January 19, 2020

Bringing Kindness into the Workplace

My first job out of college was at a major corporation. I was only spoken to when I was needed for a task. There was no community, no warmth, no love. I felt like a cog, akin to something out of Lang’s Metropolis; I was just a part of a cold machine. After a few months,  I ran for the hills never to return to a similar workplace.

For the past generation, there has been a persistent corporate measuring of “winners and losers,” divided solely by those who have money and those who do not, with the assumption that it is natural for the “losers” to fall by the wayside. The law of the jungle appears to be not only inevitable, but desirable. Americans are burnt out from working so hard. Our workforce is becoming increasingly competitive, demanding, and draining. From morning rush hour until beyond the end of the workday, the motto seems to be: “Nice guys finish last.”

Those demands aren’t going to change any time soon, but what if we injected a bit more kindness into our work environment, so that we did not have such an ingrained “dog eat dog” atmosphere? In the summer of 2013, scholars from diverse backgrounds met at Stanford University to discuss the notion of compassion in the workplace. Business graduate Dr. Olivia O’Neill noted that “people are particularly likely to catch the emotions of their leaders.” Thus, if a CEO is particularly lacking in compassion, this will filter down to the employees, and will increase the tendency toward employee burnout, which will hurt the company’s performance. At the conference, Stanford Assistant Professor of Psychology Jamil Zaki stated that companies tend to follow a policy of “attention, selection, and attrition,” so if a company has compassion it will likely attract employees who are kind and generous, fostering cooperation. National University of Singapore Business School Associate Professor Jayanth Narayanan pointed out that, in spite of the belief that forgiveness shows weakness, we admire many leaders such as those who chose forgiveness over vengeance, Monandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela for example. Professor Kristin Neff of the University of Texas discussed her research, which demonstrated that, contrary to what many in management believe, overwhelmingly negative feedback does not motivate employees. Rather than leading to more productivity, constant negative feedback leads to a defensive response; employees respond much better to feedback that is three- to five-times more positive than negative.

In addition to being a moral decision, compassion in the workplace may be a strategic move as well. Three years ago, the New York Times reported that kindness increases productivity in profound ways.

Researchers at Wharton, Yale and Harvard have figured out how to make employees feel less pressed for time: force them to help others. According to a recent study, giving workers menial tasks or, surprisingly, longer breaks actually leads them to believe that they have less time, while having them write to a sick child, for instance, makes them feel more in control and ‘willing to commit to future engagements despite their busy schedules.’ The idea is that completing an altruistic task increases your sense of productivity, which in turn boosts your confidence about finishing everything else you need to do.

There are signs of positive change. Surveys of millennials tend to show that a majority do not want the traditional high salary corporate job, with one study showing that 74 percent expressed a preference for working collaboratively in small groups. A startup company dedicated to exploring societal issues in new ways, Creating the Future, has embraced the principles of compassion, making it the responsibility of all to look out for one another: “…It is our collective responsibility to figure out how to support and bring out the best in that person and the situation.” Thus, employees who feel burnout will be treated with compassion instead of being cast out as useless drones; this is an experiment worth emulating.

I often think back to how spiritually drained I felt when I left work each night from my cold corporate position. I wasn’t empowered enough to proactively inject acts of kindness into the workplace. Now, however, I realize how many people suffer in their day jobs—living to work rather than working to live—only to come home to stressful domestic and family demands. To reverse the trend each of us, in our way, can make a difference by making our workplace a more enjoyable, warm, and thoughtful environment.

The Torah fervently stressed the importance of honoring the dignity of workers and the rabbinic tradition went even further to tell stories of righteous people who helped their employees and co-workers.

Every day, all the other workers and I pool our food, and eat it. But today, I saw that there was one man who had no bread and he was ashamed. So I told all the other men, ‘Today, I will collect the food.’ When I came to that man, I pretended to take bread from him, so that he should not be ashamed, (Shabbat 156b).

As Jews, we must serve as model employers and co-workers teaching that the workplace is not merely a place to make money but a place to build compassionate relationships. Those bonds will not only improve our quality of work but will enhance the workplace to be a place of dignity.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of eight books on Jewish ethics.