The Unstoppable Power of Compliments and Serendipitous Encounters

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” (Leo Buscaglia)

DSCN2889At least once a week, I come across an article, research summary, or opinion piece lauding the benefits of kindness in the workplace. I’ve shared many of these demonstrated benefits through this blog over its six-plus years of kindness-diving (as opposed to dumpster-diving). And I’ve been encouraged to see that a lot of businesses are taking to heart the advice from experts that kindness is one of the best strategies a business can employ for long-term success.

As many businesses are now planning how best to transition from a remote workforce to fully-staffed offices, or a hybrid (“amphibious”) model, it’s a good time to explore where kindness fits in and how to employ it in our workplaces . . . and in our lives.

In early May, Harvard Business Review published an excellent article summarizing a workplace study of the benefits of kindness. Much of it reiterated conclusions that have been put forward by others, showing that kindness:

  • reduces employee burnout, turnover, and absenteeism
  • improves employee well-being
  • increases long-term job satisfaction
  • improves employee productivity and efficiency
  • fosters a culture of innovation and collaboration

The HBR article specifically addressed the challenges businesses face trying to build or maintain kind workplaces during a global pandemic—in circumstances where many workers are overwhelmed by the demands of family and remote working conditions, where they may experience isolation and a sense of disconnection from their colleagues, and where the thought of one more Zoom meeting sends shivers down the sturdiest of spines.

The study’s authors cite the loss of “serendipitous encounters” as one reason why joy may be declining in workplaces. This delightful term is one I was unfamiliar with. Serendipitous encounters include such experiences as “water cooler” interactions, chance hallway meetings, and coffee breaks with colleagues. These seemingly small exchanges are often where an employee is told “thank you” by a colleague, or where a manager says “great job” about a recent task or presentation. Employees often recount these as the highlights of their work day. They warm our hearts and increase our job satisfaction and sense of connection. And they are easily lost when our connections are through Zoom, email, texts, and hurried conversations muffled by masks.

But they don’t have to be. The article offers a simple remedy: kindness. In particular, it recommends practicing kindness by giving sincere compliments. There is considerable power in the simple—but genuine—compliment. It engenders social connection. It feels good to receive them . . . and, research shows, even better to give them. Compliments translate to long-term job satisfaction.

People are sometimes hesitant to give compliments. They worry that they will appear awkward or clumsy in delivering the compliment, they mistakenly underestimate how much their compliment would be appreciated by the recipient, and they worry that their effort might be misinterpreted . . . and so, they hesitate, and the moment is lost.

To make compliments a staple of the workplace, the effort needs to begin at the top. The study’s authors note that, “By giving compliments and praising their employees, leaders are likely to motivate team members to copy their behavior and create norms of kindness in teams.”

They add that when people receive an act of kindness, such as a compliment, “they pay it back—and not just to the same person, but often to someone entirely new.” A culture of generosity is soon created, and when that happens, businesses experience greater success.

As we return to a world that looks a bit more like the one we knew before March of 2020, let’s be intentional about what we want to cultivate in our workplaces. Let’s all seek opportunities for serendipitous encounters and, when in doubt, err on the side of kindness.

Why not start today with a sincere compliment to someone in your circle of friends, family, or business colleagues? Or even a stranger with whom you cross paths.

By the way, you have already brightened the world today with your presence.

“I can live for two months on a good compliment.” (Mark Twain)

18 thoughts on “The Unstoppable Power of Compliments and Serendipitous Encounters

    • I had a boss like that, too, Neil, in one of my first jobs. The beauty of that was that it taught me never to tolerate that sort of work environment, and never to behave like that when it was my turn to be a manager.

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  1. Donna, I keep thinking our entry into the new normal–whatever that will look like–gives us an opportunity to create new habits. I hope that kindness becomes our default mode! This is a lovely piece; thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Pam. I so agree that creating a new normal offers us an opportunity to get things “righter” than they were before. Let’s hope we can be intentional about the changes we make.

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  2. My dear husband has a gift for affirming everyone around him. It is just how he is wired. Such a lovely thing. I find these past covid months speaking more to the people in the grocery store and complimenting them on their mask or outfit or curtesy. We are so all in this together… and saying a kind thing makes us happier too. Love your writing BTW, Donna, LOL. Is there a more important topic to discuss. Maybe, maybe not! Thanks!

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    • What a wonderful gift to have, Linda. I imagine all of those generous words and gestures have rippled around the world more than once. Thanks for your kind and encouraging comment.


  3. The two most powerful words in my vocabulary are “Thank you”. I’m amazed by the people who touch my life daily. I can’t say thank you enough. I’ve also found the three most freeing words to be “I don’t know” but that’s another story.

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  4. Thanks, Gregory. I love how a “thank you” is powerful when we say it and also when it’s said to us. And I agree with you about the value of being able to say, “I don’t know.” That’s a hard one to learn…. Thanks for your comment.


  5. I like the term “serendipitous encounters” and will remember it. That is definitely something that’s been lost during this year+ of pandemic living. I’m good at giving compliments– which sounds a bit arrogant to say, but I mean it sincerely.

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    • Giving good compliments takes practice, Ally. Clearly, you’ve mastered the skill. I think it takes a positive outlook on life, and if your blog is any indicator, you’ve got that mastered, too. Here’s to a resurgence of serendipitous encounters.

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  6. There is absolute power in giving a compliment, particularly when it’s from the heart. A great reminder that little things make a big difference. Hope you’re well Donna.

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