The Common Sense Practice of Kindness in the Workplace

By Suzanne Matthiessen •


When a person grows from a narrow, ego-framed life focused upon “me” into the wider, more self-less embrace of “we,” his or her degree of conscious, mindful awareness expands exponentially. In the ancient Pali language (used to preserve the Buddhist canon of the Theravada Buddhist tradition), the word for heart and mind are the same. Therefore, kindness is the heart-full-ness companion of mindfulness in action, and is not source-dependent like the elusive pursuit of valuing transitory, surface-level happiness can be. Kindness often brings forth the even deeper state of joy, naturally. The experience of joy is a positive outcome of extending kindness toward others without expectations or a desire for reciprocity, and becomes an integrated component of who we are and how we show up in any given situation or encounter. It is sustainable because it arises from a spirit of abundance, not a sense of lack.

Fear-based thinking, acting and behaving by employees, management and leadership contaminates a workplace into a toxic environment. Mindfulness trainings may be brought in for only the above-listed benefits, and can be merely a band-aid slapped over deep and complex foundational cracks.

Teaching mindfulness skills in the workplace environment is often centered around introducing practices that can offer measurable results and a tangible ROI to the organization, such as improved employee performance, focus, and productivity; managing the effects of chronic stress; and improved awareness and self-regulation through the inclusion of emotional intelligence training and simple conflict resolution techniques. All are noble efforts that are having a beneficial impact, moving away from the old status quo of how work gets done.

However, fear-based thinking, acting and behaving by employees, management and leadership contaminates a workplace into a toxic environment. Mindfulness trainings may be brought in for only the above-listed benefits, and can be merely a band-aid slapped over deep and complex foundational cracks. A highly competitive and frequently uncivil culture within an organization (and extended outward) fuels all sorts of unkindness that is often justified as “business, not personal” – even though real live human beings suffer damages on multiple levels that cannot be simply “meditated away”. If a culture of mindful awareness does not become transparently adopted and continuously supported within all levels of an organization, once the trainers have left the building, the long-term transformative capabilities of mindfulness practices are eventually lost if they are not modeled in an inclusive and authentic manner. And if kindness is viewed as a weakness, it will happen even faster.

Those of us who don’t need science to validate the positive influence of kindness in all areas of life (and particularly at work) couldn’t be more thrilled to see what is simply common business sense may indeed someday become common business practice

Being kind in our professional lives makes logical business sense, as just about everyone wants to be treated with respect, honesty, fairness and appreciation. However, if a workplace environment is not consciously created to bring forth honorable and humane relationship behaviors between all stakeholders what Case Western University Professor Dr. Richard Boyatzis teaches about Resonant Leadership in his book and trainings is absolutely true: what makes common sense isn’t always common practice. Although cultivating compassion and empathy is touched upon in almost every basic mindfulness training, teaching about kindness (along with its companions benevolence and goodwill) is worthy of greater emphasis within any trainer’s “mindfulness toolkit”. This is especially true now that there is increasing scientific evidence to back up kindness’ value as not only a trainable skill, but also one that can help to attain the ever-present reality of the business’ financial bottom line, while also contributing to facilitating wholeness within a broken workplace.

Several examples of how the common sense skill of kindness is being given a scientific, academic, medical and organizational “thumbs up”:

