Good morning! I bought you a coffee on the way to work. Skinny latte, right? No, I haven't gone mad: get ready for 13 November, World Kindness Day, which advocates random acts of kindness towards friends, strangers, relatives - and colleagues. And kindness is something of a buzzword just now. It makes others feel happier. It makes us feel happier. And when we're happier, we're more productive, less stressed and more creative (there are studies backing all of the above).
And so, inevitably, kindness is being hailed as the latest panacea to workplace ills. As with all such buzzwords, there is a persuasive TED talk in which entrepreneur, blogger and author Margaret Heffernan discusses the Super Chickens experiment (stay with me). Chickens were streamed according to their 'productivity', in other words, their egg-laying capacity. The top egg-layers were separated into an elite group of super chickens. A group of average egg-layers provided a comparison. After six generations, the average flock was doing fine, and its productivity - egg-laying - had risen. The super chickens? They didn't do so well. Only three survived - they'd pecked the others to death.
Heffernan's analogy is with the workplace, where we select the brightest stars, give them resources and power, and end up with aggression and dysfunction, underpinned by unhealthy levels of competition. What we need, she argues, is a better way of working, one that promotes greater social connectedness to each other. And so we come to kindness, where colleagues are empathetic, well-intentioned, and helpful. They give equal time to everyone. They share praise and offer support.
Sounds great, except kindness can seem out-of-step with modern workplace mores. It's often conflated with weakness, or a lack of drive. Imagine Gordon Gekko qualifying 'greed is good' with 'but random acts of kindness are better'. It doesn't pack the same punch.
I'd argue - nicely, of course - that it's time to drop our preconceptions. Critical in anyone's career success are the relationships we build inside and outside the workplace. Strong relationships within teams are important in fostering resilience. And one of the factors driving employee engagement, currently flatlining in Gallup's latest engagement survey, is how connected we feel to colleagues. So maybe kindness - or social capital, as Heffernan cannily reframes it - is worth a second look.
Here's how to show kindness without being seen as the office pushover:
Be attuned to others - colleagues, direct reports and bosses. Notice how they're feeling. Consider what their work concerns might be before offloading your own.
Share your ideas and offer support where needed (without overextending yourself).
Spend time getting to know your colleagues.
Confuse kindness with chumminess, or think it means letting people off the hook.
Avoid candour. On the contrary, building better relationships should enable you to speak more openly to one another.
Spend so much time attending to others that you abandon your own objectives.
Rebecca Alexander is an executive coach at The Coaching Studio. Please email comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet @_coachingstudio