Having worked in various organisations with a blur of different personalities, I began to become fascinated with the important art of getting along, and the behavioural science behind it. One of the returning pieces of advice we are given when working with others is to be generous and giving, more recently promoted by organisational psychologist Adam Grant in his book Give and Take. Many studies show that being kind to others can actually make us happy in a number of different ways, from strengthening connections to mood boosting. We know that being generous or cooperating with others lights up the striatal regions of the brain, which is linked to the reward system, such as enjoying nice food. Being kind not only can make us feel good, it also promotes collaboration and productivity in a workplace. But, I began to wonder how we can be kind, without getting depleted? By looking through research papers, I have found 4 ways to do this: set boundaries; be in a kindness-rich environment; be kind to yourself first; and help in areas that energise you.

One: Be kind, but determine boundaries

As part of our genetic heritage, we seem to be hard‐wired to get pleasure from helping other people. However, hormones are only released specifically when others acknowledge or reciprocate our acts of kindness. This is an important detail — evolution has given us a social brain that allows us to recognise our acts of kindness being reciprocated, not just to blindly help anyone, regardless of how they treat us.

It’s good news that we have something like this inbuilt, but it’s not like we get a pop-up notification about it, so one thing to do is determine boundaries if you notice your kindness becoming a liability. When you set helping or giving boundaries, it’s normal to feel guilty, sad or even to grieve. According to behavioural research, boundaries can include:

  1. Set time limits on availability: In a Fortune 500 company, engineer givers were burning out, so Leslie Perlow, a Harvard Business School professor, recommended they set aside windows during which they were not allowed to interrupt one another. Perlow discovered that the quiet time meant above-average productivity for 65% of the engineers.
  2. Respond to taking behaviour with matching behaviour: Instead of helping with no strings attached, hold takers accountable for their behavior, helping them only if they will reciprocate.
  3. Communicate when you are overwhelmed: One of the simplest ways to be sustainably kind is to certainly engage in the behaviour, but communicate when it becomes overwhelming. An open communication climate requires unrestricted, honest and mutual interaction for people to understand each other better, to promote tolerance and to minimize conflicts, as well as promote health. Just let the person know that you though would like to help, the workload is somewhat overwhelming at this time.

Two: Make sure to be in a kindness-rich environment

Social influences also influence our giving behaviour because we will often unconsciously mirror the environment we are in. For example, the more litter on the ground, the more likely we are to litter ourselves in the same area. Similar effects have been found for giving. In both laboratory and field studies, it has been found that when someone gives publically to a good cause, it leads to increases in giving from others to that same cause.

If you are in a workplace that is exhausting for giving behaviour, build your own oasis of kindness mirroring with other kind colleagues — because every workplace has good eggs. Leaders of an organisation with givers should publicly promote giving behaviour in order for the behaviour to flourish in a healthy way.

Three: Be kind to yourself first

Be kind to others, but be kind to yourself first. The best metaphor for this is in an airplane emergency, you should always put on your own safety mask first before helping others — because if you aren’t able to function, then you certainly can’t help or be kind to anyone else!

Being kind to yourself, especially during a difficult time, is known among psychologists as self-compassion. In “The Happiness Track,” Emma Seppala, science director of Stanford’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, recommends one strategy for practicing self-compassion: treat yourself as kindly as you would treat a friend who needs support, and various research has demonstrated that self-compassion is strongly linked to general well-being. It can reduce depression, stress, performance anxiety and body dissatisfaction.

Four: Help in areas that energise you

Studies by psychologists Netta Weinstein and Richard Ryan show that when you are kind and help in an area that is specific to your interest, it will be more energising than exhausting. Having a very specific area that you help in, also means that the amount of requests will likely be smaller.

If you find you are still too busy when a request comes in, but you would still like to help, instead of dropping your own work to help this person, you can try to find another person who might be better suited to help.

All in all, being kind in the workplace is one of the biggest and best pro-social behaviours out there. Just make sure to keep it in check, so you can keep on giving sustainably well into the future.

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