Altruism in the workplace

workplace altruism

In each of us, I believe that there exists a sense of reciprocity in our nature. In another words, I believe that we are more inclined to help someone who has helped us previously than otherwise (of course, if someone offends us, we should choose forgiveness). In addition, when we reciprocate someone who has extended offers of help to us, we usually do it more out of a truly altruistic nature than mere obligations. Thus, we often find that individuals who often render help to someone in poverty or who is physically handicapped often received genuine support (and at times help) from others in return. And during these times, help are often rendered to the good Samaritans without them asking for assistance. This is the power and impact of altruism. Human are social creatures and no man’s an island. While this sounds much like truism, it’s almost a fact that we cannot survive alone.

Translating this to the workplace, we can safely say that only colleagues who help one another in the workplace thrive and experience happiness working in the workplace, even in the midst of office politics (which can get especially dense at some workplaces). We need others’ help to get things done most of the time (just think about the effort that others have put in just to put food on our table: the preparation of the rice, the delivery by freight to our country, the supermarket staff placing the rice on the shelf, the effort put in to cook the food by the food vendors for us).

In the workplace, this is getting more challenging with the increase in communication tools. While emails and videoconferencing may be seen as convenient tools that increase our access to interpersonal communications, sincere gestures and the human touch seem missing even though they are there. Some of you might be thinking about Smileys now but emoticons are merely weak substitutes when it comes to human social connection. We need to engage in more face-to-face communications and show others that we care. Even if this is not possible (which is often the case due to hectic work pace in some instances), the next best alternative is to express these feelings in emails, which is an art in and of itself. Being such a formalised setting, the workplace seldom condones informal emails except for the closest of friends. But even then, informal emails are often frowned upon. But regardless of the method and channel of communication, sincerity and our caring quality must be put across to the other parties. This is an entirely different topic altogether and I will save this for another day. Let us return to the fact that we should help one another in the workplace. I understand that some of us are introverted by nature and some of us may (prefer to) work on a solitary basis (which should be duly respected, by the way). This is not an issue as long as we make every effort to help, guide and/or mentor our colleagues whenever possible.

Many of us face intense challenges of working happily in the workplace, the most serious of which is the existence of job promotions and performance appraisals. We find that the workplace is intense, often to the point of being extremely competitive. This is especially so in the sales profession, where sales quotas have to be met and where promotions are hinged on one’s sales performance for the year. Generally, promotions are limited to a few candidates but there are tons of working professionals vying for the position.  Our unhappiness thus falls on a single factor: a desire for promotion and hopefully, a pay raise and a great appraisal (which both looks good on a personal level and on one’s resume). If we were to be very honest and examine our basic motivations, it merely comes down to this single factor. We may say that it’s because we have been working for far too long not to be promoted, there’s unfair job appraisals, we can’t contribute much to this particular project and the likes but at the end of the day, most of us often compare the times we have spent working and asking ourselves about how this will lead to the chances of promotion or career advancement. Unless we intend to while away our time, we usually want something for our efforts, be it recognition, awards, pay raise, good appraisals and promotions. And when we realise that we are not getting it, we feel that our efforts and contributions are not being recognised. And our motivation level subsequently drops by the day.

But it need not be this way. 

There is a great way to circumnavigate the issue of office politics: positive mindset change. Yes, in order to experience happiness in the workplace, we need to change our mindset. While there are many factors affecting and determining happiness at work, a positive mindset change is essential.  This is stage 1, which is a crucial stage in a 3-stage process. Let’s look at them in turn:

