Fortunately, I do not know anyone who sets out on their day intending to be not kind to anyone at all. It’s probably the same for you too. So why is it that in any ordinary day all sorts of unkind things happen?
Let’s look at our own behaviour at work. We could ask ourselves if in the rough and tumble of an average working day we find ourselves unintentionally being not kind. The thing is that individually each action may seem so small as to be insignificant. It can be the cumulative effect which is damaging.
Often it is because of habit, or insecurity, or pressure that we fall short in being kind. So, here is my list of six lazy ways it is easy to fall into being not kind. I call them ‘lazy’ because they are not necessarily intentional—in fact, usually they aren’t. They are largely due to not noticing what is going on with other people, or how your behaviour is affecting them.
1. Being pre-occupied can mean being not kind
When we are stressed, or really busy then it is all too easy to become turned in on ourselves. Our priorities take centre stage and our ability to see what is going on around us is reduced.
At work this can easily become a sense of self-importance. This can lead to the feeling that what you are doing is so vital that it takes precedence over everything else. It gives us permission to prioritise our own story and not pay so much attention to other peoples’.
It can creep up on you in quite a subtle way. From your point of view, you are simply trying to do a good job. There is no intention to let your kindness slip but that is what happens when you become too self-focused. You don’t give your full attention to the needs of people around you and you miss things.
2. Gossip can lead to unkindness
I would be willing to bet that you are not the workplace gossip at your job. They are usually pretty easy to spot and not so difficult to politely avoid. It’s much more difficult to manage your own reactions and emotions without unintentionally being not kind.
If you are in any kind of team-leader, management role everything you say has an enhanced significance for the rest of the team. When someone in your team is struggling then how you talk about them in the group is very important. You need to find a way to give them difficult feedback without damaging their confidence and their ability to learn. They will be listening to every word you say, and what others tell them you said with a sensitivity heightened by fear and anxiety.
Whatever your role is, there are always people at work who are less easy to get on with than others. It is these people that you need to take special care to talk to and talk about with great skill. Just one off the cuff comment made in irritation can cause tremendous harm.
How does your workplace handle feedback and constructive criticism? It’s another example of something that, when it is done well, can help a colleague move through challenges. However, if it is done without kindness then it can be an enormous blow.
Most of us have probably experienced receiving both kinds of feedback ourselves. One of my most useful work experiences was when a colleague—not a boss, or manager—asked to talk to me and set out to inform me of all my faults as she saw them. It was a devastating experience but when I recovered, I realised I had an excellent list of what not to do if you want to give someone helpful feedback. I still draw on that list to this day.
The main thing that I realised was you need to give the kind of feedback that would be helpful to you, yourself. That is the only feedback that people can really hear and respond to.
4. Blame will make you not kind
According to research, blaming mistakes on other people is socially contagious. Observing someone blaming their mistakes on other people can lead to you doing the same thing to protect your image. Such a cycle does not help anyone.
In a workplace where blame is part of the norm, staff are less likely to succeed, and much less likely to be creative. Anyone who is in the habit of blaming others misses out as well. You don’t get the chance to learn from your mistakes if you don’t take responsibility for them.
It seems that optimistic people blame less, and pessimistic people more—with the prize going to narcissists.
For most of us the time to watch out for lazily blaming someone else for a mistake is when we are tired, worried, or over-worked. It’s not that we want someone else to get into trouble—it’s just that we don’t want to have to deal with it ourselves.
It would seem that kindness and bullying are pretty far apart—how could someone interested in promoting kindness also engage in any kind of bullying activity?
Let’s take it down a notch—instead of bullying think of steamrollering, pressurising, over-persuading someone. When I think back to my years of managing an international non-profit, I am pretty sure that I used tactics like this. I was convinced that what I was doing was so important that people needed to get on board. Indeed, what I was doing was important, but I forgot to treat each person I dealt with as an individual, with their own strengths and weaknesses. I wanted everyone to go at my pace and it exhausted some people.
Does your enthusiasm and passion for your work ever translate as pressure for other people?
6. Not listening is not kind
Once again, we rarely simply ignore someone when they speak to us—especially at work—but we often listen in a distracted way. We’re busy, the speaker is taking too long to make their point, and so our attention wanders. The thing is that we feel it when someone is not giving us their full attention and it’s unsettling. Our ability to communicate is reduced.
