Last month a Sharjah police officer, Sgt Ahmed Al Hammadi, came to the aid of an elderly motorist who had broken down on a busy stretch of the 12-lane Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed highway. The patrolman not only provided dutiful assistance to the imperilled motorist but went above and beyond, discreetly paying the costs associated with the vehicle recovery services. Overwhelmed with gratitude, the motorist later called a Sharjah radio station to publicly thank the officer.
This benevolent act of police gentility was made all the more prominent in my mind as it coincided with the 30th anniversary of the infamous Rodney King incident. On March 3, 1991, the world witnessed one of the most savage acts of police brutality ever captured on film. Mr King, 25, was pulled over and assaulted by four officers from the Los Angeles Police Department. The violence of the officers resulted in Mr King's hospitalisation, landing at least seven kicks and 33 baton blows to his head and body. The footage of the beating shocked the world, becoming a catalyst for the LA riots, one of the most devastating civil disruptions in US history.
Sgt Al Hammadi’s act of kindness is also magnified, in my mind, by the recent commencement of the Derek Chauvin trial. Mr Chauvin, an American former police officer, is charged with second degree murder, third degree murder and manslaughter in connection with the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020. I can’t forget the image of the policeman with his knee on Mr Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, while the latter repeatedly pleads with the officers: “I can’t breathe!”
The Sgt Al Hammadi incident, by contrast, is simply a case of an employee doing good work – good, here, in the moral sense of the word. Serving humanity with empathy and compassion, courage and generosity. Of course, kindness and cruelty, moral and immoral behaviour is not limited to the world of law enforcement. From business and healthcare to education and the military, all occupational spheres provide opportunities to do good work.
However, innovation and efficiency, wrongdoing and malpractice seem to gain far more attention than virtuous workplace behaviours. Good work, too often, goes unnoticed or underappreciated, but it shouldn’t. If we are serious about the betterment of our societies, then we need more people doing good work, more often. We need to make kindness cool again. Greed is not good, compassion is.
Across a lifetime, the average person will spend around 90,000 hours on the job. That's the figure arrived at by Jessica Pryce-Jones in her book, Happiness at Work. If we really want to make positive social change, then the workplace is an important area to focus on.
In recent years, the idea of compassionate workplace leadership has gained prominence among organisational psychologists. The compassionate leader understands, empathises, cares and acts with kindness, aiming to alleviate the suffering of others and promote well-being. It’s hardly surprising, but leaders with such traits turn out to be particularly effective.
Rasmus Hougaard, author of Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, is convinced that compassionate leadership is a force for global good. He argues that compassionate leadership results in workplaces where people feel respected, connected and engaged, leading to enhanced collaboration, trust, organisational commitment and lower employee turnover.
The idea that kindness is cool, and perhaps profitable, is catching on. The list of organisations investing in “compassion training” reads like a Who’s Who of Fortune 500 companies, with names such as Google, Apple, Accenture, Nike, American Express, Microsoft, and Sony.
However, being compassionate in the hope of improving efficiency, productivity or profitability is the wrong motivation. We should cultivate compassionate workplaces because it is the right thing to do. Furthermore, at some level, we are all leaders. If we lead with compassion, we make a positive difference one interaction at a time.
There is an uplifting short story by Loren Eisley, often used in therapy. It starts with a young boy throwing a stranded starfish back into the ocean. A passer-by mocks the youngster, telling him, “don’t you realise there are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish? You can’t make a difference!" Smiling, the boy replies, “I made a difference for that one”.
Sgt Al Hammadi was compassionate to one motorist, but what an effect it had on that person and those who witnessed or heard about his kind act. Not only is kindness cool, but it can also be infectious. If we can’t be kind, we should at least be curious as to why not.
Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National