By: Stacey La Torre, PeopleTech Advisor and Head of Talent Management and Development at Nextdoor
In an ever-changing and uncertain world, employees are reporting higher levels of anxiety than ever before. Beyond the personal stress and discomfort associated with anxious feelings, today’s workers are dealing with overwhelming societal and political world events, often halting their engagement, productivity and satisfaction at work and ultimately limiting their ability to succeed in critical areas of work and life. Employers across industries are seeing their employees at all job levels struggle, and are being called to provide not only support for their teams but also to deliver a consistently strong sense of stability, community and connection within their work culture.
Unlike other generations entering the workforce, employees today are setting (and making career decisions based on) these high expectations for kindness at work. Employees are showing that they believe a kind work culture is possible, and they are actively seeking employers who will provide authentic leadership and human connection.
The shift from talent acquisition (bringing people in) to talent activation (turning talent into performance) – shining a light on the value of kindness at work
The past few years have seen an explosion of hiring as companies raced to acquire the best talent. However, as the macroeconomic climate has started to decline companies have started to pivot from acquiring talent externally to looking inwards and activating the talent they already have. Marcus Buckingham defines talent activation as turning potential into growth and performance. Every CEO wants to know how the talent they acquired recently is going to be activated to create successful business outcomes. Feedback is the fuel for employee growth and performance, and therefore a strong feedback culture, based in kindness, is critical to activating talent.
At Nextdoor we describe ourselves as a “Talent Garden.” Our goal is to seed and nurture a purpose-driven, high performing, kind and candid team centered on the growth of our people. Because we believe that feedback is the fuel for growth, we continuously focus on building programs to nurture a kind and candid feedback culture, and recently embarked on a formal feedback initiative to support our talented teams and further evolve our company culture.
In this article we’ll explore this recent initiative as a case study illustrating the power of kindness and key actions employers can take to start operationalizing kindness at work.
What is kindness?
Kindness is a real asset that can compound and increase. Research supports the notion that a kind company culture and a successful company are not mutually exclusive. The companies that have the courage to put kindness at the center of their people strategy will be the ones that emerge as the most successful in the future of work.
Kindness is the quality of being considerate, empathetic, compassionate and helpful towards others without expecting anything in return. It involves being sensitive to the needs and feelings of those around you, and taking actions to alleviate their pain or discomfort, whether through simple acts of thoughtfulness or more significant acts of generosity. Kindness can be expressed through words or purposeful acts, and it has a positive impact on both the giver and the receiver, improving their well-being and fostering a sense of community and connectedness. Nextdoor’s KIND Challenge, a scientific study conducted with leading experts, found that knowing as few as six neighbors has proven health benefits, like reducing the likelihood of feeling lonely and lowering depression and social anxiety.
Why is kindness so powerful?
At Nextdoor we have seen the impacts of kindness in neighborhoods as well as across teams and for individuals, and have learned that kindness is powerful for multiple reasons:
- It makes people feel good. When someone experiences an act of kindness, it boosts their mood and makes them feel valued and appreciated. Someone who experiences kindness is then more likely to pay it forward and be kind to someone else.
- It builds social capital and connection. Kindness helps to connect individuals as it fosters a sense of trust and respect. When people are kind to each other, they are more likely to build strong, meaningful relationships.
- It builds strong neighborhoods. When people witness acts of kindness, it can inspire them to be kinder themselves. This creates a ripple effect that can spread kindness and positivity throughout a community, making it a more connected and compassionate place to live. The KIND Challenge found that even the smallest actions, such as saying hello to a neighbor, increased neighborhood unity.
Overall, kindness is powerful because it amplifies positive emotions and kind actions, improving the well-being of individuals and communities.
Why kindness at work is no longer an option.
There is often a perception that being kind at work is a sign of weakness and that it is a barrier to successful business outcomes. However, the research has shown the opposite. In their article, Don’t Underestimate the Power of Kindness at Work, the authors reference a study that analyzed more than 3,500 business units with more than 50,000 individuals and found that acts of courtesy, helping and praise were related to core goals of an organization. Higher rates of these behaviors were predictive of productivity, efficiency and lower turnover rates. When leaders and employees act kindly towards each other, they facilitate a culture of collaboration and innovation. In his TED talk, The Value of Kindness at Work, James Rhee explains that kindness distributes the joy of problem solving to everyone. It creates a safe environment that unleashes innovation, especially the unselfish kind. And it turns perceived liabilities into assets, which mathematically results in the creation of real equity value.
Case study: How to start building a kind and candid feedback culture.
Giving feedback often opens the door for critical moments of kindness, and feedback, itself, has been a growing area of focus for Nextdoor. The company had an established set of processes and norms around manager to employee feedback (the Performance Feedback Cycle) and employee to company feedback (Bi-Annual Employee Engagement surveys). Nextdoor had consistently done well on the question related to manager- to-employee feedback, and in the prior survey 82% of employees responded favorably to, “The quality I received from my manager was useful and actionable.” However, it lacked programmatic support for direct peer-to-peer feedback. This lack of feedback between peers was slowing individual growth and eroding trust which meant that we weren’t fully activating our talent to grow and perform.
Building a kind and candid feedback culture was at the top of our CEO’s agenda, and it was also an area where we knew we had an opportunity to improve peer-to-peer feedback. Living up to one of our company’s values of Experiment and Learn Quickly, we embarked on a feedback experiment by gathering a cross-functional team of leaders (Team Feedback) to canvas all of our processes, programs, and cultural norms related to feedback.
Nextdoor’s purpose is to create a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on. Our ticker symbol is KIND and we often refer to our colleagues as neighbors. Over the years, we have created a “neighborly” company culture that aligns with our purpose. One insight from Team Feedback was that our culture had unintentionally created an environment in which employees did not feel comfortable giving each other feedback. When asked why they didn’t feel comfortable giving each other feedback, employees cited two specific challenges:
- The first reason was that they thought it wasn’t the kind, nice, and neighborly thing to do and therefore they were concerned about how it would be received and the damage it could cause to the relationship.
- The second reason was that they didn’t feel like they had adequate training on how to deliver feedback.
Team Feedback discovered that employees were not being direct with each other and instead they were escalating feedback to their manager about their peers and asking their manager to talk to their peer’s manager to resolve the situation. An extra feedback cycle resulted in low-quality, delayed outcomes across teams and put a higher burden on managers who were expected to synthesize and relay all employee feedback.
As we approached solutions, we were careful to note that while some companies excel at rapid, direct feedback, when implemented poorly, a culture that fails on respect for others and inclusion generally underperforms and is unpleasant to be a part of. We aimed to ensure that our company values to Earn Trust Everyday and Invest in Community were a part of any experimental approach for the culture at Nextdoor.
Given all of the inputs, Team Feedback made it their goal to set the foundation for building a culture of kind and candid, real-time feedback while preserving Nextdoor’s culture of respecting each other. They worked towards the following outcomes:
- Continuous, real-time feedback: shift from feedback happening only during performance reviews to a continuous peer-to-peer and manager-to-employee feedback model.
- Direct, candid feedback: shift from manager synthesized feedback to one-on-one feedback as much as possible.
- Inclusion & respect: maintain community standards of professionalism and respect for the individual.
- Employee growth: fueled by self-improvement resulting from a more holistic feedback culture.
To achieve this goal, the team implemented the following programmatic support:
- Training: Workshops on how to give and receive kind and candid feedback were offered to all employees. A key message in the training was taken from Brene Brown’s book, Dare to Lead. In her book about brave work, tough conversations, and whole hearts, Brene repeatedly states, “Clear is Kind. Unclear is Unkind.” This simple statement was transformative and helped individuals realize how important giving and receiving feedback was for their growth and that of others, and that it was in fact the kind and neighborly thing to do.
- Feedback Loops: We expanded on the general concept of a feedback loop to create a formal and structured moment of engagement by the same name which has become our team-based approach to encourage live feedback among peers in a group setting. The purpose of a Feedback Loop is to create a structured opportunity to shine a light on what’s going well and what could be going better with a goal to help teams move more quickly towards performance and impactful work. Feedback Loops create a safe and informal environment for a small group of colleagues to participate in brief rounds of 1:1 discussions. By the end of the Loop, all participants will have had an opportunity to give and receive kind and candid feedback to one another. These insights help employees grow and learn, and can create a more effective and cohesive work environment. We created a step-by-step Feedback Loop playbook which you can download here if you’d like a simple solution for how to start to operationalize kindness in your organization.
After 6 months of experimenting with kind and candid feedback training and feedback loops, we surveyed our employees and learned:
- 90% responded favorably to the question, “The quality of feedback I receive from my manager is useful and actionable,” an 8% increase over the prior survey.
- 84% responded favorably to a newly added survey question about peer-to-peer feedback, “I received useful and actionable feedback from a peer, key stakeholder, or teammate during the Feedback Loop.”
The Feedback Loop process was particularly well received, and had a positive impact across different teams.
“I’d never heard of Feedback Loops before participating. At first, I didn’t believe there would be much I would be able to contribute, especially to team members that I don’t manage or work closely with. However, as the process went on, the value of hearing how others perceive me and my approach to my work was incredibly apparent.
As we work in this post-pandemic hybrid model, collaboration with peers takes more effort than ever before. The Feedback Loops provided a great opportunity to connect in a way that was safe, authentic and supportive.”
Tasha Graham, Lead, Global Payroll
“Feedback Loops are an effective way to foster a kind and productive feedback culture. By delivering feedback face-to-face, the process becomes more personal and encourages the assumption of good intent. This approach allows for the use of tone, body language, and nonverbal cues, making it easier to convey nuanced messages. Additionally, it enables more interactive communication, which facilitates a more human-to-human connection between the giver and the receiver.
During our transition to Feedback Loops, we discovered that employees had previously been withholding their true thoughts and opinions because they did not know how to effectively convey them in writing, and they did not necessarily want them to be part of their colleagues’ performance reviews. Ultimately, we found that providing feedback privately and in an ephemeral manner increased psychological safety for both parties.”
Jonathan Perlow, Head of Engineering
Given the strong results of our recent initiative, we continue to invest in kindness as a core element of our feedback initiatives at Nextdoor. Ultimately, kindness is at the heart of our people strategy, and the success of our strategy starts with our leaders. We’re currently building the content for our KIND leadership program, and I’m looking forward to sharing more about that experiment in a future article.