Article

Lauren Stiebing 20 January 2020

It’s Time to Spread Kindness in the Workplace

Introduction

Diversity. Inclusion. Collaboration. Workplace stress. Productivity. Employee attrition. Purpose-driven organizations. Mental health issues. Each of the above topics attracts much attention in today’s corporate world. There are perhaps many threads that connect the above topics- but one underlying theme that’s not so obvious is Kindness. Hmm, you might wonder. Did we not grow up being constantly reminded that “nice guys finish last”? Aren’t leaders and managers supposed to be tough, no-nonsense people who take decisions based on hard data without worrying about mushy, emotional stuff such as kindness? Over the past four or five decades in particular, kindness in the workplace has been seen as a weakness. It was seen as something that had no place in professional workplaces that existed solely for productivity, profitability and the insidious use of politics to get ahead. Jack Welch was admired for many things, but would “kindness” be one of them?

 

But things are changing fast

As an executive search specialist am beginning to notice that workplaces are changing, as are the kinds of people which organizations are looking to hire and promote. Organizations are now looking more closely at people’s working styles. Do they allow their team members to raise issues that are important to them (but may seem trivial to the leader)? Are they good listeners? Do they assess the issues objectively and work towards their resolution? Are they able to demonstrate empathy by making a genuine attempt at looking at the situation from different perspectives? The ability to exhibit such traits requires people to be kind.

The world is witnessing a resurgence in leaders who are kind, display their emotions- and are still able to command the respect of their people and inspire them to deliver on stretch goals. Perhaps this is because the wheel has turned full circle. Or maybe it’s realization that the success of organizations is driven mainly by its people, and that unless human beings are happy (at work and outside), they will not be able to perform consistently at their peak potential.

 

Kindness is now viewed as a strength

Being kind does not mean that leaders must now start taking decisions that seek to make everyone happy: clearly, that is neither possible nor desirable. Encouraging kindness at workplaces also does not mean being less assertive or somehow being less authoritative and “in control”.  However, being kind and exhibiting compassion does mean that the culture will be more conducive to collaboration. People around kind leaders will gain the confidence that they can have open conversations with their colleagues/managers/direct reports with the intent to help and support each other. There will be less propensity for people to carry tales about colleagues (this includes spreading false and malicious rumours), pointing fingers at one another to pass the buck when it comes to failure, and a general unhelpfulness that makes silos even more powerful than they really are or need to be.

A study in the journal Emotion quoted in forbes, reports how acts of workplace kindness at Coca Cola’s Madrid headquarters, were noticed by co-workers in 4-8 weeks and resulted in improving overall well-being and a sense of positivity at the workplace. Employees also reported higher levels of satisfaction and contentment with their jobs. Equally important, the study also found that such acts of kindness, however small, seemed to be contagious. The beneficiaries of the various acts of kindness took the effort to find out who had been kind to them and looked for ways to be kind and generous to others. This also reportedly spurred out-of-the-box thinking, which then permeated to core work areas as well- and that is always the seed of innovation.

 

Infusing kindness in your workforce

Everyone talks about a “VUCA world” where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity rule. Emerging technologies like AI and robotics are threatening to render large workforces irrelevant. Companies talk about reskilling employees to make them fit for deployment elsewhere. But think of older employees who are not digital natives or are less comfortable with large-scale technological shifts. Exhibiting kindness to understand their legitimate concerns and figure out how to address them will surely help- because a lot of valuable tacit knowledge about the business lies inside the heads of these employees. Kindness will help in reducing workplace stresses in an environment; it will also perhaps help reduce instances of workplace harassment of various hues. Loyalty too, will likely go up.

Here are some simple ways for you to start spreading kindness in your workplace:

  1. Be generous with praise for team-members and others. Appreciating good work is a powerful source of motivation, but sadly, is not practiced very commonly.
  2. Reward the most extraordinary act of kindness anyone has shown in your team each week/month. This will also encourage people to share the acts of kindness they have received.
  3. Look for group actions that can benefit the local community. When workplace colleagues (including from different departments) spend time outside work, they bond. These bonds make it easier for them to collaborate and help each other in the context of work. Strong relationships almost always trump transactional interactions.
  4. Create rituals such as “positive affirmation huddles” in your meetings.
  5. Designate “walls of kindness” in high-traffic areas in the workplace (e.g. the cafeteria or near coffee/snack vending machines). Encourage everyone to post sticky notes with some message or affirmation of kindness written. Let people take a note of their choosing and post one in exchange.

In the days ahead, hiring managers will not just ask “what kind of a leader is s/he?”; they will also ask “how kind a person is s/he” and “how does her/his team follow in her/his footsteps”.