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Small acts of kindness can have a huge impact on workplace effectiveness

A Toronto man who worked as a cinema usher for 55 years went in for his final shift on New Year's Day. He died on Jan. 2, 2016. Ordinarily, the death of an usher wouldn't be news but James Loader made his mark on the community of Scarborough. Years before his death, he inspired a Facebook page that now boasts more than 2,000 members who celebrated Mr. Loader's friendly demeanour.

It's challenging to pinpoint exactly why Mr. Loader had such an impact, but Gus Saurer, who founded the Facebook page in 2007, chalks it up to his "consistency."

"It seemed that no matter who or what age you were, if you lived in Scarborough and went to the movies, James was there. He became part of a movie-going experience that could not be emulated at different theatres. There was something special about a grandfatherly figure taking your tickets. His gentle appearance and humble demeanour would always make you smile. I believe that it is those smiles that link everyone's fond memories of him together," Mr. Saurer said.

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Paige Souter, an education program co-ordinator at the Scarboro Foreign Mission Society, recalls going to the movies with her three children when they were young.

One time, her daughter started screaming and stomping her feet in an effort to resist going to the show. While Ms. Souter fretted about the scene she was making, Mr. Loader defused the situation by kneeling down and making her daughter laugh.

"He could have just taken our tickets and wished us a good afternoon, but instead he responded from the heart," Ms. Souter recalled.

When a ticket taker dies and a community feels devastated, it really makes you rethink the importance of your own role at work. Can small acts – in this case of kindness and humanity – really have such a tremendous impact? Yes, they can.

Margaret Heffernan, the author of Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes, certainly believes that's the case. In a compelling TED talk, titled "Why it's time to forget the pecking order at work," Ms. Heffernan said companies that focus on cultivating superstars at the expense of everyone else have it all wrong.

High-achieving groups, she says, citing a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, don't have the highest aggregate IQ, or the highest number of superstars. What they've got – in spades – is greater social connectedness to each other.

When people get to know each other, when they take the time to interact – as ticket taker James Loader did with everyone who came to the movies – they get results. Small actions that create a greater sense of community, like drinking your coffee with others at work instead of at your desk, can have a big impact.

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Paul Nazareth, vice-president of CanadaHelps, a non-profit site that makes it easy for people to donate to charities, observed similar behaviour in the fundraising world. Donors, he noticed, don't give money because someone asked them to; they give because they have experienced something powerful.

"So many times I worked with donors leaving a secret million in their estate because of one small moment in time. At small charities, it's the front desk person at the food bank, the long-time volunteer librarian at a community centre or the kind face at the shelter that touched a heart and saved a life. Anonymous donations are made in the hundreds and bequests are made in the thousands, sometimes millions, because of that person," Mr. Nazareth said.

Mr. Nazareth experienced this first-hand while volunteering with an Out of the Cold group that serves the homeless in Toronto. One day, an elderly man walked in and said that he remembered being handed a bowl of hot soup by Mr. Nazareth, who had spent some time speaking with the man when he was down on his luck about five years earlier.

The elderly man then turned around and handed Mr. Nazareth $6,000, saying that he is now back on his feet. "We were able to serve hundreds with that money, and it all came from a hot bowl of soup and a kind ear," he explained.

For those who aren't naturally inclined to focus on little things, there's still hope. Katherine Milkman, as associate professor at the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, says it helps to capitalize on a "fresh start."

With the start of the new year not far behind us, maybe it's time to take a page from Mr. Loader's book and commit to small acts that not only help us professionally, but also help the community as a whole.

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About the Author
Future of Work

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) is founder and CEO of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. More

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