Practicing Random Acts of Kindness at Work and Elsewhere, Now and in 2010

When I was 21 and just starting out in my first real job, I was employed by a large organization that was always swamped with work. There was too much work for too little employees to efficiently and effectively cover, but somehow we muddled through as best we could. Mostly, we were a hard working bunch, willing to come in early and stay late—even weekends–to get the job done and go the “extra mile” However, one member of our team marched to a different drummer of work ethic. He was quite slothful, in my humble young adult opinion. Behind his back–probably because our young team hadn’t yet developed effective feedback communication skills–we complained that John was sloppy and slovenly, leaving the rest of us to pick up the slack. His slack. We all bellyached about our overwhelming caseloads and mountains of work, but John’s piles of files were always a little higher, a little thicker and a little older than ours. And his clients always seemed a little angrier, too.

One particularly overwhelming workday, during the most trying, most demanding of our seasons–Christmastime–John called in…sick. Again. John was sick? Ha! Why were we not surprised??? Anyone would be sick of handling his caseload! But this time his excuse was different. “I’m not coming in today because my dog died.” His dog died? That was his big excuse for leaving us with all our own mountains of work, and now his, too?

I was 21, young, inexperienced in life, and still working on growing a heart of compassion (something I realize now mostly comes with age and living). And I was full of judgment. “Oh for Pete’s sake, his dog died??? That’s his excuse??? That’s why he’s not coming in today??? Oh brother!” But I didn’t say “brother”, if you know what I mean. And John didn’t come in the next day or the next day after that. In all, he had three days off for the passing of one dog. His dog of 13 years. Boy, did I have a lot to learn.

It’s 30 years later now. My own sweet 13 year old dog, Angus, just died of oral cancer on Monday, December 14, 2009, and I’ve found myself thinking of John. A lot. And of my judgment of him all those years ago. Lucky for me, I’m self-employed and can take three days, or more–especially at Christmastime, my slower speaking season–to grieve, without any hassle from colleagues that I’m not pulling my weight. Lucky for me, too, that I’m a writer as well as a speaker. While I process these earliest of days of my own grief over losing an oh-so-beloved member of our family, and contemplate just how hard it is to focus on work under such circumstances, I’m also reflecting on my younger self. I now want to take that 21-year-old version of my workplace self aside and infuse her with a kinder, more understanding heart towards John (like the Grinch whose small heart, when finally enlightened, “grew three sizes that day”). I’m also contemplating one of the many stickies plastered all around my computer’s perimeter:

Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet
is fighting some kind of a (personal) battle.
— Attributed to both T.H. Thompson and John Watson

Everyone we meet is fighting some kind of battle? Yup, probably. And that means even those at work. Even the person who sits beside you, reports to you, or you to them. Every one of us. Every day.

So all of a sudden and once again I’m reminded of the saying, “Practice random acts of kindness”. The acts of kindness extended my way on December 14th included supportive communications from my most cherished inner circle of friends and loved ones, phones calls from as far away as England, Jamaica and Victoria, as well as the generosity of one of my neighbours picking up our vet, to bring him to our house (so that Angus could experience a more gentle and humane passing on his own turf), and another who gently knocked on my door beforehand, to deliver homemade manicotti, fresh organic salad with homemade balsamic and garlic dressing and a fresh baguette, with a hug, whispering, “I know you won’t feel like making dinner this evening, so here you go.” What touching acts of kindness, indeed. To be remembered always.

So, because my personal story and present experience makes me extra tender and contemplative for the moment, and because it’s a perfect time of year to think on this, anyway, I pose these questions, and hope you choose to answer (either me or yourself, or both!):

1. What particularly memorable acts of kindness in the workplace, or elsewhere, have you experienced and/or witnessed in 2009; who has extended to you such acts along the way?

