Be Nice to Your Co-workers, Even When They Don’t Deserve It

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Photo: Chris Haston/NBC via Getty Images

When you spend eight-plus hours each day in the same space with the same people, it’s easy to notice all the reasons they give you not to be nice. Maybe you have a co-worker who constantly chews really loudly, or a cubicle neighbor with a B.O. situation, or one who insists on making overly personal phone calls from their desk. For the love of god, Bill, it’s not that hard to step into the hallway.

Familiarity can breed contempt, in other words, and the old saying is as true in the workplace as it is anywhere else. It’s fair if putting on your headphones and Gchatting snarky commentary to a friend can sometimes feel like the only way to make it through the day. But according to a study recently published in the journal Emotion and highlighted by Alex Fradera at BPS Research Digest, being nice to your co-workers — not just tolerating them, but actively working to make their day more pleasant — can make things better for you, too.

Over the course of the monthlong study, the participants — all employees at the Madrid office of Coca Cola — filled out weekly surveys on their happiness levels, noting in each one how often they had been on the receiving end of nice and not-so-nice gestures, and how often they’d been the one to either lend a hand or do something rude. At the end of the study period, they filled out one more questionnaire that dug a little deeper into their well-being and how satisfied they were in their roles at work. The twist, Fradera explained, is that a handful of the subjects had received special instructions to be extra-nice to their colleagues through little gestures like saying thank you or delivering drinks to their desk:

The acts of kindness don’t go unnoticed. The receivers observed more prosocial behaviors in the office and by the end of the study, they were reporting ten times more prosocial behaviors than the controls. In addition, receivers’ level of “felt autonomy” – essentially how much they felt in control of their days at work – were higher than controls over the course of the study… One month after the study ended, the receivers were also enjoying significantly higher levels of happiness than controls.

Just as important, these gestures seemed to create something of a snowball effect: The workers on the receiving end then turned around and did something nice for another one of their colleagues, going out of their way to show goodwill three times as often as employees in the control group, who hadn’t been the beneficiary of any planned acts of kindness. “Practicing everyday prosociality,” the study authors wrote, “is both emotionally reinforcing and contagious (inspiring kindness and generating hedonic rewards in others).” Next time Bill’s complaining loudly on the phone about his hangover, then, maybe bring him a cup of coffee. Even if he doesn’t deserve it, the rest of the office might.

Be Nice to Your Co-workers, Even When They Don’t Deserve It