Experiments With Work: Can a two-hour exercise boost belonging and compassion at work?

Bev Hutney is CEO of The Stelter Company and teaches at the MBA level on strategic management of change.

Every leader I know is trying to imagine a workplace where diversity, equality and inclusion (DEI) initiatives emerge naturally, like green leaves in spring. But, today, everyone’s garden needs tending. Often I find myself struggling to coax employees to bend more in this direction.

An aha moment arrived for me earlier this year when I connected two seemingly disparate pieces of advice offered by authors I admire. They both, in a way, focus their energy around some of the trickiest aspects of human behavior: Encouraging people to behave better and care more about each other.

Irshad Manji, Oprah’s first “chutzpah” award winner and best-selling author of Don’t Label Me, suggests starting with inclusiveness as a way to chip away at the us-versus-them mentality, which so many diversity initiatives inspire. 

Wharton professor Adam Grant’s pioneering research on generosity, outlined in his book Give and Take, reveals how a giving mindset has the power to transform careers, workplaces and communities.

I’ve been particularly curious about an exercise called the Reciprocity Ring, in which groups of 10-20 people request and offer help for real needs they’re facing in their personal and professional lives. This simple act of asking for and giving help is said to wheedle largesse from even the prickliest participant.

Your chance to take part:

Get and give help within a network of nonprofit professionals in a group just for association and nonprofit leaders.

In January of this year, our company had the opportunity to experiment with both of these concepts at our annual, all-staff meeting. Here’s how it went.

The Experiment

This being a pandemic year, most of Stelter’s 85 employees were cuddled up in front of computer screens at their homes in central Iowa with others logging in throughout the United States. In our final exercise of the day, we introduced the Reciprocity Ring concept. 

The Reciprocity Ring exercise included everything we needed to facilitate ourselves. We were also given access to an intuitive tool that facilitated the process of posting requests and managing offers for help. Employees were split into four breakout groups in which a leader walked each team through the process of writing and responding to requests. 

Participants posted more than 100 requests for help that afternoon and received many more offers in return. Not one request went unanswered. Requests ranged from quirky and specific to basic and broad: 

  • “How do you true a wheel on a bike?”
  • “I suck at Excel. Can anyone teach me how to use it better?”
  • “I would like to get a rudimentary exposure to Google Analytics. Might you show me around?”

The most astonishing demonstration of support, however, played out as the formal exercise came to a close. As my Zoom breakout room ended delivering me back to the main meeting room, I heard Patty, who works part-time in the accounting department, speaking. Patty was describing her frustration in trying to secure one of the precious vaccine slots newly available to people above the age of 65. Patty hadn’t seen her grandchildren in nearly a year and was anxious to start the vaccine process.

Hearing her plight, our company president Nathan Stelter, perked up. “Patty!,” he said. “My wife runs the vaccine clinic at Drake University.” Nathan explained how, at the end of the day, the clinic often has vaccines left over from people who missed their appointment, which they offer to eligible people on a first-come, first-serve basis. 

“I just texted my wife,” he said, “If you can be there in 30 minutes, the vaccine is yours.”

The chat feature lit up with additional requests: “Can I get one for my mom?”, “Should I send my parents down?”, “Two for me”. Within one hour, two employees and five relatives had received vaccinations thanks to the serendipitous magic of our Reciprocity Ring exercise. 

The Results

Our experiment provided an astonishing example of how asking a community of people for help can naturally unleash the human instinct for compassion. 

Compassion is defined as the emotional response when perceiving suffering and involves an authentic desire to help. We are born with it. It’s not something that requires a half-day of training or practice to engage.

Belonging is the sense that you matter to others and have a tribe you can call home. I’m not the only leader who believes creating a sense of belonging is the best, first step in building inclusivity.

Building Gratitude and Generosity Into Everyday Culture

Following the success of our Reciprocity Ring exercise, we launched an internal giving group, which is now our hub for helping. 

While the Reciprocity Ring is a one-time, team-building exercise that teaches employees how to ask for and offer help, Givitas is the knowledge collaboration platform that lets them continue to practice all year long.

Every day new requests flow in and offers for help quickly follow.

To date, we have generated 162 requests for help and 581 offers in return. While none has been as dramatic as the vaccine connection we made on our very first day, we estimate that we’ve saved employees hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars through our Givitas group. Most importantly, we’re providing a safe and reliable space where employees know they can count on each other.

Give It a Try

The Stelter Company is finding Givitas to be so transformative for our team, we want to offer it to our nonprofit community. That’s why we are sponsoring an inclusive Givitas group for all association and nonprofit leaders. You can use it to ask for advice, help, introductions, best practices or anything else. And you can use it to share your experience with others.

See how easy it is to get and give help within a network of nonprofit professionals. Check it out here.

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