Kindness in the workplace – Martina Lucaccini (Sapienza University and Luiss University)

“I would like to change how kindness is perceived”I would like to change how kindness is perceived in our job as researchers, as future professors, but also in general within society.  I mean that usually in general kindness, I think, unfortunately, is associated with weakness.  So I think that if you are kind, people assume that you’re weak.  Also in your job, you often can hear people say, “You’re too kind, you’re way too kind, you should be more harsh, you should be a bit more aggressive in the way you do your job.” May this job be talking with students or, I don’t know, engaging with other professors.  You are expected to be not kind because kindness is seen as something that makes you weak and less respectable.  Martina is doing a PhD in Rome at the Sapienza and LUISS University in cyber security.  She told me that she has 20 cats.  Yes, 20 cats.  I don’t know if that’s one of the reasons she wanted to talk about kindness today, but listen to this very first episode to find out soon.  How come kindness is associated?  Because it’s true.  I mean, also for me, I have this association sometimes that also we have this in French, we say it’s “Trop bon trop con” which basically means “too good, too stupid, too nice, too stupid.” But why is that?  I mean, how come there’s such association?  I think if we are talking about the field that we are in, if we want to get a bit more specific, I think when you think about a famous professor, I think you imagine someone that is very strict in his work, someone who worked hard to get where it is and to do so, he had to make sacrifices, and often these sacrifices are assumed to be connected with.  Try to be stronger than the events that you have to face in your life.  So for instance, being a professor we know is super hard because once you do the PhD, you have to publish a lot.  If you don’t publish, you don’t get recognition and then you cannot even access the the resources to be a professor.  And so we think that by being kind, the chances that you have to rise are also lower because the more challenges you have to face, the more strong you have to be.  Basically, you need to have a…  I don’t remember the English word exactly, but “taukskin” like “heart”.  And maybe that’s why you shouldn’t be nice because nice, maybe at the end, would you say that being nice is associated with being sensitive and instead you should be not sensitive and have a hard tough skin and just go your way without…  Yeah, basically according to this, you should not care about other people and you should just go your way and try to get there, no matter the cost.  But I think that if we are kind, we also have to think about what other people may be facing.  Maybe we don’t know what they are facing because they don’t tell us.  So it’s all about empathy.  And I’ve been told a lot of times in these two years as being like a PhD, but also as a tutor for courses, that you’re way too kind to do this job.  And at first, it hurt me a bit because I started thinking, maybe I should change, I need to grow up and start to be a little less nice to people.  But then I like asked myself, do I really want these changes in me?  Do I really need this change?  Am I the problem?  Or maybe the problem is that being nice is associated with something that is actually not true.  I personally believe that I, and I hope that I can achieve all my aims in life without having to discourage other people, without having to put other people down just for the sake of achieving my aim.  That’s very interesting.  So for example, so we are talking about academia.  I think there is the same, for example, in politics, politicians.  It’s like if you want to be on the top, become the president, being elected or something, you need to be hard-tasking.  I don’t know that expression.  So there is the same.  And I imagine in many kinds of careers.  And my question is then, if someone is ambitious and wants to have the really top position, do you think that at the end, for that kind of aim, they should somehow not always be so nice?  Or do you think that because you say, I understand this, that you hope you can achieve all your aims, keeping your nice qualities.  And I mean, this is because maybe you have some kind of aims that are not the most ambitious top one to be, for example, president of the country.  And do you think that for a very ambitious position like that, actually, yes, indeed, at some point, you shouldn’t be nice.  Or do you think that even to be president of the country, we can be…  Imagine if actually a president of a country was nice.  Yeah, maybe it could also be a better model, I think, as someone that we can actually relate to.  And yeah, often ambition is like associated with wanting to reach the top and doing everything that you can to reach it.  But I think it’s also a matter on how we see ambition.  So maybe my ambition is not to become the president of, I don’t know, something.  But even if my ambition was that, I would not compromise my understanding of how a human being should behave with other human beings.  Also, I think that a lot of politicians, unfortunately, nowadays that want to reach the top, tend to be like obnoxious and super excessive in their behaviors, also to attract maybe more extremist views.  And sometimes they say, super crazy stuff just to get attention.  But then I think we don’t really know in the end, even if they reach their ambitions, we don’t know how really do they feel.  Maybe they appear as happy to have reached their ambitions, but in the end, they feel shitty because they know that they are not being nice.  Yeah, for sure.  I mean, acting like this, I don’t think it promotes like a good atmosphere, let’s say.  People just…  This creates more violence, let’s say, in a way.  And it also normalizes this behavior.  Yeah. 
