Does It Always Pay to Be Kind at Work?

I was listening to an interview with author and doctor Sherwin Nuland on NPR, and one of the things he talked about was the value of kindness. I’d never heard the exact quote he used before, but it’s certainly a great reminder:

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.

(Source of quote thought to be Philo of Alexandria)

Philo of Alexandria

I found the graphic on Wikipedia but also in a wonderful post by Executive Coach Tony Mayo. In his post, he tells us a true story about a woman he works with who, after promising she’d have a whiteboard set up for an important meeting, failed to so, leaving Tony angry, stuck with the job, and with little time to spare. He probably was ready to hang HER on the wall, but luckily, before raking her over the coals, he found out she had a very good reason for being late. Turns out she was dealing with a great battle in her own life. And she actually did manage to get to the office in time and still help him get everything ready for the meeting.

I like Tony’s post because he reminds us there’s so much we can’t possibly know in any given moment, and it pays to err on the side of kindness. Imagine if he had screamed at her because he felt anxious over the upcoming meeting. They both would have felt like crap. Not the best means of staff training (to say the least) and certainly not a mood to help him run a great meeting or make a dazzling presentation. And, as Dr. Nuland tells us, we ourselves are lifted up when we act with kindness since it gives us a sense of ourselves as a good person.  This applies at work as much as it does at home.

BUT…that said…while I truly like to see the good in people, what about those very special people at work (I call them VSPs) who try our patience on a daily basis?  Does it pay to be kind to them? True…each one of us is fighting his or her own great battle – nasty annoying people even more than most I would guess.  Smiley Face Emoticon But on a practical level…how can we be kind to these folks without driving ourselves nuts or getting stomped on with their big narcissistic boots?

Here’s a story from my own work life. I once was given a difficult project with an incredibly tight deadline that was initially supposed to be done by a man in another department.  Now this guy (I’ll call him Larry), was disliked by most people – with good reason. Larry went out of his way to take credit for other people’s work and also made a point of trying to pin the blame on anyone and everyone for his failures (of which there were many).

But I really do believe in starting fresh with people whenever possible and not letting reputation color how I deal with them. I’ve found many cases where I’ve managed to work well with folks who I’d been told were bad news. As I see it, it’s at least worth a shot.

And so in Larry’s case, since I needed to keep him in the loop anyway, I made a point of filling him in completely, treating him with respect, and even going out of my way to listen to his ideas and let him know when I thought he’d made a good suggestion. I dealt with him in the moment and tried my best to let any baggage sit in the past. And I made sure he got credit if I used one of his ideas.

Getting back to the quote, I happened to know Larry had a lot of great battles going on in his personal life. Now I can’t honestly tell you I liked him, but I felt compassion for him for all he was dealing with despite how he acted. Unfortunately compassion for a person, which I think has value in and of itself, doesn’t magically transform them into who you want them to be. (Oh…I bet you can guess where this is going.)

After I was done with what turned out to be a truly grueling task, he took my product, put his name on it (literally changing only a couple of words and some formatting) and told everyone I had done a rotten job and HE had to save the day. Luckily people know me well there – and they also know him. Still, his boss believed him. His boss always believed him. And Larry had managed to get on like this for years – getting promotion after promotion while doing less and less work. (But alienating more and more people as he went on.)

So does it really pay to be kind to people like this?  My answer is still yes.

If I played Larry’s game back at him, I wouldn’t think much of myself and wouldn’t have gotten any further than I did. And truth is, he’s much better at being slimy; so I probably would only have hurt myself while accomplishing nothing that helped me and damaging my reputation along the way.  In fact, because I don’t play games and am a straight-shooter (and because he is known far and wide as the opposite), everyone that mattered to me knew whose work it was.

And eventually, he alienated enough people – especially those at a high enough level – to do himself in. Meanwhile, I still work there. (BTW…he was shocked when they let him go. “After all the work I did?” he asked. And sadly I think he meant it.)

One note: Being kind doesn’t mean letting Larry stay in a job where he was being cruel to others and doing a rotten job. That’s not kind; it’s bad management. But as a consultant, I wasn’t in a position to do anything other than let the truth be known. Which I did without malice. Kindness doesn’t mean being a doormat. A person needs to stand up for herself or himself, and (without boasting) make sure people know about the work s/he is doing.

So does it pay to be kind? Are there limits??? I’d love to hear your stories.


And in case you’re curious…here’s the latest book by Dr. Sherwin Nuland.


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. HI Ronnie

    Lovely post and very thoughtful … as usual.

    I believe that kindness and respect are essential in all our life dealings.

    Yeh … we often have good reason (or think we do) to get irritated or blow our top.

    I try and stop … and think ahead … what will be the consequence of my actions?

    If I lose my temper … there can be all sorts of consequences … all out of my control.

    If I stay calm and professional … same thing.

    But I’d say that staying calm will have a more positive impact on people.

    Like you … I try and appreciate all the different kinds of people I come across … and be honest with myself about why I may be reacting negatively … maybe it’s me!

    In the Sunny Funny Garden that I run with local kids I have only 2 rules:

    1. everyone (including me) says please and thank you … it’s the mark of a civilised and respectful group.

    2. everyone is kind to each other

    After that it’s a kind of anarchic democracy with me as a benevolent leader.

    It works.

    People can irritate and engage me and delight me … and the only true power I have is over the attitude I choose to take in any given situation.

    Most of the time I choose to be kind, calm and interested.

    It works … nearly 99% of the time.



  2. Thanks Liz. Love your comments and the way you look at things. Especially love the Sunny Funny Garden. Those kids are so lucky. Might make a great children’s book. 🙂 Hope the flowers and new opportunities are all blooming in Ballinamore!

    Ronnie Ann

  3. I think that it definitely pays to be kind– at all times– but not to be foolish. In other words, to be kind, but after the first 2-3 offenses of a certain type, to document and keep records in any future potentially hazardous situations.

  4. A very wise reminder for us all. Nice to see you TEB. Hope your new job is going FABulously! 😉

    Ronnie Ann

  5. Once, while taking the subway, I observed a man get on and attempt to make his way down the aisle, when the train lurched, and he crashed right into another standing passenger. “What’s the matter, can’t you watch where you’re going?” the passenger yelled. “No, I’m afraid that’s not possible for me”, the man replied, after having found a secure place to stand. The angry passenger didn’t quite know what to make of this answer, so wisely chose to keep his mouth shut. At the next stop, we all watched the man disembark, release his telescoping white cane with the red tip, and make his way towards the stairs.

    You make such a good point about not knowing someone’s circumstances, or where they’ve come from in life. I think being kind is always wise, if that is a quality one values. It does not mean that kindness=doormat. One must take care of oneself. It sounds like you did that very well in the situation you describe.
    Being me, if I experience unkindness, I have to ask myself what unkindness is lurking in my own soul, and do what I can to eliminate that. 😉

  6. Great story, ME. Interesting comment about looking into one’s soul for any unkindness there. I also suggest that sometimes life presents us with chances to learn, such as in the case of not being able to stand up for oneself or others.

    Oh…and I love what you said in your latest post “All that does matter is that I seek the qualities that give value and meaning to who I am in the world.”

    Peace out and in, MusEditions.

    Ronnie Ann

  7. Thanks for the kind words about my posting. Your follow-on question is important. YOur response is very worthwhile. For another perspective, see another post n my blog: “Truth or Consequences?”

  8. Thanks Tony! Enjoyed your thoughtful post.

    ~ Ronnie Ann

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