…is love sweet love. As Burt Bacharach and Hal David said, that’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.
I shall resist reminding you of the many horrible and ugly things happening in the world. I shall refrain from listing the many many incidents of casual interpersonal violence that occur all too often in our daily lives. You know.
Some of you will have heard of Project Aristotle, in which Google set out to discover the secret of its teams’ successes. Data was mined. Of course it was; this is Google after all. Initially, they struggled to find patterns. What they eventually noticed was that it wasn’t whether a team was more task-focussed or was composed of a fine balance of “personality types”, but whether the teams demonstrated consistent sensitivity to one another’s thoughts and feelings. In short, the secret they discovered to good co-working at Google is just being nice to one another.
Just be nice.
There is a line from the Steve Jobs film when Jobs and Steve Wozniak are having a row and Woz says, “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” He is underlining a previous comment in which he described Jobs as an a**hole. Robert Sutton, in researching his book “The No A**hole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving one That Isn’t” noted that “It is troubling that there’s this notion in our culture that if you’re a winner, it’s okay to be an a–hole.” Troubling indeed.
It’s good to be good to people. It’s good for us and it’s good for the other.
Being nice is not just about more effective teamwork; it’s related to doing what we can to establish what Margaret Wheatley has called “islands of sanity” in a world that may feel increasingly mean-spirited and ugly. At the risk of sounding a bit of a little old-fashioned, there is nothing wrong, and everything right, with bringing more kindness into our lives (that includes our working lives).
As Dr. John McGurk stated in a 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. 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 hope that you have plenty of love and caring in your personal lives. However, a large chunk of our waking hours are spent at work, whether that’s defined by a physical space or not, often rubbing up against people that we haven’t chosen. Many folks have their eyes open to the fact that we want our businesses and organisations to be places where we feel valued and appreciated (and where that is expressed), 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. It is a core human need to care and to feel we are cared about.
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 often 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 or manipulative favours that actually spring out of narcissism. Just as the 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.
In a talk entitled “Zero Degrees of Empathy”, Professor Simon Baron Cohen describes an experiment in which rhesus monkeys were trained to pull a chain in order to obtain food, which they quickly learnt. The contingencies of the experiment were then changed such that every time a monkey pulled the chain, they got their reward but they also saw another monkey receiving an electric shock. When they observed this, 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, kindness, being a good human being … these things are not discretionary, as it may have been for Victorian mill owners. If organisations 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 kinder and more human, too. We get back what we give.
So with this mounting evidence of how good it is for us to do good, it’s important not to play the “you go first” game. I suspect that care, concern and compassion for others 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, continuing to care for us. 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 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 in 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. Bring to mind the people for whom you are grateful in your life; both for being a part of your life, as well as for the kind acts they show you. Notice what that does to your physiology, your heart and your mind. 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 know of one business which has used 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, as Google’s Project Aristotle shows. 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. The differences amount to the formation of those islands of sanity. From a bottom line perspective, more is also known about the power of engagement. Engagement comes about because people within organisations, whatever their hierarchical position, develop capabilities to be human with other humans. People engage in most any endeavour 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 that will improve your working life and the working lives of others? And the last words go to Bacharach and David. Love is “not just for some, but for everyone”. Who can you show more care for? In your home life? In your neighbourhood? In your workplace?
This article is dedicated to my father, Jack Wenger. 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 people.