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Kindness? Gratitude? Bah, Humbug?

By Marty Nemko

I know, I know, in these tough times, we should be extra kind this holiday season, burying our inner Scrooge in favor of peace and good will to all.

Indeed, I told my editor that was going to be the theme of my December column whereupon she asked a provocative question: “Is showing kindness in the workplace seen as a strength or a weakness?”

In thinking back on what my clients have told me and on my own workplace interactions, it’s a mixed bag. It may seem illogical that kindness might hurt you but if you think about it, it’s not:

· If you’re kind to a supervisee, he’s more likely to ask for a raise. That puts you in a Catch 22: Say no and he’s likely to be disgruntled. Say yes and you’ve unnecessarily burned some of your budget without getting anything for it.

· If you give holiday bonuses for the first time this year, after the obligatory thank you, the main result will be that your employees will expect at least that much next year.

· If you offer a helping hand to a coworker, he may appreciate it, but instead, he might feel put down that you felt he couldn’t do it himself. Or he may become addicted to your help, so you’re often taking on extra work for which you get no credit, or even that might get him promoted ahead of you. Or you could get a reputation as a too-eager beaver and be resented for it, or seen as a workaholic and soon, everyone’s asking for your help.

· If you’re kind to your boss, she might reasonably assume you’re satisfied with your job and so can feel safe in piling on more work, not giving you a raise, nor much face time.

· Conversely, when a supervisee, coworker, or boss is unkind to me, I worry that I’ve done something wrong. That motivates me to try extra hard, if only to reduce their chances of hurting me. So, in being mean to me, they get more out of me.

So, “Be extra kind during the holidays?” Pragmatically, it’s no slam dunk.

Gratitude is the other value we’re supposed to haul out for the holidays. Sure, gratitude for your job, health, etc., makes you feel good. For example, if you’re not going to leave your job, being grateful for its virtues helps you put the best face on the situation: “It pays terribly but I feel I’m doing some good, and after all, many people have it much worse.”

But gratitude has a negative side effect: It encourages complacency. For example, feeling grateful when you’re asked to work ever harder without a raise merely encourages you to accept being treated poorly. Maybe it’s wiser to replace the gratitude with outrage that will fuel you to find a better job.

Such advice is pragmatic and yet…

Maybe I’m just drugged by the Holiday spirit but I’m wondering whether, in fact, the holidays, especially this year, are the time to forgo pragmatism in favor of something higher. What do you think?

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