2. What particularly memorable acts of kindness have you extended to others at work, or elsewhere, in 2009?

3. How can you improve on your ability or willingness to receive others’ extended acts of kindness in 2010?

4. What can you do to improve your own track record for practicing random acts of workplace kindness in 2010?

Here are some suggestions for demonstrating Random Acts of Kindness at Work and Elsewhere in 2010:

1. “Clap” harder and longer for those who put out sincere effort: When I attend live theater productions I’m often amazed at the conservative, lackluster response of audiences. We watch and consume the actors’ and/or dancers’ over-the-top performances for two hours, and then the audiences politely clap for one curtain call and it’s over? Sometimes it’s not quite like that, but oftentimes it is. Too often it’s the same with frontline and support staff, as well. So consider giving a frontline employee some well deserved, and often overlooked, official kudos. Whether inside your own organization or when a costumer of another, sing the formal praises of someone you just know doesn’t hear that “song” very often. And insist your positive feedback is written down, for that person’s HR record.

2. Be generous with your supplies and share your resources, and positive disposition, more often and reap the rewards: While in the -20 Celsius climes of Yellowknife, NWT, on December 2nd, I chose to sup among others in my hotel’s dining room, rather than eat alone in the seclusion of my suite. Turns out that was a good thing, for just as my order arrived, the lights went out…across the entire city! Well, at least I had a dinner to eat…and a candle, too. But not enough light to read or work by. Another guest–Judith–had luckily chosen to sit at a table immediately under the only emergency pot light in the room, but unluckily, had yet to order her meal. Judith had enough light to read by, but no dinner. It’s a funny thing how power failures bring people together in acts of joy and kindness. After a few words of woe tossed back and forth to each other across the room, we decided to sit together. Judith offered to share her light and I offered to share my dinner. A match made in heaven! Well, at least in Yellowknife, on a cold and dark December night. In another corner of the dinning room a group of twelve colleagues were celebrating their Christmas Team dinner. Poor them. They hadn’t any light (beyond the candles), nor food. And we were told these winter, citywide blackouts often lasted two or three hours! What did that group of twelve do with their “lemons”? They made “lemonade”! Before we knew it, they were singing Christmas songs, one after another; laughing up a storm and having a grand ole time. And before we knew it, we were singing right alongside…and the staff, too! Everyone present brought what they could to the metaphoric table–including the staff, who brought bread and butter for all! When you’re really hungry plain bread will do just fine. That speaking trip turned out to be one of my most memorable and fun highlights of 2009!

3. Attend your kids’ games and events (volleyball, basketball, hockey, baseball, swimming or whatever), cheering and clapping louder and harder than you usually do; and cheer and clap that hard, too, for the kids whose parent never seem to show up (accept to pick them up).

4. Forego the best bargoon pricing at the big box stores every now and then, in favour of supporting the smaller merchants of your local community.

5. Give a 20% tip once in awhile, instead of oh-so-carefully calculating, down to the last penny, the exact value of a 15% gratuity.

6. Cultivate a friendship with someone “new on the block” at work: Remember for yourself how lonely or isolated you may have felt in your own first few days and weeks at your current place of employment and help spare that feeling for another.

7. Count to ten more often before you snipe or blow your stack at an annoying colleague, client, friend or family member. It’s a physiological fact that even ten measly little seconds gives your higher-thinking brain time to kick in and resist an unkind or regretful negative verbal or physical response that may otherwise sprout, causing you months, if not years, of regret (just ask Former Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant).

8. Let another have their way: When it’s a big deal to them, and “no big deal” to you, accommodate a colleague, client, friend or family member’s preference.

9. Do a good deed for a colleague and don’t take any credit (be the mystery elf).

10. Offer colleagues an “Apple” a Day: Years ago I had a big acrylic, lidded apple. Inside were small pieces of folded paper, much like folded fortunes in fortune cookies, but these were called, “An apple a day”. Each “apple” expressed an inspirational, motivational or enlightened quote on topics related to the workplace, e.g. leadership, teambuilding, service excellence, communications, etc. I left it at the front of my presentation rooms when keynoting or facilitating workshops. These little slips of paper were impressively popular with my audiences, many of whom said that they’d randomly pulled the perfect one for their current workplace circumstance. You can create such an “apple” for yourself and your colleagues, staff, clients, etc., with a bit of upfront effort. Buy a decorative glass container (or any jar from home, for that matter), cut up colorful strips of paper upon which you print a collection of your favourite inspirational quotes. Leave the jar on your desk and invite your visitors to partake, read and return the slips (or keep, if they really like it!). Add new quote slips as required.

