Kindness in the Workplace: How to Use It Wisely

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" by Eric Barker. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Does kindness have a place in the office? How can you be kind without being taken advantage of?

Conventional advice regarding success contradicts itself in its recommendations surrounding kindness. Some people argue that being nice is for chumps, while others argue that being nice will get you far. So who’s right? According to peak performance expert Eric Barker, they all are. You can be both kind and successful—but you have to be smart about it. 

Here’s how to practice kindness in the workplace while keeping people from walking all over you.

Being Kind in the Workplace

How does kindness in the workplace pay off? Barker explains that, when you’re kind to someone without expecting anything in return, people grow to like you—and people who like you want to help you. Some people who like you will offer you small courtesies, like proofreading an important email you need to send. Others will watch over you and help if someone tries to take advantage of you. Therefore, when you meet someone, get them to like you by doing something small for them before they do anything for you. For example, you might treat them to coffee.

(Shortform note: Barker’s advice is contradictory. He argues that being kind means you don’t expect others to do things for you. However, doing someone a favor in order to get them to like you does involve an expectation: You expect that they’ll “like you” because you did something for them. As one blogger points out, expectations like this can be harmful: For example, you might feel cheated if the person you were nice to later doesn’t like you. To avoid this, practice doing favors for others without expecting anything back before you do a favor for someone at work. For example, give a stranger a friendly smile.)

Being Smart About It

While being kind is important, Barker argues that it only leads to success if you’re smart about it—and he presents three ways of doing so. 

To be smart, Barker first recommends that you surround yourself with ethical people at work. If you’re surrounded only by people who want to take advantage of you, nobody will return your kindness—and being kind without getting anything in return leads to unhappiness. Moreover, studies show that the behaviors of the people you’re closest to rub off on you. So if you’re surrounded by kind people at work, you’ll become kinder. If you’re surrounded by unkind people, you’ll become unkind.

(Shortform note: Barker focuses on the importance of having ethical coworkers—but in The Success Principles, motivational speaker Jack Canfield urges you to surround yourself with good people in general: He contends that spending time with positive, supportive, successful people will increase your chances of success. Specifically, he recommends minimizing the time you spend with negative people in your life and finding more positive people to spend time with by volunteering or joining professional societies in your field.)

A second way to be both smart and kind is to highlight your achievements. Barker explains that unkind people are naturally good at self-promotion. So as a kind person, be deliberate about highlighting your achievements to make your boss aware of your good work. Try promoting yourself to your boss by sending her a weekly email highlighting your achievements over the past week. You’ll thus create a record of accomplishments that you and your boss can refer to when it’s time for your annual review. 

(Shortform note: While Barker highlights the importance of promoting yourself to your boss, one marketing expert recommends that you promote yourself to your colleagues, too, so you can demonstrate to them the specific ways in which your expertise can help them. Worried about seeming like a show-off? Focusing on objective truths, like by saying, “I got an award for X” instead of “I’m great at X,” will make you seem less egotistical and invite less pushback.)

Third, Barker recommends that you fight back when people try to abuse your kindness. Being kind might get you far, but if you’re too kind and always absolve someone who exploits you, they’ll continue to exploit you forever. This doesn’t mean you should physically fight back.  Instead, tell others about what this person did. If they learn that exploiting you will damage their reputation, they’ll be less likely to exploit you (and possibly others) in the future. 

(Shortform note: Barker doesn’t consider that gossiping about your coworkers may damage your reputation—even if your complaints are justified. So what’s a good way to stop people from exploiting you without risking your own career? Try setting clear boundaries: Tell them what you are and aren’t willing to do, and use the word “no” liberally.)      

However, Barker doesn’t recommend fighting back every time people are unkind. Rather, his fourth and final recommendation for being both kind and smart is to occasionally forgive people when they’re unkind to you. Everybody messes up sometimes, so it’s important to understand this reality and let people off the hook occasionally. By doing so, you give them the opportunity and the incentive to behave better next time—and as we’ve seen, the kinder the people around you are, the kinder you will continue to be.

(Shortform note: While forgiving coworkers who’ve wronged you may encourage them to be kinder in the future, forgiveness benefits you in a more immediate way, too: Research suggests forgiveness is correlated both with greater productivity and health, perhaps because forgiving your coworkers reduces your stress levels. But how do you forgive people? Experts recommend the REACH model: Recall the wrong, Empathize with the person who wronged you, Altruistically forgive them, Commit to the forgiveness by writing a note, and Hold on to that note to remind yourself that you’ve forgiven them.)

Kindness in the Workplace: How to Use It Wisely

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Here's what you'll find in our full Barking Up the Wrong Tree summary :

  • How you can achieve the ideal balance of work and play
  • The importance of kindness, networks, and your attitude towards success
  • Why you should gamify your life journey

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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