Many years ago I was working for large multi-national corporation; I had been in the HR profession at this point for over 10 years when I experienced something profound. I was in Sweden on one of my first visits to get to know my new colleagues and meet with my new boss, a Vice President – I was jet lagged to say the least. Upon coming in to the office my boss did something extraordinary; he offered to make me a cup of coffee. I was speechless; I had never experienced this random act of kindness from someone in a senior leadership position before. There were kindnesses, it’s not that I had only worked for misogynists up to that point, but the kindnesses offered by my prior bosses were always carefully curated, never something as simple, or as potentially “servile”, as offering to make me a coffee.
I have never forgotten his act of kindness because it was based on empathy and it was intentional. He didn’t ask someone else to get me a coffee, he made me one himself with no reservations or self consciousness – he did it in a way that demonstrated this was simply what you would do for anyone whom you wanted to have a strong working relationship with, and who clearly needed a coffee. And he did it often, not just for me, or because I was new, if he was going to get a coffee he would ask if anyone else needed one too. It was the beginning of a very healthy and productive working relationship on a really amazing international team; in addition to being a wonderful boss he was a strong leader – I learned more working in that role then in the many that had come before (or since).
Kindness at work is essential. From holding the door open for the person coming behind you, or offering to help carry something when it is needed to assisting someone confounded by office equipment, kindness is the DNA that allows healthy working environments to come into being. Without it a key element is missing, meaning there is no foundation on which to build strong working relationships. Without kindness there is no trust or respect given and received, no principled way of working that establishes the primacy of mutual benefit. We’ve all worked in an environment where people are unhappy or it is “everyone for her/himself”; these types of workplaces rob every one of wellbeing and the essential opportunity to feel they belong. Very few can flourish in this type of environment (at least not without sacrificing their integrity).
It is difficult within the pace of the modern workplace to be mindful of how much small acts of kindness make a difference. From smiling at others as you are walking through the halls to asking after each other’s welfare. The margin of time available for this “social glue” continues to be winnowed away in a wash of tight deadlines and high demands (especially here in North America), but without it we are left with shallow and detached working environments conveying neither warmth nor joy. What this points to is even if your work is rewarding, and no one is being unsupportive, you still have a deficit of wellbeing at work – it takes more involvement than the minimum of social convention to make a working environment hum and thrive with vitality and energy. It takes kindness.
Each of us carries the responsibility to be kind, to look up from our work and see where we can make a small difference in the quality of someone’s day. We teach this to our children, do we consistently practice what we teach? When was the last time you did something to be kind to another person at work? Kindness is a curious thing, because the act of being kind has as many benefits for the giver as it does for the receiver. There is a stack of science behind why kindness is good for us, explaining how it makes our workplaces more productive, etc. – all of it pointing to the sad need to explain why being kind is a good thing (when did we turn into that society?). Be kind because it makes you feel good. Be kind because it costs you nothing and gives so many benefits to those around you. Start a kindness movement at work; one small act of kindness a day, intentionally yet freely given, with no expectation of return is all it takes. We each have this power.