  • An October 2015 study by Raposa, Laws and Ansell published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science found performing small acts of kindness for others cultivates an improved outlook on life, and helps people cope with stress more effectively. “Our research shows that when we help others we can also help ourselves,” explained study author Emily Ansell from the Yale University School of Medicine. “Stressful days usually lead us to have a worse mood and poorer mental health, but our findings suggest that if we do small things for others, such as holding a door open for someone, we won’t feel as poorly on stressful days.” The study suggests that pro-social behaviors like kindness might someday be a beneficial aspect of treatment for people suffering from chronic stress or depression.
  • The “soft skill” of kindness is often passed over in favor of “hard skills” possessed by potential employees, but a study of pro-social skills in kindergarten students published in the American Journal of Public Health (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015) demonstrated that skills like kindness can support a more stable and healthier adult experience in all areas of life, regardless of one’s background.
  • Participants in a study designed to “establish the effects of acts of kindness and acts of novelty on life satisfaction” published in The Journal of Social Psychology (Buchanan & Bardi, 2010) showed a positive effect from both, concluding that both kind and new acts, performed daily over as little as ten days, can increase life satisfaction.
  • Psychologist John Gottman of The Gottman Institute is committed to helping couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships by implementing data from scientific studies into his counseling practice. His 94% success rate in determining which couples will stay together and which ones will split up is corroborated by independent studies that confirm his assertions that, “Contempt is the number one factor that tears couples apart” while “Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together” (Smith, 2014).
  • A study of socially anxious college undergraduates recently published in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrated that engaging in acts of kindness decreases social avoidance goals, that left unaddressed are linked to “…more negative and fewer positive social events, higher reactivity to negative events, loneliness, negative social attitudes, relationship insecurity, social worry, decreased relationship satisfaction, anxious solitary behavior, and lower perceived popularity” (Trew & Alden, 2015).
  • Neurosurgeon Dr. James Doty, founder and director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University wrote a recent post for the Huffington Post that discusses the importance of kindness in healing. He wrote, “Hopefully sharing this new science of kindness helps all of us – physicians and patients alike – to see in new ways how and why kindness heals and even more importantly how being kind results in one living a longer – and happier – life” (Doty, 2016). He referred to a number of studies showing that kindness helps “…contribute to less pain from conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis, as well as better health for those with chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, or asthma.”
  • A 2016 report released by Making Caring Common, (a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education “that helps educators, parents, and communities raise children who are caring responsible to their communities, and committed to justice”) titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions” endorsed by dozens of revered colleges and universities, proposes that the college admission process should be restructured to promote kindness and compassion in light of increasing academic pressure on students, and encourage high school students to focus upon meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement.

Lastly, Daniel Lubetzky, the founder and CEO of KIND (a U.S. company that sells healthy snack foods), agrees that kindness is “transformative” – and it is also an important business skill. In a 2016 interview published in Forbes Magazine, when Lubetzky was asked if he had to constantly explain what the relevance of kindness to business is, he replied:

Yes, a lot of people see what we’re doing as antithetical to business and the competitive environment. In my opinion, they’re wrong. It’s important for people to know that I’m not doing this because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy.

For me, empathy is an existential question – it’s about the survival of the human race. That is, it’s imperative for us to overcome the challenges we face. Unless we can join forces and recognize each other’s humanity, how can we do business together, let alone make progress on the increasingly complex and difficult problems in society?

Those of us who don’t need science to validate the positive influence of kindness in all areas of life (and particularly at work) couldn’t be more thrilled to see what is simply common business sense may indeed someday become common business practice. “B Corporations,” the Conscious Capitalism movement, LinkedIn Vice-President Fred Kofman’s Conscious Business book and Business Academy, and Frederic Laloux’s Reinventing Organization’s “Teal” model all show that both mindfulness and kindness are part of the growing new paradigm of humane and whole businesses – and their leadership. While the ROI of kindness may be a bit harder to measure for investor or board-requested metrics, it undoubtedly offers priceless intrinsic value in creating a workplace where people feel both valued and safe when they come to work each day, and the bottom line is achieved through a collective spirit of contribution, collaboration, caring and cohesiveness.

© 2009, 2016, Suzanne Matthiessen/holisticmindfulness.org

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References:

Buchanan, K. E. & Bardi, A. (2010). Acts of kindness and acts of novelty affect life satisfaction. The Journal of Social Psychology.150(3). Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00224540903365554

Doty, J. R. (2016, January 26). Why kindness heals. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-r-doty-md/why-kindness-heals_b_9082134.html

Harvard University. (2016). “Turning the tide: Inspiring concern for others and the common good through college admissions.” Making Caring Common Project: Harvard Graduate School of Education. Retrieved from http://mcc.gse.harvard.edu/files/gse-mcc/files/20160120_mcc_ttt_report_interactive.pdf

Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M. & Crowley, M. (2015) Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness. American Journal of Public Health, 105(11), 2283-2290. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4605168/

Mauss, I. B., Tamir, M, Anderson, C. L. & Savino, N. S. (2011). Can seeking happiness make people happy? Paradoxical effects of valuing happiness. Emotion. 11(4) pp. 807 – 815. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3160511/

Raposa, E. B., Laws, H. B., & Ansell, E. B. (2015). Prosocial behavior mitigates the negative effects of stress in everyday life. Clinical Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1177/2167702615611073 Retrieved from http://cpx.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/12/10/2167702615611073

Smith, E.E. (2014, June 12). Masters of love: Science says lasting relationships come down to – you guessed it – kindness and generosity. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/happily-ever-after/372573/

Trew, J.L. & Alden, L.E. (2015). Kindness reduces avoidance goals in socially anxious individuals. Motivation and Emotion, 39(6), pp. 892-907. Retrieved from http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11031-015-9499-5

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