A modest proposal and the making of a caring company

Perfect dose @Ellen Feldman — Love, the life-giving garden of this world (Rumi)

The Great Resignation & why we need more caring companies that measure kindness and giving at work.

We’re in business to save our home planet. (Patagonia’s mission statement)

We carry inside us the wonders we seek outside us. (Sufi poet Rumi)

As the great resignation reshuffles the workforce, experts mention remote work or childcare issues as main causes.

We think the causes predate COVID — in decade-old low worker engagement levels, disillusionment among managers, and widespread unfulfilled desire to marry purpose and paycheck.

Most companies and managers are not prepared to take on issues as momentous as Patagonia’s. But they can reflect on how supporting and developing a caring organization can address each of these resignation and dissatisfaction factors and re-energize the workforce, its leaders, and their impact. The process and intention can help us find inside the firm and our hearts what we might be seeking beyond them.

A recipe for disengagement and disillusionment

Most people really don’t work at work.

Leaders have finally heard what the Gallup Employee Engagement Poll has been reporting for decades — only a third of American workers are “actively engaged” (“those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace”); the rest are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” The pandemic and resulting mental health issues now challenge even the actively engaged to remain positive, supportive, and productive.

And others don’t really want to manage them anymore, either.

In May 2020, only 9% of Western non-managers expressed an interest in being managers, reported the Boston Consulting Group’s The End of Management as we know it. Just a few months into the pandemic, about 80% of Western managers found the job harder than it was a few years ago, and over 60% of them did not want to stay in management. One-third thought their job would no longer exist in five years. Things are worse 18 months later.

Millennials and Gen Zs want to work for socially responsible employers — allegedly putting purpose and well-being over salary — but also value supportive workplace cultures.

In 2020, two-thirds of Millenials want a job for a company with a strong Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) program. By 2025, Millennials will make up 75% and Gen Zs 30% of the U.S. workforce. They want consistency and authenticity, call out leaders for what they say and don’t say, and are quicker to resign than their elders, according to the Harvard Business Review. And in doing so, 68% of Millennials (50% in 2019) and 81% of Gen Zers (75% in 2019) cited mental health reasons.[1]

A narrower focus for broader impact

Might organizations be able to address each of these workplace realities by re-orienting the focus on purpose, CSR, and support from the outside world to those closest to us, inside of the organization?

Might we help managers find joy in caring so that we bring more caring individuals into management and make the job attractive again? Could being more aware of our personal, immediate impact make us feel less powerless?

We believe that they could achieve these results by assembling the building blocks of a Caring Company. In our worldview, notions of caring evoke kindness (the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate) and concern for others, especially those who might not be able to do it for themselves.

Researchers claim that we have these inclinations when we are 14 months old — (a) to altruistically help others toward individual goals, and (b) to cooperate toward a shared goal. When children help someone, they tend to grin happily. The have an empathy reaction. Then we compete — for grades, attention, reward. How can companies help us come back to our nature at work?

Help employees notice “emotional negativity.”

Most corporate mental health interventions focus on time-off, self-care, and apps — focusing us further inward. Employees demand these resources from their companies but don’t have the support to explore their own contributions to ambient stress levels. Sample reflections might include:

– Whining: When you are venting or complaining, are you being productive or selfish? Making yourself feel better is OK and needed but might be hard on others. What are you doing to help the cause you are venting about?

– Hounding: When you email a colleague twice in a row or pounce on them on Slack when you see them active, is it really urgent, or do you just want to cross off the issue from your to-do list? Before you ping your colleague again, acknowledge what stress chain reaction you may be setting off on their end.

– Obstructing: If you find yourself being more oppositional than usual, and without a plan that works towards a practical solution. might this be an expression of a need to control something in an out-of-control world? How would you formulate things differently?

