Office workers should come to the water cooler armed with conversation topics and a spirit of kindness, according to experts on office environments.
Several recent articles have highlighted how nurturing positive relationships with employees and colleagues boosts well-being and productivity.
"How we treat one another at work matters," wrote Christine Porath, an associate professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business in an opinion piece for The New York Times. "Insensitive interactions have a way of whittling away at people's health, performance and souls."
In a research study, published earlier this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology (paywall), Porath found that being kind in everyday office interactions holds big benefits for employees, helping them emerge as natural leaders and mentors.
A culture of kindness also protects workers' emotional health, lowering the risk of stress-related complications like ulcers, cardiovascular disease and weakened immune systems, she noted.
In spite of these findings, many workers — particularly those in leadership positions or hoping for a promotion — operate under the assumption that nice guys finish last, The Atlantic reported, noting that people often think they have to put down others to rise to the top.
In November 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported that "the workplace ranks dead last among the places people express gratitude. … Only 10 percent of adults say thanks to a colleague every day and just 7 percent express gratitude daily to a boss."
Researchers like David Rand, who leads Yale University's Human Cooperation Lab, are working to shift the status quo, reminding workers that being cold or mean can quickly lead to isolation rather than success.
"If you're interacting with someone repeatedly … it's in your best interest to be cooperative," he told The Atlantic. Being known as someone who always wears a smile or is willing to help someone out of a tight spot is essential to succeeding at a company over the long-run.
As Porath noted, not all workplaces are created equal. She designed a quiz that allows people to compare their office environment to other workers' situations, noting that nurturing kindness as an individual won't automatically inspire others to do the same. The only aspect of the workplace employees can control is themselves.
"We all need to reconsider our behavior," Porath wrote. "In every interaction, you have a chance: Do you want to lift people up or hold them down?"
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