Why some people are nicer than others?Where does it come from that some people are nicer than others?  Is it something artificial or natural?  I think that obviously, the first moments when we understand what is nice means is maybe when we are small, when we are small children.  Yeah.  We relate to other people that are like us.  And we start to realize that some people, even if they are small human beings, they are not nice.  Like I don’t think that being nice is something that we are born with.  It’s also a matter of our personal character, but it’s also a matter of education.  I think I was very lucky with my family because they tried…  Like they are people that aimed to have an happy life, just a normal happy life with a good family, like simple life, not extra ambitious life.  And when growing up, they taught me this, that to be happy doesn’t mean that you have to reach the top.  Maybe you reach the middle of the stair, but if you reach that middle and you still are true to yourself, then it is a happy life.  And when I grew up and I started relating to people of my age, also in my teenage years, I sometimes had difficulties to relate to them, to a lot of stuff.  Like also with girls, I had maybe a bit of difficulties to relating to what they were doing in their teenage years.  And I always tried to be nice to them and none of them was nice to me.  And then in that moment, maybe I thought to myself that I was wrong, maybe I should be like them, I should be a little less nice and just behave like them.  A bit more bitchy.  A bit more bitchy, yes, because it was easier.  Because if I was like that, then I could relate more to them, I could do the stuff that they…  And this created a lot of hurt within me because I was just a teenager, an insecure teenager, so I didn’t know how I had to behave in society.  But then I also was lucky enough to find friends that were like me.  So maybe we were the underdogs, you know, we were not like the others, but we were nice to each other and that was it.  But I don’t think that you are born nice or not nice, it also depends on the context where you grow up.  So you say it also depends.  So just to clarify, do you think there is a bit a part of being born like this or not?  And then education makes the most of it?  Or do you think that there is only education and not at all the role of genetics?  No, I think the most part is education and relations to your…  Not necessarily to your family because then you detach from it, but the relations with your group of pairs, for people of your age.  But then, yeah, maybe there are some people that are most likely to be nice when they are born and some people that are not.  But yeah, definitely I think the most comes from society.  Yeah.  And so why do you think it would be important to bring more kindness in the workplace, in academia or in politics or whatever work?  Well, if we think about academia, we all know that is a bit of a toxic environment.  Like we are very happy to do this career.  I mean, it’s the best because we love doing research and we can do it in this environment.  But at the same time, we have a lot of pressure on ourselves to perform, to be great in what we do, even if it’s our first experience in doing it, because we are just learning how to do research.  And if we are hopefully going to become professors, I think a professor should teach his students something.  And this might be every discipline on the world, politics, international relations, political philosophy, what you want.  But in the end, even if you are talking to students, you are also talking with people that may be facing issues in their life.  So when I think of myself as a professor in the future, I hope that I can be a person that my students can rely on, not just for just doing a lecture and going home.  And that’s it.  So I think kindness in academia is important for this to educate also our students, that it’s possible to reach that level of ambition and become a professor, which is a high achievement in your career, but also doing it without compromising your values as a person.  So it’s not true that every professor is not replying to you or that is maybe angry all the time or is not available.  Maybe there are also, unfortunately, there are also people that are like this.  So the reason it’s true that you can do it.  And do you think in other sectors and academia also that would be better to bring?  Yeah, definitely.  Because I know, because cybersecurity is a field that also covers the corporate sector.  I know a lot of young professionals that do corporate jobs.  And every time they tell me that everyone is so angry all the time and rude.  Maybe you do a job for the first time and they don’t tell you, look, this job, it’s nice because but it has some problems and you should fix this.  You can improve this.  You can change this.  They just destroy what you’re doing.  And I ask myself, is this really helpful in making the job better or does it create anxiety, stress, and also like you are not liking the job that you do because you know that you are going to be offended by someone that is on the top position.  So I don’t think it’s productive in terms of work.  Also, think of, I don’t know, everyone I think in our experience had at one point of their life a professor that was not so nice.  No, it happened to me during my bachelor back in Florence.  