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Kindness in the office won’t kill you

Is there a better way than what we know?

UNconventional Wisdom is a periodic guest blog where the conventional wisdom is held up for fresh inspection. If you have some "UNconventional Wisdom" to share, email scocheo@sbpub.com. UNconventional Wisdom is a periodic guest blog where the conventional wisdom is held up for fresh inspection. If you have some "UNconventional Wisdom" to share, email scocheo@sbpub.com.

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. —Plato

Americans, on average, spend 47 to 50 hours at the office—the highest number in the world. But in tough times, or if you are on a fast track, you could spend upward of 80 to 90 hours a week at work. I know I do.

So what happens at work can define our daily experience—and make or break the quality of our lives.

In my blog on Forbes.com, where this article originally appeared, I have written on “The Sociopath in the Office Next Door,” or what I call “Evil in the Office.” That blog drew much attention to the sociopaths and psychopaths, narcissists and sadomasochists we often encounter as bosses, co-workers, peers, and employees.

These individuals can make our work lives hell.

Now I would like to address the diametrically opposite concept: kindness in the office.

What a concept!

Strange to use those words in the same sentence, isn’t it? Kindness and office.

We more often associate tough-minded, driving, aggressive, hard-nosed—and even angry, cruel, or ruthless—with normal office behavior.

Somehow, we have grown used to kindness not only not belonging in the context of “office.” The idea gets relegated to family life, religion, or volunteer work. Applied to office behavior it could be seen as soppy, weak, unproductive, and uncompetitive—a loser’s preoccupation.

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It need not be so!

I firmly believe that kindness can still infuse winning, tough-minded, smart, highly competitive, and driven organizations. In fact, it can fuel them, and make them even better-functioning, even more outstanding. And it can make those extreme hours we spend in the office that much more pleasant, even fulfilling.

And what’s wrong with that? Must we be sadomasochists to be wildly successful in business?

Story of a public whipping

Let me share with you a personal story, to illustrate:

Once when I was on the management committee of a large corporation, we would meet with the heads of our various businesses once a quarter to review their results and strategies for growth.

More often than not, I was the only woman in the room; all of us were hard-charging, but it seemed as if everyone needed to act, well, so tough in order to look like good businessmen and leaders.

One day, I encountered the proverbial breaking straw.

In a management review, we met with the oldest head of  business in the company. He was certainly in his mid-60s. His division was not doing well at all—in fact, it was the worst performer in the company.

During the presentation, the head of the company decided to start yelling at him. You know how it goes. Once he ripped in, it was open season. So the EVPs started following suit and screaming at him, and by the time they were through, everyone in the room (but me) was yelling at him at the top of their lungs.

The executive never said a word, but before our eyes he started to sweat profusely. Then he turned pale, then bright red. Then the red faded to gray, and—I swear to you—he started to turn blue.

Everyone saw it, but no one said a word.

They kept on yelling.

Time for a “pause button”

I wanted to shout, “Let’s stop this torture!”

More than anything else, I wanted to get the guy some water. I wanted to call an ambulance.

But I knew that as the only woman in the room—and in fact, the only woman on that leadership team—I would drastically lessen my stature to be seen as the “nurturer” while everyone else was playing sadist.

Finally, I could stand it no more—I just had to get out of that room. So I took what was the only acceptable out: I went to the restroom.

I figured either I would hear the ambulance sirens, or not. When they were not forthcoming, I re-entered the meeting.

And lo and behold, the moment had passed. They were all joking together.

The executive had regained some color. He was actually laughing.

Two weeks later he was out.

Does it have to be this way?

I felt I had witnessed some bizarre, sadomasochistic game that was seemingly acceptable to all.

It was not acceptable to me. I found the exercise excruciating, sadistic, and unbearably mean.

Here’s what I would have done had I been the boss in that room:

The guy would have come in with his dismal numbers. I would have stopped him in the midst of his PowerPoint presentation and said, “Look, we can see that your business is in deep trouble. In fact, it looks like it’s in a death spiral.”

But then I would have followed it this way:

“So we are going to take our allotted time, delve into the causes, and then use the accumulated brain power in this room to figure out some solutions with you. You will have two or three months to start to turn it around. If you can’t, I’m going to have to replace you.

“But let’s try together to figure out the save first, OK?”

Hard to be so open and authentic, but it is both tough-minded and kind to do so. Then everyone would know the lay of the land overtly. I would expect the group to use its best efforts to help, but if the situation could not be saved, there would be no surprises.

Why not try kindness?

The question is, can you really be a winner, yet kind?

Yes.

You can be demanding, perfectionistic, unrelenting, ambitious, and a full-fledged success—and still be kind. You can even be scary and intimidating and still be kind!

In fact, I think a “kind streak” can make you a far better and more successful businessperson, executive, and leader.

Why?

Because kindness—once people realize that it does not mean being a pushover—can be a profoundly motivating force. Loyalty can bring just as good results as fear or greed, and probably more sustainable growth.

And loyalty is bred, in part, by kindness.

Just as I find that we work better when we truly like our clients, and people make better speeches when they like their audiences, so too people do better work when they like and respect one another. And underlying that is not only fair play, but kindness.

Now you cannot like everyone you work with (unless you run a company, as I do, and only hire the best, brightest and nicest people on Earth!) But you can expect normal, everyday politeness, fair play, communication, and consideration from your colleagues.

So much thought and writing is devoted to “work-life balance.” I would like to suggest that if we spent more time thinking about the quality of our time and life at work, that might mean we would need less such talk about “balance,” and less recovery time once we got home.

We have a choice, a real choice to bring kindness into our workplaces, in the right ways. It can help the quality of our lives, our interactions, our client service, and our work product (and probably lower our collective blood pressure along the way).

Why not give it a try, and see if your work doesn’t benefit?

Readers: What do you think? Does kindness in the office work? Share your experiences in the comment section below.

Davia Temin

Davia Temin heads Temin and Company, corporate crisis consultants. She has long experience in marketing, media and reputation strategy, and crisis management. She serves as the spokesperson for major organizations during crisis, coaches numerous global CEOs, and advises worldwide corporations on the strategic direction of their women's councils.

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