With Christmas almost upon us, it's that time of year when we look to give back to our friends, family, neighbours and communities... oh no, wait a minute, if the recent US election result and BREXIT are anything to go by, it seems like we no longer care much for our neighbours - whether next-door, down the street or in the neighbouring village, let alone the neighbouring country. According to the popular vote, we can turn our backs on the communities which we are a part of, and live a merry life of solitude.
To be successful in 2016, you don't need to be kind, compassionate or even care much for anything, apart from your own self interests and bolstering your own ego and sense of self worth. It's no longer about giving back, it's about taking and blaming: taking everything you can without worrying about the impact it could have on others, yet blaming everyone else if anything goes wrong or you suffer a perceived injustice.
Throw away the rule book, because being nice no longer matters. To get ahead, to be successful, you simply need to think about how to achieve your own goals and aspirations, whilst treading on as many other people as you possibly can along the way (whether you dislike them or not) and push them as far down (far, far down) as you possibly can to ensure they stay down and you succeed. You can be racist, sexist, homophobic and still get the top job. At last, 2016 has put human kind on the map... only, it's not a map I recognise (or wish to recognise for that matter).
I have always been taught to respect others, to be kind and to, essentially, treat others as I would wish to be treated myself - do good and you will feel good. Those are, at least to me, very good values, values which I live my life by. However, they are values that appear to be under threat. Yet, with everything that has happened, I feel confident that the values that I (and many others) hold dear, will prevail. I am confident, because science tells us that giving back, doing good things, makes us feel good (and history tells us that we generally tend to do what feels good). Some may argue that giving back is just as selfish as (if not more selfish than) taking from others, when you consider the pleasure we derive from it - however, unlike taking, giving back is good for both the donor and the donee.
Obtaining material goods gives us only momentary elation, whereas giving has been shown to have a lasting positive emotional effect on the donor - it is scientifically proven to bolster feel good chemicals associated with pleasure (endorphins), social connection and trust (oxytocin), that bolster our levels wellbeing. In a 2008 Harvard Business School study, participants were given $5 and asked to spend it either on themselves or on someone else. Those who spent the money on someone else, saw a greater increase in happiness than those that spent it on themselves (contrary to what participants expected). Another study, conducted over 5 years, saw elderly participants that volunteered reduce their risk of dying by 44%, compared to those that didn't.
Giving back isn't necessarily about giving someone a gift or even donating money to charity. Giving back doesn't have to cost money. In fact, as highlighted in the above study, volunteering for something that (or someone who) means something to you is a great way to bolster your wellbeing. It could involve volunteering at a local charity, offering to help a friend out, taking on a pro-bono position as a school governor, or even helping out at your child's weekend sports fixtures... the possibilities are endless.
Over the years, without really thinking about it, I have given up a fair amount of my time to give back to others. I coached waterpolo for more than 15 years and never once got paid (I didn't expect to be either - I was rewarded by seeing others improve and flourish); I set up the University of London waterloo league with a friend in 2001 (a league that still runs strong to this day); I paced for Nike for three years (after work and at weekends), at various running clubs across London, and helped a number of people achieve new PBs or simply stick with it; I have helped friends move house (up and down the country), and advised (admittedly with mixed results) on friends' relationship matters. As a qualified lawyer and HR professional, I also get approached by friends and family when they have a thorny issue that has arisen; and I often help my godmother, who suffered from a stroke just under a year ago, with various administrative tasks, which I know is a huge help to her and her husband.
I am not looking for a pat on the back, there are far better people out there than me, but the point I am trying to make is that there are opportunities to give back, almost everywhere you look. The trick is to embrace them - you'll feel the better for it. I know I do.
If you hadn't gathered thus far, GIVING isn't just for Christmas. If you want to maximise your wellbeing, giving should be an all year round event, etched into your weekly (or even daily) schedule. Whilst a number of people express concern at the direction in which our society appears to be heading, I am ever hopeful that (for want of a better phrase) love will trump hate and that good deeds will save the day. Even the Trumps of this world may yet realise that the most selfish act of all is to give back to others. After all, it makes us feel really good, so it must be bad... or so logic goes.
On a side note...
Whilst we're on the topic of giving back. If you're reading this as a manager of a team, the best thing you can do is to praise those in your team regularly. You'll feel good, and I can guarantee that your team will feel good too, as a result. You'll trigger a load of feel good chemicals in their brains (as well as your own), including dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, which will likely help them work that little bit harder, stay on task longer, perform better, feel happier and boost their loyalty to you, as their manager and to the organisation. Clearly, it needs to be sincere and sometimes it can take leap of faith from you, as the manager (especially the first few times you do it).
If giving positive feedback feels like an alien concept to you, perhaps because of the culture of the organisation you are in or the way you have managed your team to date, you might need to add some structure to the process, so that you stick with it the first few times. A good way to do that might be to make a mental note of a piece of positive feedback you wish to give, before heading into a team meeting and aim to deliver that piece of feedback within the first few minutes of the meeting. Once it becomes a little more natural, you'll have the confidence to ad-lib a little. Once it becomes a natural part of your management technique, you can sit back and enjoy the rewards - you'll feel good for doing good and, most importantly, seeing your team thrive.
Often, positive feedback only surfaces at performance review time and is generally to soften the blow of "constructive feedback". Yet, science suggests you'd be far better heaping praise on your team as often as possible - they'll be far happier to take constructive feedback on board when it does arise, if they know you value them, and they will generally perform better for it. Happy employees are up to 31% more productive and three times more creative than those in a neutral, negative or stressed state. They are also more resilient, meaning they will be better at taking on board constructive feedback, as they will se it as a challenge rather than a failure. As a manager, you should embrace the power of wellbeing, not shy away from it.
There is plenty of research to back up the neuroscience too. Research published by the likes of Gallup and Towers Watson, concluded that employees who receive regular praise are more productive, engaged and more likely to stay with their organisation, than those who do not. According to Towers Watson's Global Recognition Study, managers who do provide praise are more respected and admired by their employees. In addition, employees who experience uplifts at work are more likely to say they are motivated to work harder and willing to go out of their way to help their peers or support their organisation. However, it's important to remember that the way in which praise is delivered can have a significant bearing on its effectiveness. Gallup's research highlighted that only genuine achievements should be praised, and that empty words have little or no value. Indeed, Gallup said that "unearned praise can do more harm to an individual and a workgroup than none at all". It not only prevents employees from knowing when they need to improve, but it can diminish the impact of genuine praise that is offered at other times.
Many people assume that wellbeing is simply about being physically and mentally well. To an extent it is; but "well" is pretty vague. Most people would accept that being "well" simply means not being "unwell", which sounds sensible enough. However, you'd then be missing out on a large swathe of potential, in both yourself and your team; potential that only materialises when we're happy. If you think of happiness as a performance enhancing drug, you won't be far off. The only difference is that it's legal and you'd be crazy not to use it to your advantage.
If you want to learn more on how happiness can improve your performance, we run leadership and management workshops on wellbeing and compassionate leadership for organisations. If you'd like your team or organisation to benefit from being ahead of the curve (as opposed to simply plodding along or below it), get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.