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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

May 29, 2020


We would all hope that going good for others helps to create more positive work places. Recent research highlights the contagious nature of kind acts at work.



Hello and welcome to episode 80 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we look at the surprising benefits of doing good.

We would all hope that doing good for others helps to create more positive workplaces. But doing good can become scarce when people are under pressure. 

Let’s start with the flip side to doing good. In episode 62 I shared Christine Porath’s work on incivility in the workplace highlighting the negative impact on work effort, quality and performance which also tends to flow on to treatment of customers.  Whether it’s losing your temper, being rude, withholding information, running down someone’s reputation, or sabotaging a piece of work, it’s easy to see how incivility is so damaging in the workplace. So organisations have made a real effort to reduce these sorts of negative behaviours.

All those efforts, at best, take us back to a neutral position where people aren’t being actively negative towards others. But it’s really difficult to be neutral towards other people. We tend to be either positive or negative in our impact during our interactions with those around us.

Each of the world’s major religions have a variation of the golden rule - treat others as you would like them to treat you. In Judaism it’s expressed as loving your neighbour as yourself, words that Jesus restates during the early foundations of Christianity. From that perspective, the golden rule is not just a minimum standard, but a call to be kind and good to others.

I know you’re already thanking me for the first year philosophy and ethics lecture so let’s take a deeper look at the research around doing good at work, or what researchers typically call pro-social behaviour.

A just released research review from The University of Texas demonstrates that cooperative behaviour is contagious. When people see someone perform an act of kindness, they in turn are more likely to be kind. And the effect wasn’t just about being on the receiving end of the positive act. In fact, the motivation to be kind was strongest when the kind act was witnessed, rather than when it was personally received. That’s right - you’re more likely to be kind to others when you see someone being kind, rather than being on the receiving end of kindness.

Another study undertaken in the workplace included participants who were asked to perform acts of kindness for their colleagues. The impact of these kind actions were noticed by others, leading to greater perceived levels of autonomy and higher ratings of happiness. The study even found the old adage to be true - that it’s better to give than receive. Those undertaking acts of kindness rated their life satisfaction and job satisfaction higher a full month after the intervention finished. Those on the receiving end of kind acts also tended to pay that kindness forward to others.

So the research is pretty clear - if you want to increase the amount of good in your workplace, share examples of people being good towards others. This role-modelling is particularly powerful when it comes from leaders. In a large organisation where I used to work, there was an executive elevator that ran express from the executive car park up to the executive floor. The most senior people could make their way through an entire day without ever seeing anyone that wasn’t an executive. The CEO at the time made a conscious effort to take the elevator from the car park to the ground floor, get out, and then catch the regular elevator with everyone else. He would ask for people’s names and engage in conversation. That simple act probably cost him 10 minutes a day, but it role-modelled that under his leadership anyone could talk to anyone. The message was clear - if the CEO makes an effort to engage with frontline staff, then maybe I should do the same.

So what can you do as a leader to boost the amount of good in your workplace? Here are some ideas:

  1. Be kind to others - it will benefit them and you, and it is also likely to be contagious

  2. Recruit others to also be kind to others - find some peers who are willing to join you in doing good

  3. Share examples of kind acts - this will motivate others to be kind themselves

As always, I hope you found this episode helpful. Can you believe it, we’re up to episode 80 so remember we’ve got a whole back catalogue of research and advice in episodes like this. Just go to the website to track those down. I look forward to speaking with you again next week.



Haesung Jung, Eunjin Seo, Eunjoo Han, Marlone D. Henderson, Erika A. Patall. Prosocial modeling: A meta-analytic review and synthesis.Psychological Bulletin, 2020; DOI: 10.1037/bul0000235

Chancellor, J., Margolis, S., Jacobs Bao, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2018). Everyday prosociality in the workplace: The reinforcing benefits of giving, getting, and glimpsing. Emotion, 18(4), 507–517.