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Small acts of kindness at work benefit the giver, the receiver and the whole organisation

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By Alex Fradera

In the lab, psychologists have shown how generosity propagates and spreads. If someone is kind to us, we tend to “pay it forward” and act more generously to someone else when given the chance. But it’s not clear if these findings are realistic. For example, when we’re juggling priorities on a busy work day, might receiving an act of kindness actually be a nuisance, leaving us feeling indebted to return the favour when we’ve got more important things to do? An uplifting new study in the journal Emotion looks at acts of altruism within a real-life working environment, and shows how kindness really does ripple outwards from a good deed.

The researchers from the University of California headed by Joseph Chancellor studied workers from Coca Cola’s Madrid site, a group of mostly female employees from a range of departments. Participants were told they were part of a happiness study, and once a week for four weeks they checked in to report how they were feeling, in terms of mood and life satisfaction, and their experience of positive and negative behaviours, including how many they had carried out towards others, and how many others had made towards them. Four weeks later, the participants completed further measures, such as of their happiness and job satisfaction.

Unbeknownst to most of the group, 19 of the participants were in cahoots with the researchers: they were “givers” whose task each week was to perform acts of kindness towards some of their co-workers (they were to refrain from showing kindness to other co-workers who served as a control group). It was up to the givers what generous acts they performed – Chancellor’s team wanted to make sure these participants had autonomy in what they did, rather than obeying an injunction (we know that this can turn out badly) – examples of the favours they performed included bringing someone a drink, and emailing a thank-you note.

So what did a month of extra kindness mean for the workers who were on the receiving end, for the givers, and for the organisation as a whole?

The acts of kindness don’t go unnoticed. The receivers observed more prosocial behaviours in the office and by the end of the study, they were reporting ten times more prosocial behaviours than the controls. In addition, receivers’ level of “felt autonomy” – essentially how much they felt in control of their days at work – were higher than controls over the course of the study, although it’s worth noting that this was because autonomy dropped in controls while it held steady in the receivers (Seth Margolis, a co-author on the paper, told me that work conditions were likely getting harder over the study period, with the acts of kindness acting as a buffer). One month after the study ended, the receivers were also enjoying significantly higher levels of happiness than controls.

Giving was itself rewarding, and on some indicators more rewarding than receiving. The givers saw the same preserved autonomy enjoyed by receivers, and additionally saw benefit to their sense of competency (again relative to declining control scores) – presumably decorating Nuria’s monitor with a smiley face made of post-its reminds you of your creative potential. The givers’ one-month followup measures were also more impressive than the receivers’: they enjoyed higher levels of life satisfaction and job satisfaction, and fewer depressive symptoms. This suggests that in this context, giving had a more durable effect than receiving.  This shouldn’t be so surprising, as evidence suggests we feel happier when spending money on others than ourselves, and acts of kindness increase autonomy and competence.

Finally, and consistent with past lab studies, the research showed that receivers didn’t just enjoy acts of kindness – they paid them forward. By the end of the study, the receivers reported engaging in nearly three times more prosocial behaviours than did the controls. If this were direct reciprocity – Nuria figuring out who got busy with the smiley stickies on her monitor and fetching them a coffee as a thank you – then we would expect to see the givers reporting many more positive behaviours by study end. But they didn’t, suggesting that the acts were paid forward to someone other than the original giver, due to a sense of elevation and desire to participate in an organisation that was treating them in an ideal way. This contributes to the idea that while there are individual origins of prosociality, there is also a strong contagious quality to it, moving socially through groups, in much the way that phenomena such as rudeness and even obesity have been shown to do.

So workplace acts of kindness – freely chosen – appear to be a way to create virtuous cycles within organisations, benefiting the recipients, the givers, and the climate at large. Just get the goodness started, and enjoy its growth all around you.

Everyday Prosociality in the Workplace: The Reinforcing Benefits of Giving, Getting, and Glimpsing

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest