Leadership: Lead with kindness
Being kind is good for you and your organisation.
Over the last few weeks, thousands of workers have been laid off by tech companies and start-ups around the world. Several of these companies have consistently been on best employer lists. While I can’t comment on the compulsions or pressures that triggered these actions, the manner in which some of the employees have been let go seems quite disturbing. One would have thought that after the last couple of years, after coping with the pandemic, things would be different this time around. So, the behaviour of these well-regarded companies or leaders is baffling.
"Do we need to go back to the drawing board to infuse leadership with kindness?
For some, kindness might not come to mind when we think of leadership. Traditionally, in fact, it had been considered something of a disadvantage in the business arena. In order to succeed and climb to the top, the legacy view was that leaders needed to be firm, authoritarian and iron-fisted – not kind.
This thinking springs from a fundamental misunderstanding of kindness. Being kind doesn’t mean being weak, relinquishing authority or being a people-pleaser. Here’s what it does mean: treating others with courtesy, generosity and compassion. Genuinely kind actions, performed freely and without strings attached, come from a place of strength and self-confidence.
This week, my message focuses on re-igniting kindness at the workplace, especially among leaders. What are the benefits of leading with courtesy and generosity? And how can we actively practice kindness on a day-to-day basis?
There have been several recent studies on the role of kindness at the workplace. Researchers have found that leading with kindness fosters trust, loyalty and engagement – all key drivers for a high-performing team. It also unleashes a growing wave of positive behaviours across the organisation. One study found that people who were treated kindly at work went on to be a whopping 278% more generous towards their co-workers.
The study also found that both “givers” and “receivers” benefited from pro-social acts. Givers experienced improved satisfaction in their lives and jobs, while receivers enjoyed an increase in happiness. Interestingly, even simply witnessing a courteous interaction gives people a surge of wellbeing and motivates them to pay it forward.
In other words, kindness is contagious. It is also healing. Acts of kindness have a tangibly beneficial effect on health and mood. They release a “feel good” hormone called serotonin, which makes you feel happy, calm, stable and focused. They also naturally increase oxytocin, which helps to regulate emotions, enhance optimism and lower blood pressure. Plus, acting from a place of generosity reduces feelings of burnout and cynicism.
When leaders demonstrate genuine concern for employee wellbeing, we see huge benefits: improved morale, better performance, longer tenures and reduced absenteeism – findings that are reconfirmed year after year, in surveys after survey.
Contrary to what one might think, kind folks don’t finish last – even in the corporate arena. More often than not, those who show care and compassion receive the same in return. These are the people we trust, respect and look up to. These are the people we want to be around and work with. No wonder kind leaders gain the lifelong loyalty and support of their co-workers, one of the keys to long-term success.
It’s worth noting that “kind” isn’t the same as “nice”. Being nice is centred around agreeableness; its main objective is to not ruffle feathers and get along with everyone. Being kind, on the other hand, comes from a deeper desire for the other person’s wellbeing. Among leaders, kindness can take the form of having difficult conversations with employees and giving them constructive feedback when needed. Whereas “nice” leaders may avoid such conversations because they fear awkwardness or becoming unpopular!
Acts of kindness make life more meaningful and joyous. As an article in the Harvard Business Review notes:
Being kind brings a sense of meaning because it involves investing in something bigger than ourselves. It shapes both how others perceive us – which improves our reputation – and how we view ourselves.
Leading with kindness
As a leader, practicing habitual kindness is beneficial for you, your team and the wider organisation. Don’t worry if it doesn’t come effortlessly at the start. Dr. Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, compares practicing kindness to weight training:
People can actually build up their compassion “muscle” and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help.
You can infuse your leadership with kindness in several ways. Here are eight suggestions to help you get you started right away:
1. Listen, really listen.
Giving your full, non-judgmental attention to someone is a true act of kindness. Put away your phone, listen actively and ask compassionate questions as team members share their doubts, concerns and struggles. Resist the urge to offer instant solutions. Instead, ask: “Is there something I can do?” Sometimes, all the person really needs is to feel heard and valued by their manager.
2. Pay attention.
Employees suffering from stress, anxiety or burnout can be identified through tell-tale signs, from social withdrawal to a sudden dip in performance. Learn to recognise these red flags and keep an eye on your team members. If you spot signs of distress, check in with the employee and show a willingness to provide support. “Are you okay?” and “How can we help?” are powerful demonstrations of kindness. If mental health resources are available at your company, make good use of them.
3. Acknowledge effort.
As leaders, we tend to focus on output and results – as we should. But it’s also important to notice when employees are trying their best, especially in times of crisis, be it personal (like a bereavement) or global (like the pandemic). Kindness means letting your team members know that their efforts are being seen and appreciated.
4. Say thank you.
Such a simple thing, yet often forgotten in the hustle-bustle of workdays. A sincere thank you or an honest compliment goes a long way. This applies to people across all levels of the organisation – from “Great work on the presentation, I loved your attention to detail” to “Thank you for staying late and cleaning up after the office party.”
Communicating appreciation doesn’t just make the other person feel good – it also boosts your own sense of wellbeing. The HBR article mentioned above explains why:
We found that giving compliments engendered a stronger social connection than receiving compliments because giving them encouraged people to focus on the other person. Sure, receiving a compliment feels great, but making a thoughtful, genuine compliment requires us to think about someone else – their mental state, behavior, personality, thoughts, and feelings. Thinking about other people is often a precondition to feeling connected to them. In this way, compliments can become a social glue, enhancing connections and positivity in relationships, and making us happier.
5. Implement a “kindness check-in”.
Get intentional about fostering a culture of kindness in your team. Set aside a few minutes in your weekly meetings for colleagues to appreciate one another or talk about acts of generosity they received. Celebrate small kindnesses together. This is a great way to weave care and compassion into the fabric of life at the office.
6. Build courtesy into teamwork.
Think about how your team navigates collaboration. Are there ways to integrate kindness here? For example, when a virtual meeting is being organised with employees around the world, are time zones and public holidays in different locations factored in? At team meetings, does everyone feel like they have a platform to share their thoughts – without being interrupted or drowned out? Leaders can help draw attention to these small yet vital details, thus creating a safe space where everyone feels like they belong.
7. Receive kindness with grace.
Equally crucial for leaders is the ability to receive kindness. Many high-achieving individuals are highly self-critical, struggle with negative self-talk, and are unable to accept praise, thanks or assistance. Next time someone appreciates you or offers help, meet their spirit of generosity with openness. Receiving kindness is also an art – those who learn it will find their life vastly enriched.
8. Practice self-compassion.
Last but certainly not least, it’s also important for leaders to be kind to themselves. At its core, this means treating yourself gently and making time to look after yourself, whether it’s taking short breaks during the day, scheduling a weekly hour of “me time”, or creating a morning ritual you love.
Science shows that the emotional energy within any room flows from the person with most authority. Leaders are uniquely positioned to create norms of kindness within their teams and companies. Let go of outdated thinking and give yourself permission to lead with generosity and compassion. Jenny Rogerson, Global Head of People at Canva, puts it beautifully:
Try to make kindness part of your day-to-day. Bring it to your work by being quietly kind, assertively kind, secretly kind. However you choose to be kind, it’s a great service to yourself and those around you.