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The Psychology of Kindness in the Workplace

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The Psychology of Kindness in the Workplace

Scholars explain why a culture of caring and compassion must be cultivated.
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Employees are likely to catch the emotions of their leaders. (Getty Images)

More than a dozen social scientists, business school professors, and other experts on compassion gathered at the "Compassion & Business" conference held at Stanford University on April 30. Olivia "Mandy" O'Neill, a 2005 PhD graduate of Stanford Graduate School of Business who has studied the effects of companionate love in the workplace, moderated a panel on "Thriving Leaders & Employees," featuring psychologists Jamil Zaki, Jayanth "Jay" Narayanan, and Kristin Neff, and organizational scholar Kim Cameron. After the conference, O'Neill spoke with Marina Krakovsky, answering questions about what managers can learn from these researchers.

One of the themes of the conference is that caring about your own well-being and caring for the well-being of others aren't at odds. But putting compassion into practice does take time and energy. What does psychological research suggest about how you can be kind toward others without exhausting yourself?

A lot of the work finds that when people get burned out, they're actually not feeling caring and compassion at all — the pressure to express these emotions is just another load on top of them. So managers can't come in with a one-hour workshop that forces employees to act in ways that are inconsistent with their needs. It has to come from a place of authenticity, or at least cultural internalization, not something employees are complying with because it's what the boss wants.

Also, the research on emotional contagion shows that people are particularly likely to catch the emotions of their leaders. Unfortunately, people in power tend to be the worst at taking the perspective of others. There's nothing worse than an employer rolling out a program on compassion while the boss himself is the same ass as always.

Jamil Zaki said that the latest research is showing that we're nice even to people outside our circle and to those who can't help us in return. Those lab findings run counter to traditional thinking by economists and biologists, and I wonder how true his statement is for business organizations, where people compete for resources even within the same group. Does it depend on the industry?

There's a huge degree of variation in organizations, even in the same industry, and a lot of it depends on the extent to which the behavior is encouraged, trained, and rewarded. We know from the research on management that there's a tendency toward attraction, selection, and attrition: People who are kind, generous, and compassionate tend to be attracted to and be selected by organizations that match those qualities.

Also, organizational cultures can be team-oriented, which tend to have people who are aware of one another's contributions, and cultures can be achievement-oriented. But these things are not opposite ends of the same continuum, so it's absolutely possible and likely that achievement-oriented cultures that are also respectful and caring are the most successful.

Jay Narayanan talked about the toll of holding a grudge. He pointed to a clever experiment showing that grudge-holders perceived a hill as steeper than did people who had been asked to recall a time they'd forgiven someone — it's as if the grudge is a heavy backpack that people wear, yet they resist forgiving others because they fear it will make them appear weak and will invite exploitation. On the other hand, he also mentioned that some powerful leaders, like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, are admired precisely because they could have retaliated but chose not to. What do you take from all that?

It points to a general theme of our panel: There are a lot of ingrained management assumptions that the research is showing to be just wrong. One assumption is that if you forgive someone, you'll be weak, when in fact you'll be seen as a good leader. This is very similar to Kristin Neff's findings on self-compassion: Although being compassionate with yourself leads to high achievement, people resist self-compassion because they think it'll make them lazy. In many business organizations, there is an assumption that negative feedback is the way to make employees better and more motivated. Her work suggests that it's very easy to have feedback be interpreted as criticism.

That dovetails nicely with point Kim Cameron made: that there might be an ideal ratio between complimenting and correcting, such as 3-to-1 or 5-to-1. His own research would say that there has to be some room for negative feedback, but the important thing is for the ratio to be skewed to the compassionate.

Mandy O'Neill is an assistant professor of management at the George Mason University School of Management. Jamil Zaki is an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University. Jay Narayanan is an assistant professor in management and organizations at the National University of Singapore. Kristin Neff is an associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Kim Cameron is the William Russell Kelly Professor of Management and Organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.

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