…is love sweet love. As Burt Bacharach and Hal David said, that’s the only thing that there’s just too little of. At the risk of sounding a bit ‘soft’ as the holiday season approaches, I have been reflecting on some recent conversations along with some experiences I’ve had through 2011 and wish to emphasise the importance of developing what are often called ‘people skills’ in our businesses and organisations. As Dr. John McGurk states in this rather excellent November 2010 study, “Using the Head and Heart at Work,” people skills are rarely neutral, that is, they have the power to influence in positive, as well as negative, ways. I don’t believe I need to make the case for superlative ‘head’ or ‘hand’ skills at work; those cases have long been won. Instead, I will bang on yet again about the need to hone our ‘heart’ skills. It is by deployment of our ‘heart’ skills that we facilitate more effective application of our ‘head’ and ‘hand’ skills at work. Now that our workplaces are becoming more and more relationship- and collaboration-based, the urgent need to develop greater ‘heart’ at work is before us.
I know most of you will probably feel that you have plenty of love and caring in your personal lives. However, we spend a huge chunk of our waking hours at work, usually with people that we haven’t chosen. We also have opened our eyes to the fact that we actually want our businesses and organisations to be places where we feel valued and appreciated, where we feel we are making a difference to others, where we can be human. It is a nonsense to hold on to an Industrial Age notion that we should leave our whole selves at the door when we enter our workplaces and simply offer up our brains or hands to be deployed as some manager’s resource. We want to care and we want people to care about us.
There is growing evidence that doing good for others and showing caring for others is also good for us. Two large studies have shown that older adults who volunteer live longer than non-volunteers. Indeed, altruistic emotions seem to override the effects of cortisol, our stress hormone. A recent study has also shown that helping and caring for others increases levels of oxytocin, the bonding hormone that helps us develop trusting relationships. If we have reduced cortisol and increased oxytocin when we are compassionate and caring towards others, if we feel good because of the unselfish good we do, it boggles the mind why we still endure workplaces that cause us to feel bad or where our good deeds go unnoticed. However, as William Glasser is noted as saying, we cannot change others; we can only change ourselves; if we change ourselves, others cannot help but respond to us differently.
If you believe that we get back what we give out, why not be mindful of opportunities to care for others with whom we work? One note about this do-good effect, though. Those studies which show improved well-being when we are compassionate towards others also indicate that this comes out of unselfish good deeds, not ‘dry’ acts of duty for others. Just as your boss won’t guarantee higher levels of engagement by faking care, consultation or listening, we can’t fake generosity. It requires genuineness and authenticity on our part; not simply clicking “Like” on Facebook.
For those of you who watched the video clip on empathy by Professor Simon Baron Cohen in my previous blog article, you will have heard about the monkeys who help other monkeys in distress. A bunch of rhesus monkeys were taught to obtain food by pulling on a chain. When a monkey was shown another monkey receiving an electric shock every time the chain was pulled, they stopped pulling the chain. One monkey in this experiment went without food for 12 days. That monkey in particular would put some bosses I know to shame. Empathy at work is not discretionary, as it may have been for Victorian mill owners. If leaders want engagement, it requires something more than an annual Christmas bonus or staff party. It’s not just down to the bosses though. We all have a part to play in making our workplaces more human, too. We get back what we give.
So with this mounting evidence of how good it is for us to do good, let’s not play the “you go first” game. I suspect that care, concern and compassion for others at work is a self-reinforcing cycle. We do good, we feel good, we are motivated to continue doing good; and others feel good when we care for them, they begin to care for us more. I know that the opposite can certainly become a negative spiral as well. Make the first move.
Keep going on your path of self-awareness. Our interpersonal abilities spring out of and are inextricably linked with our intrapersonal abilities. In other words, the greater our self-knowledge and ability to identify, name and process our own emotional life, the greater our capability to recognise and respond to the emotional life of others. We can go on and on learning about ourselves. A massage therapist will learn the technique of palpation: feeling the body’s tissues for areas of tightness. With greater practice and experience, the therapist will develop greater acuity to feel smaller and smaller areas of tension that a beginner will not notice. We can similarly grow greater acuity to notice our own feelings, many of which we are unconscious to in our daily lives. As we acquaint ourselves with ourselves, our eyes also open to the smallest facial expressions, the subtlest body language and most obscure meanings in the words and acts of others. Tuning into ourselves helps us tune into others, thereby increasing our ability to care. Focus on your body right now: what is it telling you?
Notice others. Finely tune your awareness of what is going on for other people. Many of us like to pride ourselves on our abilities to work hard and get things done and we overlook the impact of our stresses and challenges. Too many people ‘suffer in silence’ at work and in some cases, people even leave organisations because they get burnt out. Some take the approach that if they couldn’t stand the heat, it was best they went, but most of the cases I know of are where highly competent, engaged and dedicated people left because they felt isolated and couldn’t sustain themselves any longer. It is these folks we need to watch out for. If we fine tune our awareness of others and do simple things to let them know they are appreciated, it will make an enormous difference to them. When people talk about how overworked they feel or how stressed they are by a deadline or a heavy workload, we don’t have to step it to try to fix it for them, but listening to them and letting them know they have a trusted person to offload can let them know they are not alone and they have support. Think about your co-workers: who needs some support right now?
Listen to others. We are busy, this is true. We often hear others, but much of what they say goes in one ear and out the other and in many cases, we don’t even look at the person talking to us. If we take the time to really listen to others, we have the power to make a difference to them. Ask anyone who volunteers on a telephone helpline. Listen to their words and listen ‘between the words’. Good listening comes from being present to what the person says as well as how they say it. It involves noticing what they don’t say and how they do this as well. It primarily involves turning off our inner monologue so that we do more than simply wait our turn to open our mouths. Think about a recent conversation you had: how much did you really listen? What might you have missed?
Develop the habit of gratitude. I was reminded of the power of gratitude by a close friend of mine recently. It caused me to bring to mind the people for whom I am grateful in my life; both for being a part of my life, as well as for the kind acts they show me. Imagine what that did to my physiology, my heart and my mind. I can tell you that his suggestion to focus on gratitude certainly intruded on the grumpiness I was sitting with at the time. As with altruism, developing an attitude of gratitude has been shown to increase our own well-being, reduce our stress and anxiety levels and encourage kinder behaviour towards others. I have heard of one business which has recently started the practice at their team meetings of each person thanking one other person in the team for something they did through the week. It has made it an even nicer place to work; everything we know about engagement points to a friendly culture being an essential ingredient. If there is a boss who wants to argue that caring for others at work is pointless, I will give them this Manager’s contact details. Think about your workplace: who or what are you grateful for?
All this stuff may sound a little ‘touchy-feely’, however, more of us are coming to acknowledge the power of these small differences that make big differences in people’s working lives. From a bottom line perspective, more is also known about the power of engagement. Engagement comes about because managers, leaders and others within organisations develop our capabilities to be human with other humans. People engage when they know that who they are as a person is noticed, supported and encouraged; when they know they are not a cog in a machine.
Two final thoughts about this subject; to paraphrase a famous advertisement for the RSPCA, real compassion, authentic caring and genuine altruism at work are not just for Christmas, they’re for life. What attitude can you change or habit can you inculcate in 2012 that will improve your working life and the working lives of others? And the last words go to Bacharach and David, expressed beautifully by Dionne Warwick. He goes on to say that love is “not just for some, but for everyone”. Who can you show more care for at work?
This article is dedicated to my father, Jack Wenger, who died on December 18, 2009. What I know from the people who worked with him as their Manager, he was a much loved boss who cared very much about the welfare of his people.