– Assuming: are you taking the time to understand what others need? Are you assuming your approach to a situation is the right one without consulting others? Is your unwillingness to slow down and involve others in a constructive way a response to true busyness or a power play? To what extent do you pretend to be a superhero or behave as if others are? In which ways does this set you — and them— up for disappointment?

Encourage giving in all forms — including giving thanks.

Corporate social agendas should start with the employees themselves, from the inside, driving mutual support, diversity, and inclusion. This lens channels Norman Vincent Peale’s definition of success: “To be successful is to be helpful, caring and constructive, to make everything and everyone you touch a little bit better.”

According to Stanford neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman, the prosocial circuits in our brain discovered by fellow neuroscientist Antonio Damasio are designed to bring us closer to ourselves, others, and things (such as pets and foods) we crave or wish to have closer. When activated, they reduce defensive circuits that involve areas of the brain and body associated with freezing or backing away from a challenge or risk. Gratitude helps us lean into the prosocial circuits. With regular practice, we can tend to prosocial behavior as default, as an individual but also as a group.

Is there a universal principle of kindness that we should strive to bring to all of our actions?

Taking time to slow down and reflect on your wellbeing and to provide care for others is key. Activities like volunteering can have a significant impact on a person’s health and well-being, reducing stress levels and improving mood.

About 80% of people who volunteer say that volunteering lowers their stress levels.[2] Psychologists even call it a “helper’s high.” Because, just like a runner’s high after a workout, giving back releases ‘happy hormones’ in the giver’s body that leads to a feeling of exhilaration followed by a sense of calm.

Another idea could be granting employees one “Caring Day” per month to run activities aimed to care for each other and express gratitude. This could be programming but also opening up time for writing thank you letters to a boss or colleagues, bringing some pastries from your home country to celebrate a special festivity there, listening more than talking, and asking someone how you might be able to make their day better. The idea, of course, is to set habits and exchange ideas so that this can become a regular, spontaneous habit. Like stress, a “single act of kindness throws out roots in all directions, and the roots spring up and make new trees,” said aviator Amelia Earhart.

Making caring a performance metric, not just for managers

Via Pulse and other surveys, organizations gather data on how well employees feel supported by their managers. And how well managers do on this dimension is increasingly part of review conversations. Managers must strive to be mentors, coaches, and emotional first responders — as well as drive business performance.

But it should not stop there and they cannot do it alone.

Managers should also evaluate their reports for supporting peers, as well as their own manager. We are willing to bet that very few performance review forms for typically non-caregiving staff today include the categories “caring” and “kindness.”

Consultancy Bain has weekly team pulse checks for each project. The results are shared with the entire office during the weekly office meeting. The example below is a mix of individual, manager, and team support measures.

From Servant Manager to Servant Employee

Business schools, executive courses, and leadership programs promote a model of “servant leadership,” which has been around since the 1970s. The idea is that leaders should have the incentives and skills to support their employees — to serve them, as in Robert Greenleaf’s model.

What about the notion of a servant employee leader? Or the concept of ESR — employee social responsibility?

Whether acknowledged formally or not, meaning and purpose at work are created in our day-to-day interactions with one another. In addition to training and knowledge, kindness and concern are critical to healthy and productive work relationships.

Leaders and managers should learn to become as comfortable with social and emotional indicators of organizational efficacy as they are with financial metrics and transmit these values throughout the organization — and among employees for each other.

In doing so, they can encourage their teams to find purpose closer to home. It might serve us well to move the focus from ourselves — which has been extreme on COVID — onto others.

Those don’t have to be across the world. There are many, much closer worlds that can be made better — fairly immediately — and in the process, we make our worlds better, too.


[1] Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, “It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work,” Harvard Business Review, October 4, 2021, https://hbr.org/2021/10/its-a-new-era-for-mental-health-at-work, accessed October 2021.

[2] “Volunteering and Mental Wellness,” Project Helping, https://projecthelping.org/benefits-of-volunteering/, accessed November 2021.

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