I was doing my first exam in political science, which is now a topic that I love.  And I was doing this exam with this professor who is a very renowned professor.  And obviously I was super nervous because it was my first oral exam at university.  And I remember he asked me something about elections in Italy, how the system works.  And I panicked because I remember I could not understand this proportional system of elections in Italy.  And he told me, you should go back to elementary school.  And it is clear that your parents are like stupid people.  Oh gosh, that’s terrible.  It’s terrible.  And I remember I went home and I started crying and I wanted to give up university because it’s not like, how is this encouraging me to study better for that topic?  And you have to realize that this is a 65 old man telling this to a 20, no 19 years young woman who is just trying to understand what she wants to do with her life.  And now I am a PhD student.  So I think that I have reached the confidence to understand that I can do research.  But back in the day, I was like, why can this professor not be nice to me?  Even if I am not doing the job and I was not good in that oral exam, it’s clear because I was too insecure.  But at the same time, why?  What’s the point of saying to someone, breaking them like this?  Like it’s not even going to help.  It’s not even going to encourage you to study more or something, the total opposite. 
In our life, we are forced to live with just one person, which is ourselveswe have to reflect on ourselves.  So I think that for me, the most important part is that when I go to sleep at the end of the day, I want to think that I am a good person.  So even if I am not doing the most, because to do that, that I would have to I don’t know, treat someone badly or just, you know, take advantage of another person, I’m not going to do that.  Because at the end of the day, I want to go to sleep and think I was a good person.  I was nice, because then I cannot live with myself.  And in our life, we are forced to live with just one person, which is ourselves.  And forever and ever.  So I want to be happy with myself.  So at the individual level, this is very important.  And how can we do it?  Think about in our field, we are young scholars, we are going, we are given the opportunity also to relate to young students.  It’s always important to remember that unfortunately, we have always to have a level of detachment from people.  So yeah, just one minute, I’m gonna first.  So it’s the first time I’m recording.  So of course, there was a technical problem.  And we like storage, but now we’re back.  So we were talking about maybe some solutions at the level of society at the individual level.  Yeah.  So please.  So yeah, I thought that first we have to reflect on ourselves.  So at the individual levels, in our field as young, hopefully academics, I think it’s important to us to show a model of relating to students.  On the one hand, still showing of course, a detachment, because we are not friends.  But at the same times, try to engage, understand if I don’t know everything is clear, if we do our job in a good way, if we can help them.  And I think people maybe that are doing this job could respond to this by saying, ah, but it’s a lot of work is overwhelming.  There are like 200 students, we cannot look after each one of them.  Yes, but at the same time, this is our job.  So if our job is being professors and researchers as professors, it’s our job to take into account the instances of the students, it might be difficult, it might be draining.  But at the same time, if we achieve the goal, it doesn’t matter that then we can take advantage of our power and just don’t give a damn about what other students are doing. 
We hear that a strong person does not cry or does not care, but it’s not true.Maybe they know that you are known for being nice to students.  But nice does not mean weak and nice does not mean not strict.  I can be a nice person and tell you, you are not passing this exam.  I can be a nice person and doing an oral exam and telling you I’m sorry, you have to do the exam.  But it’s not a matter of weakness or being, I don’t know, that easy with doing the maximum grade to the student is about how you relate to them.  So we can show this model.  So what would you say is the difference between being kind and saying you don’t pass and like people thinking that it’s not kind to say that, you know.  Because like I can still be respectful in my job, like doing the job properly and evaluating you in a way that is impartial.  So telling this exam is doing great, you are getting the maximum grade.  This exam is not good, you have to redo the exam.  Being honest does not mean that I’m not nice.  It just means that I am honest in my job, but I’m doing it in a nice way.  So I’m not telling you this exam is shit, you suck.  You are not going to make it, you are not going to be like you’re stupid.  This is doing the job but not in a nice way.  So it’s different.  And this also helps us to understand the difference between being weak and being nice.  And as I told you at the start of the podcast, I think that these are associated.  But this is also true for instance, for being empathic or for being sensitive.  Unfortunately, it’s often associated with being a weak person because a strong person does not cry or does not care, but it’s not true. 
