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How to build a kinder workplace when its leaders don’t

It’s the job of leaders to build supportive, empathetic work cultures. But there’s a lot ordinary employees can do, even when their bosses shirk that duty.

How to build a kinder workplace when its leaders don’t
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Work culture is generally thought to be the preserve of leaders to shape, improve, and protect–and rightly so. They’re the on the hook to build more equitable, empathetic, and well-being-focused organizations and need to be held accountable to do so. Yet too many of them fail. Recent headlines are packed with stories of organizational dysfunction, discrimination, equivocation, sexual harassment, and much else besides.

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While no one should be expected to just tough it out with a toxic work culture or a toxic boss, the fact is that finding a new and better job often takes time. Other workplaces, of course, have their problems but aren’t broken beyond fixing, even if management isn’t fully up to the task of making things better. With that in mind, here are five ways every employee can help create a positive ripple effect among their own coworkers, regardless of what management is or isn’t doing.

1. Add an act of kindness to your daily to-dos

Adding a small daily act of kindness, or even just a reminder to bring your most positive self to work, can boost your odds of actually doing so. Occasionally all it takes it an extra bullet point on your notepad or a calendar item saying, “Grab Corinne for coffee to see how she’s doing.” Turning a kind intention into a small daily goal prioritizes its importance, priming your brain to look for an opportunity to deliver on it.

2. Listen more mindfully

Author and diversity and inclusion expert Ritu Bhasin believes that “building a kinder workplace is all about creating an environment where people can be seen, appreciated, and valued for who they really are.”

It’s great if leaders do this, but technically anybody can, and mindful listening is a helpful technique. It’s simple: During conversations with coworkers, pay close attention to what’s being said to you, stop mentally planning your response, and keep your eyes on the speaker and their nonverbal cues. It takes some practice to get better at a behavior you do largely without thinking, but as Bhasin sees it, running through this same approach “as often as you can and with as many people as you can, you can–today, in your next interaction–create a kinder and more supportive workplace.”

3. Choose the reactions you can control: your own

Lisa Lisson, president of FedEx Express Canada, points out that weather is a constantly shifting variable in the work her team does every day. It “can really affect our performance, causing delays, upsetting our customers, and creating all kinds of pressure to perform in less than ideal circumstances,” she says. “Yet weather is beyond our control and influence.”

“What is under our control, however, is how we interact with one another,” Lisson continues. “And so we have worked really hard to create an environment and empower our employees to know that even in a severe ice storm, we are expected to all be kind and positive to one another. This ensures our energy is focused on where it is needed: working through our contingency plans and really being there to support one another.”

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That’s a dynamic that leaders can and absolutely should encourage from the top down. But they can’t do it alone, and when leadership leaves much to be desired, employees can still decide how they show up every day. “Kindness is choice in each interaction you have,” Lisson adds.

4. Default to candor

“To me, kindness means treating your teams with trust and respect through direct and open candor, which, at times, can feel uncomfortable,” reflects Seth Rosenberg, currently an early-stage tech investor at Greylock Partners and previously a product manager at Facebook.

According to Rosenberg, “Facebook emphasized bringing your ‘authentic self’ to work, [and] this meant giving honest feedback and communicating directly with decision makers rather than navigating hierarchy.” This habit was useful in getting products out the door quickly, he says. It also taught him to “share vulnerable personal challenges” with his colleagues.

In the fall of 2014, Rosenberg’s mother’s health was deteriorating as a result of metastatic breast cancer. At work, he was in charge of an important initiative for Facebook Messenger, and trying to muddle through the emotional turmoil spilling over from his personal life. “Creating this team culture of constructive candor around difficult topics allowed me to be at my best while at work,” he explains, “but also [to] have the support to take time with my family when I needed it.”

5. Join in

You can boost collegiality and engagement among your coworkers as an ordinary team member, even if management doesn’t seem interested in doing that. Keeping morale up is especially crucial in organizations undergoing massive growth or change, and as Amy Prentice found, it’s something everybody can contribute to.

The communications director for Ample Organics, a Canadian cannabis-tech startup that has gone from three employees to 80 over the past four years, says that “when you bring together people with a wide range of interests, skill sets, and backgrounds, you create a foundation for a friendly and welcoming environment where kindness trumps egos–but only if you’re also creating opportunities for the teams to get to know each other, and find out what they have in common.”

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Prentice says team members have taken the initiative to launch everything from game nights to Slack channels for cat enthusiasts to “play, build, and nerd out together.” These are all great ways to build a happy, supportive work culture from the ground up, but they only work when people voluntarily join in and get involved.

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