Organizations benefit from actively fostering kindness. In workplaces where acts of kindness become the norm, the spillover effects can multiply fast, says HBR.
Everybody wants to be happy. But how can we meet that sometimes elusive goal? This was a difficult question even before the global pandemic, but nowadays just thinking about it can seem futile. Parents are trying to balance the demands of remote work and online schooling; people who live alone try to keep their focus in isolation. When life is measured by back-to-back Zoom meetings, even taking a shower can seem like a win.
The transformation of the workplace into scheduled online meetings has led to another source of deprivation: The removal of serendipitous encounters. For many people, hearing a colleague say, “Thank you so much” in the hallway, or a manager telling you “Great job” after a presentation were a highlight of office life. Now, these seem like traditions from another lifetime. Without water cooler interactions, casual lunches, and coffee breaks with colleagues, we don’t have the same opportunities for social connection as before. Without them, it can be much harder to find joy in our work. So, what can we do about it?
We offer a humble suggestion: Kindness. This past year, most management advice has focused on how to sustain productivity during the pandemic, yet the power of kindness has been largely overlooked. Practicing kindness by giving compliments and recognition has the power to transform our remote workplace.
The Benefits of Kindness
A commitment to be kind can bring many important benefits. First, and perhaps most obviously, practicing kindness will be immensely helpful to our colleagues. Being recognized at work helps reduce employee burnout and absenteeism, and improves employee well-being, Gallup finds year after year in its surveys of U.S. workers. Receiving a compliment, words of recognition, and praise can help individuals feel more fulfilled, boost their self-esteem, improve their self-evaluations, and trigger positive emotions, decades of research have shown. These positive downstream consequences of compliments make intuitive sense: Praise aligns with our naturally positive view of ourselves, confirming our self-worth.
Second, practicing kindness helps life feel more meaningful. For example, spending money on others and volunteering our time improves wellbeing, bringing happiness and a sense of meaning to life, research finds. Being kind brings a sense of meaning because it involves investing in something bigger than ourselves. It shapes both how others perceive us — which improves our reputation — and how we view ourselves. We draw inferences about who we are by observing our own behavior, and our acts of kindness make us believe that we have what it takes to be a good person. In the remote workplace, where cultivating moments of joy is difficult, this may be a particularly important benefit that translates into long-term job satisfaction.
Third, as we found in a new set of studies, giving compliments can make us even happier than receiving them. We paired up participants and asked them to write about themselves and then talk about themselves with each other. Next, we asked one of them to give an honest compliment about something they liked or respected about the other participant after listening to them. Consistently, we found that giving compliments actually made people happier than receiving them. Surprisingly, though, people were largely unaware of the hedonic benefits of being kind.
Why does giving compliments boost our happiness to such a degree? A key ingredient of well-being that we’ve sorely lacked during the pandemic plays a role: social connection. In our studies, we found that giving compliments engendered a stronger social connection than receiving compliments because giving them encouraged people to focus on the other person. Sure, receiving a compliment feels great, but making a thoughtful, genuine compliment requires us to think about someone else — their mental state, behavior, personality, thoughts, and feelings. Thinking about other people is often a precondition to feeling connected to them. In this way, compliments can become a social glue, enhancing connections and positivity in relationships, and making us happier.
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