People Want to do Good, BUT . . .

I know you have lots of reasons to not believe this, but people are good. They care about others and want to help those in need. Yes , yes . . there are some rotten people out there, but their percentage is much lower than you think. Most people know the difference between what’s good and bad, have reasonable levels of empathy, and a disposition towards the betterment of others.

Remember how people responded during the 9/11 crises by contributing hundreds of dollars each to individuals hurt or killed in the horrific event, by giving hurricane Katrina refugees shelter in states all over the nation, or when thousands of volunteers sought tirelessly for weeks to find missing Elizabeth Smart?  They saw a need and chose to do good for the benefit of others.

The problem is, these examples are the exception and not the norm. It’s the big BUT hanging out there that leaves us wondering. Why don’t people do good even though they see and want it? Before we get to the reasons of why people act this way, we need to know why it is important to address this topic from a business perspective. Individual goodness and kindness create a work environment that fosters productivity and job satisfaction. This is job one of a manager. There is no disputing the outcomes wanted and the results generated; it is something a leader has to pay attention to.

There are two reasons why people do not consistently do good, and both have to do with their environment. The first is that their environment preoccupies and overwhelms them, drowning out the good they want to do.

Ed had been his division’s new director for about four months when he was invited to attend a two week executive education program at a major university. Upon his return he had a lot of ideas for making his division different. Most of them were related to how he would engage and motivate employees at work. People became excited as he shared his ideas with them the week after his return, but they soon became disappointed as Ed went back to his old self, working long hours, giving people limited attention, and passing quick judgment on others followed by cutting remarks. Ed was back in his old environment acting in his old ways again.

Every one of us have spent many idle hours on long car rides or days on vacation, and have thought about the good things we should do for others when we got home. Upon our return those ideas seemed to drift away. What stopped us from acting on them? We went back to our normal life routines and our good intentions got pushed out.

The second reason why people don’t consistently do good is that their environment rewards them to misrepresent their true desires.

We all know someone at work who is seen as callous and seeks achievement at the expense of others, only to hear from friends in common how nice and good the person is in a non-work environment. We are often left in disbelief thinking they live a double life. The truth is they do. Their work environment requires them to act insensitively in order to survive and prosper, but their true self comes out at home where they want to do good for others. If they want to have a good career and provide for their family unkind behavior in the workplace is what is rewarded.

At this point you may be thinking how do I, as a manger, help these people change their ways? The answer is we address these same issues in ourselves and model the behavior others will want to follow. This will give us insight on how to change and how to enable other to do so too.

So what do you need to do differently? In regards to the first environmental issue, you may not be able to prevent yourself from getting overwhelmed and preoccupied in your job but you can establish firm boundaries or rules to help you break loose and do good when you are aware of the need. Here are a few examples:

  • if someone comes into your office or cubicle and asks you a question while you are working on something, push yourself away from your desk and give them your full attention
  • if there is a death in the family of someone you know, go to the funeral
  • if a person or a member of their immediate family has a tragedy or is severely ill send them flowers
  • if someone appears to have done something wrong ask them to explain what they were thinking and why they did what they did before passing judgment.

Every person has a different set of weaknesses regarding their display of kindness. Each person’s rules and boundaries will be different as a result. Encourage others to seek and identify them in their own lives to get the good out.

In regards to the second environmental issue, it is much more difficult to counteract an environment that rewards behavior that does not produce good. It requires us to review our morals and practice a lot of internal dialog before a clear set of actions can be established. Change usually occurs after a watershed event or long nights of questioning. Once you untangle yourself from your spider web you will be better able to help others get out of theirs too.

When everything is weighted on the scales of good or bad, the things that preoccupy us or cause us to behave contrary to how we want have little to do with the legacy we wish to leave behind. In reality, being known for doing good for others is much more powerful than what we actually accomplish in life.