We all know one or two people like this at work. They walk in and—shazam—the room lights up. Through sleet, rain, rumors of layoffs, high turnover, department-wide head colds, you name it. Somehow, as if by wizardry or sensational genes, this colleague is rarely crabby and never mean.
Maybe, in the back of our minds, we think those people have it easier than we do. Sure, it’s possible. But everyone has family issues; everyone gets sick. What’s more likely is that your favorite bright light has made a commitment, consciously or not, to elevate everyone they encounter. Good news: you can do it, too.
Develop greater self-awareness
Elevating others starts with you. Alicia M. Rodriguez, author of Manage Your Life Before Life Manages You: More Joy and Less Stress in 365 Days and an executive coach based in Ecuador, says, “Look at yourself and ask, Do I want to be someone that has a bigger purpose than just my little life?” If the answer is yes, and you do want to elevate people, she says, the first thing is to focus on yourself and set an intention. It can be very simple, like, “I plan to leave something worthwhile in every interaction that I have with someone.”
"Look at yourself and ask, Do I want to be someone that has a bigger purpose than just my little life?" - Alicia M. Rodriguez
From there, work with paying close attention to the other person and moving into the story they tell you, says Rodriguez. It’s a tricky dance: “I have to be able to enter your story,” she says, “but still retain a bit of distance so I can see what’s invisible to you.” A particular kind of close listening. “Retaining a slight distance means you can follow through on your intention to leave the other person better somehow with your interaction.”
Choose to be kind
If your eyes just glazed over, unglaze them. This is far harder than it sounds if it’s not an ingrained habit. Choosing to be kind is a practice, like meditation or yoga or stair climbing. But it is available to you, a 24/7 choice. When you enter into an interaction with someone, will your effect be negative, neutral, or positive? “First and foremost, being kind is the decent thing to do,” says Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict and a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review. But there are also some intriguing selfish reasons. Gallo points to research showing that people who are generous with their time wind up feeling more “time affluent.” In an HBR interview, Wharton’s Cassie Mogilner says that people who spend time helping others “feel they’ve accomplished something and, therefore, that they can accomplish more in the future. And this self-efficacy makes them feel that time is more expansive.”
People who are generous with their time wind up feeling more "time affluent."
If you’re in a challenging or outright toxic environment, choosing to be kind can feel like pulling out your own teeth: unsavory, unwise, undoable. Here’s a trick: opposite action. A technique of dialectical behavioral therapy, it’s designed to create a helpful action in the presence of distressing emotions. Say you’re having a conversation with a colleague and your mind is screaming, “You’re a dimwit with no qualifications but a shocking number of professional defects.” You might choose to say something that qualifies as the opposite: “That insight could really help us to the next level in our project. Thank you for that.” (If you have to do this on a regular basis, please find another job.)
The term microculture comes from Annie McKee, author of How to be Happy at Work. Maybe you’re a leader whose influence is wide-ranging. A microculture, however, can be two people, or a team, or your division. Where people start treating each other well, even in minor ways, research shows it can eventually catch on to the broader organization. “No matter where you are in the organization, you influence the culture,” says Gallo. “Even if it's just one person you find who you can regularly speak kindly about, peer coach, help each other get better at your jobs... Whatever it is, whatever form the elevating is going to take, you create the possibility in that organization that this can happen.”
A microculture can be two people, or a team, or your division. Where people start treating each other well, even in minor ways, it can eventually catch on to the broader organization.
Gallo mentions a study about people on airplanes. If the person sitting next to you buys candy, you’re significantly more likely to. It’s the same at work. “If you show up in an absolutely foul mood, and are slamming things down on your desk and slumped over your keyboard,” she says, that’s going to spread like an emotional plague. So why not make the choice to conduct yourself in a way that has a neutral or positive effect? “Even if you have to fake it for a little bit until you actually feel it, why not make the choice?” says Gallo. “You need to measure the emotional tone of the organization and match it accordingly, but you can still be optimistic, and hopeful even when things are really tough.”
This can be very simple. Try asking another person, “How are you doing today?” And mean it.
Kate Crane splits her time as a content marketing manager between writing for Relate and the Zendesk blog. A longtime New Yorker and veteran of publications including SmartMoney and Time Out New York, she is now based in Silicon Valley—for the trees, not the Teslas or Zuckerberg sightings.