Ten Ideas For Paying It Forward At Work

We had an impactful experience last week on a day trip.  We had gone out-of-town with friends to have lunch and celebrate my wife’s birthday.  We arrived mid-morning so had some time to stroll around.  We found ourselves in a gallery that we had visited previously and got chatting with the artist and his wife, and the topic of the birthday celebration came up.

Out of nowhere, a certificate to a deli and restaurant appeared as a gift.  Next thing we knew, the artist’s wife was on her feet heading for the door saying she was going to treat the four of us to lunch as well! What an amazingly generous gesture.  We hadn’t even purchased anything from them … a pure example of pay it forward, which then inspired us to leave enough cash at the till to buy café latte’s for the next five people who ordered one.

That is what pay it forward is all about … inspiring others to continue a string of kindness, mindfulness and thoughtfulness towards others.

Later in the week, I had a discussion with a friend.  One where my friend expressed that he wasn’t really feeling a great vibe at work, and a lot of that vibe came from how others engaged with him.  He didn’t really feel aligned with his co-workers.  There was a feeling of everyone being in it for themselves, and it was making it difficult for him to remain inspired in the work that he wants to do.

We ended up on a theme that I’m sure comes up constantly. We can’t change how others act, we can only change the way we receive others actions and the way we act in return.  We might actually be happier if others did change, but it is more likely that we will find happiness through our own actions.

These two experiences melded for me, and it occurred to me that one of the best ways that we can impact our work environment (or any other environment that we are consistently a part of) is to be the change we want to see happen.  It brought to mind a thought … what if we lived a pay it forward mentality at work?  Wholeheartedly, without need for recognition, but also without any need to hide what we do?

Here are ten ideas for paying it forward at work.  Some are pretty simple things and others fairly deep and require more commitment. Perhaps it is a good thing to have a progression we can practice on.  I’m sure there are many more, and this would be a great forum for others to express their ideas on how we might all move our work world from one where the norm is to fend for ourselves to one where we support each other fully.

  1. Empty the dishwasher. This sounds trivial, but so much starts in the kitchen! You know how those coffee cups and dishes accumulate in the sink, like people think that their mother will come behind them and put them in the dishwasher for them?  Then we think we’re doing a great thing when we just put our own dishes away?  Have you ever stopped to think how the clean cups get back in the cupboard?  Usually some poor soul in admin is assigned the task.  What if you did it for them? The more senior you are in your organization, the more impact on others there will be when you do something like this.
  2. Fill up someone else’s candy jar. There’s always that person in the office that provides treats. We all love them for it, but over time it becomes an expectation.  What if every once in a while, we snuck in early in the morning or late at night and topped it up?  Maybe with the same thing that is usually there, but maybe with something different just to amp up the conversation level. Something that simple can shift a dynamic in a subtle but meaningful way to a new group norm.
  3. Secretly leave gifts. I love this one, but it is trickier.  The secret here is to leave small but very meaningful gifts with no means of the recipient knowing where they come from.  One of the people in our office has a little collection of small animal figures that she keeps for others to come and rearrange or otherwise play with, creating a unique connection.  She has had a secret donor of figures for the past year or so, and it has created a nice little conversation in her work group that is centered around kindness and caring.
  4. Take some work off someone’s desk. Especially “ugly” work. Filing, processing, repetitive, mindless tasks that might be a part of someone’s daily routine, but really could be done by anyone.  What if you wandered by and said “I’d like to do that for you today … you deserve a break from it”.  It could be a really nice boost for someone, especially if you are the leader of the team recognizing what usually goes unnoticed.
  5. Offer to take notes at a meeting. We often show up at meetings and find ourselves minimally involved in the topic, yet we’ll see that the leader of the meeting frantically trying to balance multiple roles – facilitating, gatekeeping, contributing, leading and note-taking. What if we were to step in and offer to take the latter off their plate? It is usually the simplest of the tasks, but the one that is the most distracting to the effectiveness of the meeting if the organizer has to do it. Others in the meeting will really appreciate how much more productive their time has just become.
  6. Have a day of praising others. Too often we get caught up in our own work and upcoming priorities. A completed piece of work often gets forgotten because of the queue of “the next things” that need to be done. What might be different if we designated a day every so often that just became a day of praise, where we notice and comment on nice things about others. It might be a result that deserves acknowledgement, it might be a compliment about what someone is wearing, or it might be a simple statement of appreciation for how someone goes about their day. Count how many smiles you get in return.
  7. Finding value in others. There is always someone whose job seems to be to get in the way of what we want to do, or to ask us to do things that we don’t want to do. Think of an internal auditor, who only seems to want to find what we did wrong.  When we find ourselves struggling with a person who has a role like that, step back and deliberately take time to bring the value they add to mind.  Go one step further and tell them you appreciate what they do.
  8. Invest in conversations. Work isn’t so much about working as it is about getting work done. One of the best ways to get work done is to make it easier to get things done, and that usually means having others on your side.  The way we get people on our side is to spend time showing them we care by engaging in conversations with them.  Even better if the conversation is about them.
  9. Really listen. Elevate those conversations one step further by employing advanced listening skills.  Stephen Covey states it as “seek first to understand, then to be understood”. The Hudson Institute of Coaching calls it “listening on channel two” which means when I listen to you, I’m less interested in what your words mean to me than I am in what your words mean to you.
  10. Smile and be cheerful. I could have almost started and ended this list with this item.  A genuine smile is infectious and a sunny disposition changes a room.  You can’t fake happy.  If you aren’t feeling it, do some inner exploration to figure out why and what you can do about it.  One of the best ways of shifting our inner balance is to list what we are grateful for.  You will be surprised at how long that list is.

These are merely ten simple examples of how to pay it forward at work.  I’m sure there are orders of magnitude more ideas.  What comes to mind for you?  How might we create more of this type of culture where we work?

Published by

Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

6 thoughts on “Ten Ideas For Paying It Forward At Work

  1. I love this post Ian. We spend a lot of our waking hours at work. How much wonderful and meaningful these hours could be if we apply a ‘pay it forward’ philosophy. ❤
    Diana xo

  2. Ian,

    Here’s a couple of things that I used to do:

    Make the coffee first thing in the morning (even though you don’t drink it) because you arrive before everyone else does.

    Pick up a completed print job for a co-worker and deliver it.

    Deliver a co-workers mail from their mail box which is so over loaded that the employee who is responsible for delivering the mail is starting to grumble!

    Leave a favorite home made treat in the department that supports yours the most….just because.

    Leave a post-it-note on an employee’s monitor who has been kicking ass that says: “On a scale of 1 – 10 you’re an 11!”

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