“you don’t know who you have in front of you until that person opens up to you”It’s definitely a chain of people making up the system.  So the more individuals make a change by behaving in a nice way and treating people with more kindness.  And the more they show that this is not incompatible with achieving your goals.  And it’s not incompatible also with being competitive, because you can be competitive in a supportive way and just be nice to the adversary.  Right.  So that means that to break this system that forces the things and looks to reproduce itself all the time, there should be more people who identify it as a systematic problem and actually make the switch to change it, to actually to create a virtual circle at the end, because then that would hopefully create the virtual cycle in the positive sense.  I think the most important part in this is starting to make people understand that it’s not right to be indifferent towards the others.  I think that this selfishness of being indifferent is seen as I’m doing what is best for me and then what happens to the others, I don’t care.  But I think it’s important to also reflect on what other people may be facing, what issues are they facing, and just you don’t know who you have in front of you until that person opens up to you.  And it’s better to be kind to that person than risking to hurt the person. 
The system encourages meanness – how to deal with it?I want to go even, maybe even more into practice.  Let’s say that we say that ideally there should be some people who identify that’s a problem and convert by themselves, be the change in this world.  Do you think that there is a way for having more people getting aware of that, except from our personal example, I mean, something more bigger.  Maybe there’s no way.  I’m just asking like that.  Do you think that there’s a way to make something at greater level than just one individual or to make people more aware?  This is very challenging because how can you show it?  It’s not that I can create like a movement of people being nice.  Maybe with this podcast.  Yeah, we can reach out to people that are facing the same struggles, that maybe are feeling that they have to change their personality or their behavior in order to achieve their goals.  Maybe I think we have to find also examples of people who have already achieved this, so that are known for being nice people that did that job nicely and did not give up on their personal kindness.  Maybe this could be great too.  Because I’m thinking also of one thing, which is maybe part of the problem that when we are not nice, we are, we have much more mediatic equal, no?  So, and you mentioned it with politicians.  If you become violent with your opponent, political opponent, then things go viral.  Basically, if you have a clash, that’s gonna, you’re gonna have a buzz, you know?  Of course.  And so, maybe that’s also, there could be one thing, you make me think, there could be one thing where each person shows in, by their example, but also maybe reducing the visibility of people who act unkind.  Because having this clash that just go viral everywhere, viral, is actually doing the opposite.  Now it’s bringing more visibility, a model of being not, and usually, though, usually if I understand well also, the people who get visibility with that, who create a buzz and a clash, it’s actually helping them.  They get more elected, they get better.  So, maybe there’s a way to reduce that visibility or to, let’s say now you have an advantage to create a clash.  Maybe we could think of some solution to create a disadvantage when using a clash.  Yeah, when like this kind of behavior is not acceptable in a field.  Also, you know, there are Italian politicians, one of them currently, who is becoming super famous, is the mayor of Perny.  I don’t remember his name and I don’t want to name it.  Because he said very disgusting stuff about women when dealing about violence towards women.  And he basically told, if a man sees a woman walking on the street, he is lucky he can have sex with her.  And if he’s not, then he goes back home.  And I mean, so it basically was diminishing the systemic violence against women that is a very big issue in Italy.  Extremely irresponsible.  It’s very respectable, it’s disgusting that a politician also because I said have sex, but he obviously uses an Italian slur that is very vulgar and should not be used in any context, but should not be used against like when you’re talking about violence towards women is very disrespectful and disgusting.  You would expect this person to just be destroyed by the media, to just be like this person is just a man that should not be seen on television.  And instead, he is everywhere.  And there are men telling him how finally someone that is saying the things how should be said like man to man in this way.  And for me, it’s very like I don’t either get angry, but I get also very sad for this man.  