.
If you have enjoyed this blog and are interested to start a meditation practice of your own, you might like to check out this online course that I offer. You can find out more here