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Workwise: Kindness and Corporation

Workwise: Kindness and Corporation
Workplace kindness can be hit-or-miss or a cultivated corporate value. When it's there, people work harder.

Does kindness have a proper place at the office? Or is it found mostly on a stool in the corner with a small but definite dunce cap?

On the one hand, employees might be inspired by the likes of the Dalai Lama, who said, "This is my simple religion—Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." On the other hand, the Dalai Lama never had to make his numbers.

Kindness, it turns out, is controversial.

"Kindness is not a word I would use in my trainings," one executive development coach insists. "The leaders at the level on which I work don't relate to it, because it describes a social value. The closest we come is an emphasis on creating a respectful workplace, avoiding sexual harassment, racial intolerance, or gender bias."

Good, of course, but not exactly the tender offer of kindness. Perhaps it's that very sense of tenderness that gives kindness its image problem. One female litigator described her own wariness regarding warm civility: "If a male is pleasant and easy to work with, he's regarded as a nice guy. But if I extend opposing counsel a common courtesy, say, on a scheduling matter where he has a legitimate conflict, I am often seen as a pushover, and that works against my client's interests. I can't afford to be seen as a pleaser."

One CEO vigorously defended his own check on compassion: "I'd love to be able to step in and hand a valued employee some cash because I've heard his wife got laid off and I know he needs the money. But people aren't discreet about that kind of thing; they tell. And then every other employee wonders why I didn't do the same for him or her."

You could argue that the milk of human kindness is pretty much curdled at the office when it stirs images of weakness, naivete, self-promotion, or self-defense. All the downsides notwithstanding, there is a strong current of kindness stubbornly running through some workplaces. And where it flows, people smile more. They work harder, too.

In their book, Leading with Kindness, William Baker and Michael O'Malley contend that corporate kindness positively impacts profits. They identify six qualities of kind managers—compassion, integrity, gratitude, authenticity, humility, and humor—and believe a kind management style improves employee performance and retention.

Depending on how you define it, kindness can be seen as an individual character trait, present or not as a function of who works where. "Some guys are just total pricks," says a manufacturing rep. "They wouldn't say hello to an entry level associate or look at the cleaning lady. But they would do a favor for a client."

The provost of a local college spoke admiringly of the school's president. "He's just a terrific guy who is genuinely interested in the well-being of people. He knows the life story of everyone in the building. He makes everyone feel valued."

But kindness can just as readily be a corporate cultural value, one to be supported or snuffed out depending upon the attitude of the people on top. Said one veteran of five top financial firms, "These companies were not identical in their basic human spirit. If you had one of those badass guys at the top, the signal was clear: Do whatever it takes. Losers will be bounced out. Winners will be rewarded. Kindness was just something that got in the way.

Psychology Today Magazine, Mar/Apr 2009
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