September 10, 2020
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A few years ago, I got to know a recent graduate who was exploring career options. I introduced her to a talented, experienced colleague of mine and suggested she request an informational interview. She emailed a very brief description of her career goals and asked for ten minutes of his time, and he said he’d be glad to meet her.

It went well! So well that she was interviewed for a position at his company and, based in part on his referral, she was hired. She was thrilled, and my colleague was touched that I held him in such esteem as a source of expertise.

I wasn’t close to either of these individuals, but we had shared a few small, friendly exchanges. What made me facilitate this connection initially? Once connected, what inspired my colleague to step up and invite the graduate to spend time talking with him? Was it self-interest? Strategic professional advancement? I don’t think so. 

I think it was kindness.

Is kindness innate or learned?

I’m not sure anyone can definitively say where kindness comes from. Are we born with it, or is it a learned behavior? Are we only kind when we receive or expect kindness in return, or are we kind when we have no expectation of reciprocity?

To explore these questions, I read about kindness in very young children. A Harvard researcher named Felix Warneken designed rigorously controlled experiments that prove children as young as six months old are capable of altruism. Warneken is convinced that kindness is part of our DNA.

Could kindness have an evolutionary advantage?

In another study described in Scientific American, kindness appears to be a factor in the perception of physical attractiveness. 

Members of a university rowing team were asked to rate all other team members on the following dimensions: talent, effort, respect, likability and physical attractiveness. They were also rated for physical attractiveness by a group of strangers about the same age as the crew members.

The results were clear: when a team member worked hard, showed respect and displayed talent, teammates rated him as more physically attractive than strangers who didn’t know him personally. The researchers theorize that there may be an evolutionary advantage to kindness.

Kindness: The networking superpower

Innate or learned, I’m sure of one thing: there is a distinct advantage to being kind when building your network. When I connect with someone but don’t make any effort to be kind or thoughtful, I’ve gotten very few returns. But when I’ve made a conscious, deliberate decision to pay attention, to actively seek out opportunities to be kind, it starts a sort of “virtuous cycle”—people in my life respond, consciously trying to find ways to help me.

How can we accomplish this without seeming overeager? Listen attentively to classmates, coworkers and professional acquaintances to identify resources that may help them. Send a quick note with a link to an upcoming webinar. Forward an email from your department or professional association that could be interesting to them. Invite them to a conference, seminar or networking meetup you plan to attend, whether virtual or in person.

If you can’t think of what to share with them online, look for a book you really enjoyed and send a copy to them in the regular mail with a short note. Check the coffee shop near their workplace for their seasonal signature flavor and bring a cup to their office next time you’re nearby. Not long ago I sent a small box of chocolate-covered caramels to a colleague to thank her for a referral, and she has never forgotten it.

This virtuous cycle only requires one thing to propagate: an initial act of kindness. So here goes. 

How can I help you? What resources might I share with you? If you’d like to schedule a brief chat or you’d appreciate an introduction to someone in my LinkedIn network, let me know. All I ask is that you pay it forward.

Lynn Carroll provides professional development support to graduate students at the Fox School. Lynn holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Penn and has completed graduate coursework in organizational development and coaching, obtaining the Global Career Development Facilitator certification (GCDF). While pursuing a career in higher education, she also maintains a private career coaching practice, a monthly Twitter chat and a blog called Career Authentically.

Center for Student Professional DevelopmentGraduate StudentsInformal InterviewKindnessResearch Recognition