Since today is World Kindness Day and most of us will be spending it at work, I thought this would be a good time to share a few tips on how we can transform our workplace in a way that benefits, well... basically everyone.
If you need reasons why this is a good idea, feel free to check out my previous post. Otherwise, here's some simple advice (for leaders and for the rest of us) from experts who have been investigating the effects of taking a compassionate approach in organisations.
1. Start small
According to business professor Adam Grant, the most successful 'givers' don't try to be Gandhi or Mother Teresa. They do a lot of five-minute favours. "That might be sharing a little bit of knowledge, making an introduction when somebody is down on their luck or their opportunities, just listening, and offering advice or sympathy for a challenge that somebody is facing."
2. Learn to focus
One Harvard University study found that we spend almost half our waking hours doing one thing but thinking about something else - and our distraction levels are highest at work. Amongst other things, this stops us from connecting with people around us.
Simple meditation and mindfulness exercises bring all kinds of benefits, including boosting our compassion levels (as this doctor's waiting room study shows). More and more companies are offering meditation classes, and even CEOs and politicians are getting involved.
3. Try compassion training
In the last 10 years or so, research has confirmed that we can deliberately cultivate empathy and compassion. For example, studies using 'economics games' found that people acted more altruistically after compassion training and were more likely to redistribute money that was unfairly allocated. Teachers and healthcare professionals were less stressed, anxious or depressed, and compassion training seems to protect caregivers from burnout and compassion fatigue. A number of different organisations now run courses for professionals.
4. Be kind to yourself
Our biggest enemy at work - or anywhere else - is often ourself. Self-compassion (which is not the same as self-esteem) is important because the more we have, the more likely we are to be happy, optimistic and satisfied with life.
Self-compassion is linked with qualities that are very useful at work. It makes us more conscientious, resilient and motivated, and more willing to take responsibility for mistakes. Kristin Neff, a leading self-compassion researcher and teacher, believes it is hard to show compassion for others if we don't have any for ourselves. "Your batteries are going to run dry," she says.
5. Promote compassionate leaders
Organisations don't set their values, structures and procedures, the people at the top do - so we should select, train and support leaders who are prepared to make changes and listen to employees. Leadership consultant Richard Barrett gives the example of a large South African bank that started conducting regular staff surveys. The result was a striking growth in staff engagement, profits and share price. "Caring about your employees is really good for business," says Barrett.
6. Beware of 'takers'
"The negative impact of takers on a culture is greater than the positive impact of givers," says Adam Grant. Weeding out "the most selfish, horrible people" creates a balance of givers and 'matchers'. As matchers tend to reciprocate the treatment they receive, they will emulate the givers around them, and this will shift the whole culture of the organisation.
7. It's not always about money
We're missing a trick if we think the only way to motivate employees is through financial incentives, with an injection of fear for good measure. Many organisations overlook the value of appreciation, support and affiliation, both as a performance motivator and as a calming factor in stressful work environments. One practical way to address this is to find ways to recognize and reward employees who go out of their way to help others.
8. Make compassionate decisions
We can never know exactly what the consequences of a decision will be. But before we act, we can run a few simple checks. What is our motivation? What are the implications for others? How would we feel if we were on the receiving end?
9. Ignore the compassion myths
We might worry that acting in a compassionate way will see us branded as a soft touch who can't get the job done (even though research suggests the opposite is true). Adam Grant says: "The easiest way to remove that barrier is to identify other givers in your organisation and build a community of people who share your values and are willing to see concern for others and compassion as a sign of strength as opposed to a source of weakness."
10. Lead by example
As the psychologist and author Daniel Goleman points out, our emotions and behaviour are contagious. "A leader is anyone who has a sphere of influence, and we all do in our lives somewhere... We are all in a situation, in any interaction, to be compassionate."
These are just some of the tips shared by the speakers at the Empathy and Compassion in Society conference.