(Stage 1) Positive mindset change: Let’s face it, I believe all of us need a strong rationale and a high motivation level to actually do or implement something. Helping our colleagues is no different. Unless “helping your colleagues” is your personal life goal, we need to know the reasons why we should do so.  If we do not have a strong reason, then it’s best that we come up with one.  Each of us will probably have a different reason for helping our colleagues,  so it’s up to us to believe in one, preferable the most persuasive/convincing one. I will like to share my rationale for helping my colleagues with you and I hope that some insights can be drawn from it. Personally, I believe that although I feel that all of us are imbued with a strong degree of altruism in us, we cannot develop this quality unless we practise altruistic acts often. And considering that we spend much time in the workplace, this makes our workplaces one of the best places to practise altruism. Of course, practising altruism in our families also helps in reinforcing our altruistic beliefs.  I usually use altruistic practices as the basic foundations. Subsequently, I believe that all humans want to be happy, not sad. All of us want to be loved and cared for. But all too often, we usually wait for others to love and care for us. “Take the initiative” is one practice that we often ignore.  Hence, taking the initiative to care for and help someone is very important in the midst of creating a positive mindset change. Of course, we have commitments in our lives and thus, we have to say “no” at times. In a nutshell, do not be someone who says “yes” all the time but whenever we are able to assist, it will be great to say “yes”.

However, there are some of us who do not like to owe others any favours. Thus, there might be a strong tendency for others to say no to us. In this case, do not insist but accept their refusal to accept your help (however, do not see this as their rejection of your friendship but rather, more of our acceptance of their personalities or realities/outlook on life).

Of course, as mentioned above, most of us are concerned about promotion. However, we should draw a distinct line between our chances for promotion and our rapport with our colleagues.  Personally, I believe that “what’s meant to be is meant to be”. There might be some of us who feel that this is a somewhat pessimistic/happy-go-lucky perspective but think about it:  it’s best that we go with the flow of life since there are many things in life that are not within our control. Consider photographers for example. They are able to capture beautiful images but it’s only because the images are there for them to capture. Even in the case where photographers are capturing images of still life such as arranging the order of the bracelets or necklaces, that’s only because the materials are there for them to photograph in the first place. There’s a certain truth when someone says that “everything in life happens for a reason”. You are probably reading this blog because you are interested in certain aspects of communications, else it’s not likely that you will chance upon this blog out of tons of blogs online, yes?

Once we have understood and cemented our basis for helping others whenever possible and appropriate, it will become second nature to us.    

(Stage 2) Accept help from others whenever possible after we have helped them: After we have developed this altruistic mindset and begin helping others, there will come a point in time where others will want to reciprocate our sincere and kind gesture by helping us back. It’s at this point that I have noticed that we tend to reject others’ assistance. I used to do that too, the primary reason being that I do not want others to feel obliged or to inconvenience others. Some of us might reject others’ offers of help because we feel that it’s unnecessary, that it looks too much of a “business transactions” when we accept it etc. But many years later, I realise that I am wrong in rejecting others’ help. We can see this most clearly when we put ourselves in their shoes.  As mentioned at the start of this article,  we have a tendency to reciprocate those individuals who have helped us. Thus, when we reject others’ reciprocity, we are indirectly making them feel bad about not being able to help us back in return. And this is not a good feeling. It is just like emailing your friends. When someone emails us, we should respond, right? So, we should accept others’ offer for help in return after we have helped them, unless doing so will cause them great inconvenience.  Helping one another in this way thus becomes a virtuous cycle that will continue and our rapport with our colleagues is thereby strengthened.

(Stage 3) Inculcate the value of altruism by mentoring someone: It’s good if we practice altruism in our lives but it will be great if we pass on the values of engaging in altruistic practices to others through mentorship programs in our organisations. After all, almost all values are transmitted over time through a mentor. It could be our parents or our colleagues. There are several ways that altruism can permeate the workplace. One method will be a formal discussion session of altruistic practices by our colleagues and ourselves, or via email mailing lists circulated internally within and/or between departments. Organisation newsletters work just as well. We can also influence others through the use of stories. Storytelling and stories have often been very persuasive and attractive tools that have been used throughout the ages. Just think of all the moral lessons being taught to us through Aesop’s Fables. A third method will be to make altruistic acts a habitual practice in every moment of our lives on a daily basis. In other words, let us walk the talk.

I believe that with an increased level of altruism in the workplace, tension will be reduced and the level of happiness will increase. It need not always be competition in the workplace. Collaboration is also a possibility.

Why should our working lives be a “rat race”? It can also be a “slow nature walk through the park as a group”.

If only we let it be.


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