Nice guys don't finish last


The Buddha said, “Life is suffering.”  And, as many people would attest, suffering is an integral aspect of our work life as well. Happily, while suffering may be a fact of human existence, when it is met with care and concern, compassion results – and compassion can ease even our greatest burdens.

The other morning, my husband texted me when he arrived at work. He relayed that the elevator in the building was broken down – a first-world problem to be sure, but an annoyance for people who have to tramp up and down four flights of stairs lugging a laptop bag nonetheless. He included a picture of a table set up at the top of the stairwell, laden with snacks and beverages with a sign reading, “Sorry about the hike – refresh here!” This small act of compassion no doubt brightened more days than just my husband’s, and speaks volumes about the ethos of caring at this company.

There are a multitude of sources of suffering in the workplace, ranging from uncomfortable or unsafe work environments, job stress and burnout, unpleasant politics, interpersonal issues, work-life balance challenges, and concerns over job security to name but a few. Suffering is expensive. In a recent review of the literature (Compassion at Work), the authors report that suffering in the form of grief alone costs organizations $75 billion annually, while stress costs $300 billion a year, stemming from increased absenteeism and turnover, greater medical and legal costs, and reduced productivity. Research also shows, however, that compassion at work mitigates suffering. For the sufferer, compassion eases anxiety, increases attachment and commitment to the organization, and contributes to feelings of being valued. People who act compassionately at work feel a satisfaction that comes from helping others and tend to see themselves positively as a caring person. Collectively, compassion results in a stronger connection between coworkers, increased pride in the organization, and greater commitment to the organization. Further, research has showed that people who act compassionately are perceived more strongly as leaders.

At the other end of the spectrum, coworker incivility has serious and far-reaching consequences. As described in an overview of the research to date (Coworkers Behaving Badly), coworker misbehavior is associated with decreased wellbeing and with increased depression, anxiety, stress, emotional strain, emotional exhaustion, and burnout. Further, employees perceive lack of organization support, resulting in job dissatisfaction and greater intentions to leave. Employees who have to deal with nasty coworkers are less connected at work and are more likely to withdraw, which impacts workgroup effectiveness and, ultimately, absenteeism and turnover (see our previous post on the importance of social connections in the workplace). Employees on the receiving end of unpleasantness are also more likely to engage in counterproductive behavior and less likely to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors – passing the buck, so to speak, by harming other coworkers or the organization in turn. These impacts are very real and substantial, even when someone is not directly involved but merely observes workplace incivility or aggression. Cumulatively, these experiences cohere to set the stage for a toxic office environment.

The other day I was picking up a coffee at a drive-through. When I got to the window to pay, I was told that the person in front of me paid for my order. Tickled and happy, I gladly paid for the order of the person behind me, wondering how far out the first “random act of kindness” rippled, each of us getting a positive emotional zing and passing it along. Leaders and managers are in a powerful position to do the same with even farther reaching impact. Small kindnesses and acts of compassion get passed around and have the potential to improve employee engagement, teamwork and collaboration, and organizational culture. Organizations feel these impacts through reduced turnover, theft, and healthcare costs and increased productivity and innovation. Tony Schwarz and Christine Porath, authors of a recent NY Times piece Why You Hate Work say, “It also makes a big difference to explicitly reward leaders and managers who exhibit empathy, care and humility, and to hold them accountable for relying on anger or other demeaning emotions that may drive short-term results but also create a toxic climate of fear over time — with enormous costs.”

Nice guys don’t finish last. By consciously choosing kind, compassionate behaviors, leaders have the ability to create a work environment where people feel valued, safe, and connected; to build their reputations; and contribute to their organization’s healthy bottom-line. Plus, it feels good.