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ON THE JOB

Kindness, Gratitude and Your Career

Is an attitude of goodwill a strength or a weakness in the workplace?

I know, I know, the holidays are a time we should be extra kind, burying our inner Scrooge in favor of peace and goodwill to all. And with the tough economy taking its toll in workplaces and households nationwide, that principle would seem to matter doubly this year.

Indeed, I told my editor that was going to be the theme of my December column whereupon she asked a provocative question: "Is showing kindness in the workplace seen as a strength or a weakness?"

In thinking back on what my clients have told me and on my own workplace interactions, it's a mixed bag. Kindness may certainly pay off in some situations by helping you build rapport with colleagues and higher-ups. For example, you might be appreciated for offering to help an overworked boss or coworker, or thought of as caring because you ask coworkers about what's doing in their lives. But kindness could also backfire. For instance:

  • If you're overly kind to someone who reports to you, he might be more likely to ask for a raise. Say no and he's likely to be disgruntled. Say yes and you've unnecessarily burned some of your budget without getting anything for it.

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  • If you give holiday bonuses for the first time this year, after the obligatory thank you, your employees will expect at least that much next year.

  • If you offer a helping hand to a coworker, he might feel put down that you felt he couldn't do it himself. Or he may become overly reliant on your help, so you're often taking on extra work for which you get no credit, or even that might get him promoted ahead of you. Or you could get a reputation as a workaholic and soon, everyone's asking for your help.

  • If you're kind to your boss, she might reasonably assume you're satisfied with your job and so can feel safe in piling on more work, not giving you a raise or much face time. Conversely, when a supervisee, coworker or boss is unkind to me, that motivates me to try extra hard, if only to reduce their chances of hurting me. So, in being mean, they get more out of me.

So, "Be extra kind during the holidays?" Pragmatically, it's not so simple.

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Being thankful

Gratitude is the other value on display during the holidays. Sure, being thankful you have a job, good health, etc., feels good. For example, if you're not going to leave your job, being grateful for its virtues helps you put the best face on the situation: "It pays terribly but I feel I'm doing some good, and after all, many people have it much worse."

But always looking on the bright side can generate a darker side: It can encourage complacency. For example, feeling grateful when you're asked to work ever harder without a raise merely encourages you to accept being treated poorly. Maybe it's wiser to replace the gratitude with outrage that will fuel you to find a better job.

Such advice is practical and yet...

Maybe I'm just filled with the holiday spirit but I'm wondering whether the holidays, especially this year, are the time to forgo pragmatism in favor of something higher. Couldn't we all use a little more kindness and humanity -- without caring what's in it for us?

What do you think?

Marty Nemko (bio) is a career coach and author of Cool Careers for Dummies.