When we don’t listen with full attention then we don’t hear all the levels that are being communicated and we don’t pick up on the accompanying body language, or emotional signs. That’s where the unkindness can come in. We miss stuff—someone’s concern, or even distress—and the person feels overlooked. Maybe it is simply information that we don’t completely process, which leads to mistakes further down the road.
It’s not only distraction which blocks our listening, it can be our opinions and prejudices as well. If we think differently to the speaker, we tend to listen through a critical web which filters out the points we just want to refute. It’s even worse if we don’t like the person who is talking to us because then we listen through a whole range of remembered slights and disagreements.
Wanting to fix what the person is telling you can also get in the way of listening deeply to what they are saying. We are so busy thinking of the response we want to make to put them right that we don’t listen fully to what we are being told.
Something to remember
None of us is perfect and there will be days at work where our kindness might be less than others but watching out for these six lazy ways we can be not kind can become a good reminder. For me, the underlying basic principle is to try and put myself in the shoes of the other person, or people. An easy way to do this is to ask how you yourself would feel if you were being treated in any of these six ways. Think how it feels to be the subject of gossip, or to receive withering criticism. No-one wants to be pressured to behave in a certain way and no-one enjoys being blamed—especially when the blame is unfair. We are all busy and trying our best and we all like to be listened to with kindness. Remembering this is a basic key to avoiding being not kind.
If you have found the ideas in this post interesting you might like to look at my new online course, How to Make Kindness Matter at Work. You can find out more here.
Very few of us are likely to set out for work with the intention of upsetting people. Mostly we want to do our job well, and get on with our day. How is then that so often we come home in the evening feeling annoyed by an interaction we have had and upset with a colleague? It got me thinking about whether anyone went home in the evening with bad feelings towards me!
Here’s some thoughts I had about ways in which it is possible that I might have got it wrong—without meaning to—and upset people at work.
Being too pre-occupied to listen well
Do you get impatient while people are talking to you? Are you tempted to jump in and make their point for them—because you see it already and more clearly than they seem to? Do you have to hold yourself back from interrupting?
The thing that I have come to notice is that people feel your impatience and it makes them uneasy. They don’t take it as a statement on your state of mind but on their performance and it makes them feel that they don’t have your full attention—which makes them less able to get their message across and increases your impatience.
These days I try to see listening as part of my meditation practice—part of being present, awake and curious. You miss so much by thinking you already know what someone wants to say, or by responding too quickly and cutting them off.
When we can allow someone the space to say what they want to say we are creating trust and communicating respect—so we are fostering harmonious relationships. We are creating opportunities to exchange useful information and to explore problems, which will help to boost creativity in our team.
It’s all too easy, when you are busy, to push ahead in order to get the job done and to overlook how people feel they are being treated. Of course, this is intensified if you are in any kind of managerial role, with people reporting to you.
In his book. 365 Thanks Yous, John Kralik tells the story of how he turned his life around by writing a thank you note to a different person every day for a year. Finding himself at a critical point in his life, he wanted to try and focus on what was good in his life, rather than what was going wrong. One of the stories that always sticks in my mind is the day he wrote a thank you note to his server in his local Starbucks. At first the guy thought he was being handed a letter of complaint and then he was amazed at being so beautifully thanked for something he did over and over again all-day long.
A lot of my work is carried out at a distance—through SKYPE, email, and online courses. Yet I find the power of appreciation is not diminished by distance. It shows you have noticed the effort someone has made, and you are the better for it. You need to do it because it feels right, if you are hoping for something in return it can get messy.
Talking about people behind their back
It can be seductive and oddly flattering to be pulled into a session of bad-mouthing your boss, or a fellow worker. For a while you can feel that you are accepted, and one of the in-crowd. You are being trusted to hear and share in the discontent someone is feeling. We all do it from time to time but when it happens as a routine part of each working day it can become unhealthy and potentially hurtful.
This was brought home to me very strongly during the years that I worked as part of the Executive Board of an international non-profit. I was the only woman on the team of four and many of our staff and volunteers in the national teams were women. Unfortunately, for some people I was an object of some envy and resentment. I was too slow to understand this and took too long to take measures to address it. After some time in the job—which I loved—I was told about stories that were circulating about me. Most of them were just inaccurate and came from people’s projections. Others had some truth but were recounted without a shred of empathy or understanding of the challenges that I faced.
