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Little Changes in a Big World

NAU Franke Craig Van SlykeOne of my first undergraduate classes was introduction to economics. The professor was a bit of a character and was known for commonly uttering two phrases, i.e. (as in “in other words”) and ceteris paribus (which roughly means “all other things being equal”). The economy is a complicated thing and thinking about how changes in one factor impact some output is easier if we hold all the other factors constant. This is a pretty reasonable way of teaching economics to a bunch of undergraduates. Trying to consider dozens of variables changing at the same time probably would have made our brains explode. For some reason, I was reminiscing about this econ class at about the same time I was pondering the idea of behaviors becoming habits. You may recall from last month that I briefly mentioned Aristotle’s idea of becoming excellent by being excellent. (The basic idea is that through practice you build habit, I think.) How do these two ideas fit together? Let me try to explain.

Let’s think about this in the context of kindness. I recently returned from a long, grueling trip. During that trip I made it a point to try to be kinder and more considerate of service workers. So I tried little things like using the hotel front desk worker’s name when thanking her, or asking the taxi driver how his day had been. My goal was to try to become a kinder, more considerate person by practicing kindness and consideration – a little experiment into Aristotle’s idea (like he needs my help in proving his ideas!). Something very interesting happened: I noticed these service workers brightening just a little. Nothing big, just a smile or a hint of brightness in their eyes. The differences were small, but noticeable.

On the way home, I reflected on my little exercise in kindness, which led me to think about ceteris paribus. What’s the connection? Well, if the big old world stayed the same in all other respects, then my little kindnesses made the entire world a better place. The difference was small, to be sure, but I believe it was there. So I started thinking about small kindnesses, which I call micro-kindnesses. These little kindnesses make the world a better place. Maybe the difference is small, but it’s there; and the difference may not be quite as small as you think, especially in an individual life. Why not extend these micro-kindnesses? The cost to you is almost zero, so even if the difference is small, there’s a net gain for the world. Economists call this a Pareto improvement – someone is better off without anyone else being worse off. (Thanks to NAU’s Dennis Foster for pointing this out to me.) Call it what you will, the point is that even small kindnesses make the world a better place. Micro-kindness may be small, but lots of small things can lead to big changes.

This same thinking applies to the workplace. Small kindnesses, over time, can improve the atmosphere of an organization. A workplace where people are willing to help each other, even in seemingly minor ways, tends to be a happier, more effective workplace. As a leader, you set the tone for your organization. Whether you realize it or not, people follow your lead. (You may recall an earlier column on emotional contagion that explores this idea in more depth.) If you make a habit of performing micro-kindnesses, it’s likely that at least some of your team will follow, which will improve your organizational culture in meaningful ways.

Micro-kindnesses cost you virtually nothing, and may make a bigger difference than you think. Over time, you won’t be acting kindly, you’ll simply become a kind person, and the world can use more kind people. So why not give this a try? You might just make your organization, and the world, a little bit better. FBN

 

The W.A. Franke College of Business at Northern Arizona University is home to approximately 3,000 undergraduate and Master’s students. The College’s faculty and staff are dedicated to the success of its students and the economic development of the region. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to: craig.vanslyke@nau.edu.

 

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