Last month, World Kindness Day was celebrated. I grew up in a family where kindness was as important as achievement; and now as a parent myself, it is deeply important to me to pass this on to my children. On World Kindness Day, at bedtime, my kids and I read the beautiful children’s book ‘The smartest giant in town’ which is a subtle and playful ode to kindness. As I was tucking the kids in, came an innocent yet piercing question from my 8-year-old son ‘Are grown-ups kind to each other at work?’ I hurriedly said ‘Yes — we try our best’ but this thought continued to linger in my head. Is kindness at the workplace a virtue? And more specifically — is there a place for kindness in business?
Leo Tolstoy said ‘Nothing can make our life or the lives of other people more beautiful than perpetual kindness.’ Kindness is commended as one of the highest values of the human spirit across most social structures — family, community, friends. However, in business — which is itself a powerful social structure, the significance of kindness remains virtually non-existent.
There is no doubt that businesses have moved forward from Milton Friedman’s stone-cold mantra of, ‘The business of business is business’ to a broader focus on culture and values –like innovation and teamwork. However, there is much more that needs to be done to embrace kindness in business.
Kindness is not just a moral currency; it’s also a smart business strategy. A new, emerging field of research on kindness and compassion is discovering that when organisations promote an ethos of kindness rather than a culture of stress, they not only see a happier workplace but importantly- an improved bottom line.
So simply put — kindness is not just good, it’s good for business and here’s why:
More original thinking and innovation: At an evolutionary level, we are wired to protect ourselves from danger. While most of us don’t live in jungles anymore, when we experience modern-day dangerous environments e.g. hostility or negative confrontation, it kicks in our primal need to protect our position or power. On the other hand, when we feel what researchers call as ‘psychological safety’ it fuels learning, information sharing and clarity of thinking. In a culture of kindness, employees carry less baggage of insecurity and fear. This experience of psychological safety frees employees up and allows them to pour all their focus in problem-solving and original thinking. It also creates an environment where employees can freely share their new ideas. This freedom to create and exchange new ideas is the bedrock of innovation.
Avoiding groupthink: One of the most prevalent reasons for dysfunctional decision-making outcomes in business is groupthink. Groupthink occurs when a single perspective — often coming from the loudest or the highest-paid voices — is allowed to dominate the conversation, perceptions and decision making. Varied and contrarian points of view are not given the conditions to be aired and debated. A fundamental tenet of kindness is to let all points of view to be fully understood. An inclusive discussion in a kind environment leads to wider thoughts to be included in decision making, and a rich discourse of multiple, varied viewpoints. There is no doubt that a balanced review of these multiple, independent points of view leads to better and smarter decisions.
Customer-mindedness: Creating a culture of kindness inside an organisation extends externally to customers and clients. Prof. Zaki of Stanford University who has spent years studying kindness has established that kindness is contagious. In his seminal article in Scientific American he writes ‘We find that people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions but also the spirit underlying them,’ and that ‘This implies that kindness itself is contagious and that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.’ An internal culture of kindness leads to a very natural, seamless spill-over to customers and clients.
Talent retention: It’s almost universally agreed that employees leave managers rather than companies. An explicit and stated culture of kindness is one where managers are intentional about caring and trusting their teams and operating with integrity. An authentically kind culture is a direct antidote to some of all too prevalent corporate toxicities like self-interest and mono-cultures of bro-culture or cattiness.
Wellbeing and mental health: It’s no surprise that workplace stress is on a terrifying rise. While some of it relates to deadlines, deliverables or tough negotiations, a large majority of it comes from interpersonal interactions. It comes from carrying the burden of participating in or being exposed to corporate bullying, blame game, culture of kiss up and kick down. Kindness bolsters the social bonds that encourage us to cooperate, to be harmonious — improving employee well-being and performance.
Kindness is often misunderstood. It’s not being weak, supine or passive-aggressive. It’s the very opposite. To be kind takes strength, courage and the willingness to go against the norm. Kindness can happily co-exist with being tough, decisive and direct. Kindness is also a muscle so the more we practise the more we build it.
All of us who work in business have a circle of influence — with our colleagues, teams and clients. We all have a role to play in creating a culture of kindness. It goes deeper than thank-you emails and bringing doughnuts for colleagues (though both are always welcome). It is about our words and actions being in harmony, about operating with integrity even when it’s the tough choice and about collective interest rather than self-interest.
I firmly believe that big change happens when a series of micro-steps are done consistently. So here are my top 5 kindness micro-steps:
1. Practise kindness in meetings: research shows that managers spend 35% to 50% of their time in meetings. So let’s use them for a proper discourse, exchange of ideas, debates of different points of view — rather than table-thumping, dogmatic repetition and passive-aggressiveness. When we reject someone’s idea, let’s stay away from takedowns and clever quips- instead, explain why we disagree. If we are the most senior person in the room, let’s not take the tone of superiority, let’s take the tone of curiosity.
2. Stop the battle metaphors: Business language is seeped with war metaphors — attack plans, making a killing, marching ahead. This language serves no purpose since business- unlike battle — is not primarily about defeating the enemy. It’s primarily about customer value.
3. When the going gets tough, the tough get kind: Just like in our personal lives, kindness is most needed in business when things are tough e.g. a lost deal, an underperforming quarter or unexpected attrition. When the bottom falls, the all too common reaction is to cover one’s back and find a target to throw under the proverbial bus. This creates a culture of fear which then stifles measured risk-taking. So when things go south, let’s stay away from the blame game. Instead, let’s focus our energy on objectively understanding what went wrong by doing a post-event review with empathy and rigour.
4. Make kindness cool: Given our desire for conformity, we follow the unwritten rules and norms of the micro-cultures around us. There is power in positive labelling — it drives prevalence. So let’s use our gathering traditions — team huddles, stand-ups, all hands — to recognise specific instances of kindness and the business impact they had. A culture of kindness can’t be faked, it can only be inspired.
5. Be kind universally, not selectively. Large businesses tend to operate in matrix and hazy structures. This often leads to an ‘us vs them’ culture. Kindness can be an effective antidote to this. Establishing a universal culture of kindness means we are kind to those who are in our direct teams and those who are outside. That’ll lead to less combat, more collaboration; and an environment where all business functions work in harmony towards the business mission.
In his commencement speech to the graduating class at Princeton University, Jeff Bezos tells a story from his childhood. As a young boy, Jeff was on a long, summer road trip with his grandparents. They drive past a billboard that says: ‘Each puff of cigarette smoke takes two minutes off your life.’ Hoping to impress his grandparents with his mathematical skills, Jeff estimates, calculates and announces that by smoking throughout her life, grandma has shortened her life by nine years. Expecting to be commended for his mathematical brilliance, he is taken aback when his grandfather says: ‘Jeff, one day you’ll understand it’s harder to be kind than clever.’
For aeons, businesses have focussed on being clever. It’s time to pay equal emphasis to something that’s harder — and more rewarding — being kind.