I was shocked and devastated for a time but when I calmed down, I saw this was a great learning opportunity for me. There is nothing like being on the receiving end of gossip and speculation to help rid you of any inclination to engage it in yourself. I would never want someone to feel as I did during that period.
When you gossip about someone behind their back you erode trust. It always seeps out somehow and people come to know you’ve been talking about them. It’s difficult to ask them to trust you after that. Much better to approach someone directly to talk something through that is bothering you.
Not giving someone the benefit of the doubt
Imagine a situation where one of your children wakes up in the night with an upset stomach. You spend hours caring for them, changing sheets, bringing glasses of water and finally drop off to sleep at around 04.30. Your alarm goes off at 07.00. You have a splitting headache but you get out of bed because you are due to present a new project to your team at work at 10.00 that morning. Your child is over the worst but won’t be well enough for school. It takes almost an hour to arrange childcare and now you are late leaving the house. The train is packed and you don’t find a seat. By the time you get to work you are feeling very sorry for yourself but you do your best to give an inspiring presentation. It goes OK but lacks your usual flair and the team is doubtful and critical about the new project.
Your boss asks for a word after the meeting. He/she could take a number of approaches to your disappointing performance. He/she could start off by pointing out how flat you were and how your answers led to more, rather than less confusion. Or he/she could sit you down and ask what was going on and what help you needed to sort this out.
Which approach would you prefer?
When people behave in ways we are disappointed in, or uncomfortable with instead of immediately reacting, we could ask ourselves questions like these:
what might be going on for this person that I am not aware of?
what do I know about their situation which might help me to understand what is going on?
what can I do to support them?
These questions open a dialogue, which could lead to a solution of the difficulty, rather than an angry exchange.
Forgetting to include people
If we feel excluded from an event, we might say that our feelings were hurt. Neuroscience is showing that this might be more accurate than we thought. Research shows that the same area of the brain—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex—is active when we process emotional/social pain, as when we feel physical pain, say from catching our finger in a door.
Our ancestors evolved to live in groups because they understood that the resulting protection was essential for survival. A sense of wanting to belong is hardwired in us and when we don’t feel we are included, then our threat response is triggered and we can become anxious, and uncooperative. The activation of the stress response uses resources that would normally go to the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain we use for—among other things—problem-solving, and memory. When we are under stress, we are more likely to make inaccurate assumptions.
It’s this kind of reaction that can lead to someone trying to create their own sense of belonging. This is where potentially toxic behaviours such as gossiping, cynicism, and forming cliques can come in.
It makes good sense at every level to foster an environment of openness and inclusivity in your workplace. It helps to make sure information is easily accessible, and people feel encouraged to comment and feedback on work processes. Ensuring all views are heard in meetings, welcoming and supporting new and younger staff is important. Then there are the small everyday events that can have such a big impact on people. Things as ordinary as remembering to make coffee for all members of your team, including everyone in your morning greeting and spreading your invitation to lunch widely. All this helps to create a sense of inclusivity and belonging.
Being too anxious to trust a colleague
Few employees enjoy being micromanaged. It leads to people feeling not trusted, undervalued and over-controlled. It is also exhausting for the person trying to micromanage. If you are continuously looking over your shoulder to check on what each member of your team is doing, you never have enough time and energy to do your own work. It’s a self-defeating process. The more you micromanage someone, the further it saps their creativity, ending up with them increasingly dependent on you.
No-one wants to be an irritating manager. Micromanaging is often rooted in an anxiety about one’s own abilities, and an insecurity around your position. Perfectionism usually part of the mix—not having the confidence to let people have the space to experiment and even to fail. Instead you feel bound to monitor each step of the way, so you can check for anything unexpected along the way. You are afraid to fail yourself, and so you project it on to everyone working with you.
One way of lessening your own anxiety and allowing an employee to feel valued is to ease up you focus on doing. Micromanaging is worst around getting things done and achieving the right goals. Of course, we need to do that but not at the expense of being.If we are paying attention to how we are when we take on a task, rather than simply on getting the task done—then we might be open to starting a dialogue with the people we work with. We might consider asking them to give feedback on how we manage, or to share what they feel are their main skills. It can be possible to ask if, or where they feel blocked. Perhaps it would be possible to share some of your own concerns and to talk together about how to work together with more attention to the process of the work.
Opening up the one-way dynamic of micromanaging could hold surprisingly helpful answers for both mangers and staff.
Do you have any stories you would like to add? It is always good to hear from you.
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