And it’s very depressing that he thinks that to reach an audience, he has to behave like this.  For that man.  I mean, at the end, he manages because you know, he did the best.  Now you remember it.  Even now you’re doing advertisement.  So at the end, it’s working.  This is the worst part.  So maybe, yeah, we should find some way that it’s impossible to do that.  So maybe in the media, there should be some kind of I don’t know if that would be a good idea, some kind of censorship about that.  Maybe censorship is a strong word.  Yeah, maybe not.  But I mean, this is my question at the end, how to, because now doing this clash, doing this super irrespective comments is helping is like giving visibility.  So how can we make it this this incentive?  Like, you know, not an incentive.  I think it’s a matter of how the system works.  If the system keeps advantaging these people, it’s a problem.  But then how can we change that?  Would you, for example, would you support a law which maybe doesn’t sense or because that would be against freedom of speech, but at least maybe just like, you know, when you smoke a cigarette, there’s a message written saying, hey, you shouldn’t smoke.  That’s not a nice thing.  And it’s not helpful for your health.  Maybe that should be the same kind of message.  Hey, you’re being violent and you’re respectful.  Yes, it does the best, but it’s not healthy and nice for the society.  Yeah, could also it would be a more nicer, a nicer word, if that could happen.  And also, I think we should stop to say sentences like, you have to detach the person from what he did in his life.  For instance, think about the in his personal life and his political life and people supporting him started to say, how about you should separate him as a politician and the entrepreneur from his as a human being.  And I started to ask myself, but why should I do it?  Like, I’m not saying that.  I’m not like saying bad things about him.  I’m just questioning why should I make this separation?  This is not the way it should be done.  Like, was he a nice person or not?  Is this the question?  And if the answer is, you should separate, then I think I have the answer of the question.  That’s very, very good point.  And also, yeah, because in a way, you’re saying that at the end, it means that that person is not putting kindness in the in his work and in the system and thus is not helping society.  That’s very interesting. 
Summary Kindness in the workplaceSo thank you very much for all these ideas.  I will just make a short summary if I may, then you add if I forgot something.  Basically, I try to make a very short summary.  You’re saying that we should get more kindness in the workplace just because that would just make things nicer for everybody.  That’s quite a pretty simple reason.  And for that, you’re saying that maybe what happens when people are in kindness because they learn to be on time.  And for example, in the academic field, but also in politics or in other kinds of jobs, maybe because also you have an incentive to be not nice in the sense that it’s associated, at least, I don’t know, it’s associated in people’s mind, even though it shouldn’t be the case with the fact that you’ll get more successful.  You’ll obtain more if you are violent with others.  Like, if you don’t respect them or not kind enough, then maybe you’ll get more of it.  And you’re saying that it’s maybe the wrong way to see the things.  And actually being kind is something that could make you as well successful and you don’t need to compromise on your values to get the aims that you want.  And then we were thinking about the solution.  So since it’s something that we learn, for example, of the education when we are young or by seeing it around, there would be a solution.  Help me.  But then there will be at the individual level, of course, to be a model.  So that some individuals identify what’s wrong with that system and maybe change themselves by their own behavior.  And then there will also be, we started to talk about that at the end, the idea that at a more systemic level, there could actually be one solution, which is of course to revert the cycle, but also seeing that the cycle is also encouraged by the visibility that is given from people who are unkind and therefore maybe creating some initiatives or not giving as much visibility to emptiness.  Is that a good summary?  A very good summary.  Yeah.  Okay.  I’m happy.  Do you have anything to add?  No, I’m very happy with our conversation.  Okay.  So thank you very much and see you for the second episode another time.  The podcast is brand new.  I hope you found this first episode promising.  And if it’s the case, please give it the best grade on the platform which you’re using to listen to it.  This is so important at the beginning.  So thank you so much for that and see you for the next episode.