11. Be first to say “Good Morning!” to colleagues, clients/customers, people on the elevator, and even passersby (especially on the Monday morning after the holidays are through!). Others may not say it first, but they most always joyfully say if back.

12. Connect someone you care about with someone else you respect. Be a conduit for a friend looking for a new position.

13. Stash a fifty-dollar bill in a place that’s easy to forget. Then, on the day you rediscover it, call your friend most in need for a luncheon date on YOU!

14. Give someone roses with an understanding of the meaning of your chosen colour: Share this fact with your recipient:

  • Red = love, beauty, courage and respect
  • White = reverence, humility
  • Pink = appreciation, gratitude, grace, perfect happiness and admiration
  • Yellow = joy, gladness, friendship, delight, the promise of a new beginning

15. Give some of your off-the-clock, one-on-one time to a worthy and best-loved, or most in need, friend and/or family member.

And for those of you in the wintery, northern climes:

16. Shovel your neighbour’s sidewalk, and drive, too, once in awhile. You’re out there already anyway, and the exercise will most likely do you good!

17. Freely give some possessions away for which you no longer care or need, e.g. when someone compliments an item you own–an item for which you really have no further attachment, regard or use–every now and then, feel the pleasure and liberation of saying, “You like it? It’s yours!” It’s a delightful, serendipitous surprise for the other, and helps you travel a little lighter/scrape an old barnacle off your hull, too. The other day a neighbour–knowing the themes upon which I speak–asked if I could recommend an uplifting book for her mother, who’s about to retire and is feeling a bit blue. I invited my neighbour into my library, to scan some titles together. Low and behold, and completely forgotten by me, I found I own two copies of Sarah Ban Breathnach’s, Simple Abundance (one of which was mine, the other, my late mother’s). “This book may be just the thing for your mum. Take it as a gift. I have two copies.”, I told my friend. At first she hesitated, perhaps feeling that she’d taken advantage, when all she was looking for was a title/a bit of advice–not an actual book. But what do I need two of one book for? The answer: to give away to the first person that could use it! And my mother would have been so pleased to know that a fellow retiree got one of her 1000+ books that she left behind.

18. Sit down with a colleague or family member for a one-on-one coffee break (with no other agenda but to enjoy their company and conversation; no multi-tasking while breaking!)

19. When a long lost friend or colleague pops into your mind for some reason, consider it a good omen and act of it–reconnect. Even if it’s just an email of, “Hello, I was thinking of you today!” Remember, every day, unbeknown to you, someone you haven’t seen in ages is probably thinking of you. And this is probably increasingly true the older you get, too, because, by then you’ve met more people!

20. And how about practicing some random acts of kindness on yourself, as well? Go slower for a few days as this year ends. Take the long way home. Go for a drive in the country, without agenda or obligation. Promise you’ll make a little more personal, freestyle “white space” in your 2010 calendar. Days, weeks, months and years–lives!–go by so fast. Take at least some of them just for you, no matter your status because, as TV’s 60 Minutes’ journalist, Andy Rooney, once profoundly quipped:

Life is like a roll of toilet paper. The closer it gets to the end, the faster it goes.

So there you have it: twenty suggestions for demonstrating random acts of kindness at work or elsewhere in 2010. And consider this: Chambers Dictionary of Etymology reports that the word, “kind”, dates back to 725 (in Old English’s Beowulf), meaning “friendly, benevolent, natural”. So, at its core, and at the start, being kind is natural.

Perhaps now, at year’s end, and as we start yet another decade in a few days’ time, consider reflecting on just how kind you’ve been in 2009, and how you might improve on your commitment to periodic and random acts of kindness at work, and elsewhere, in 2010. It’s only natural.

And as for me, and the loving and unconditional kindness I experienced from our sweet Angus-puppy these past 13 years, it may best be put this way (especially if you, too, are a dog lover):

Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.
(they sure do help grow a heart of compassion; and so do random acts of kindness, too!)
— Roger Caras

As always, dear Working Wisdom readers, from the bottom of my heart,
I thank you for your listening this past year, for your positive feedback and
your continued sharing of information, funny stories, quotes, anecdotes and emails.
I wish you the very best of the season,
followed by great happiness, good heath and fulfilling passion
for your work and life in 2010! *

* And that goes for you, too, dear John, wherever you now are!

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