The Kindness Factor

Life is just a short walk from the cradle to the grave.. and it sure behooves us to be kind to one another along the way.

Alice Childress

“I will never forget his kindness to me,” remarked an executive recently in reference to a boss who was retiring.

“How so?” I asked, curious to understand how she experienced this character trait in her boss. “He was so empathic and supporting when my ten year old boy died of leukemia and he had my back when I was making risky changes in my organization.”

As she continued to enumerate a long history of kind and thoughtful actions toward her, I got the clear impression that this boss was extraordinary in that he didn’t just lead with his mind, he led with his heart, and he displayed a positive disposition and genuine concern towards others. He showed a strong inclination to do a good turn and seek the best for others.

Human beings are social animals who work together to achieve goals; we are all interconnected. Consequently, it is no surprise that in all major world religions, the overriding guide, the “golden rule”, is that we treat others the way we want to be treated.

Curiously, when people talk about the workplace they often start by relating stories about cruel behavior, the antonyms for kindness. They may talk about bullying co-workers who are non-conforming, behaving in a callous manner towards someone who has experienced a personal tragedy, making competitive put–down remarks in meetings, or harassing others in one way or another.

In such an environment, when kindness comes our way it’s like a breath of fresh air!

So, how do we account for the relative absence of kindness at work?

What makes us shut off ourselves from something so basic to our humanity and so good for ourselves and everyone else?

Below, are some examples of conditions that inhibit the expression of kindness.

Kindness is eclipsed when

1.   Our hearts are closed because we’ve been hurt by life and are defending ourselves from being hurt again. We come to believe that if we show kindness, we open ourselves to being either used and/or hurt by others. To be kind is to be vulnerable.

2.  We equate kindness with weakness. Give them an inch and they will take a foot.” We equate kindness with ineffectiveness or giving in to others: we don’t know how to be kind while, at the same time, clearly communicating expectations that must be met.

3.   We view the workplace environment as a competitive, zero-sum gamewith no room for generosity of spirit: “I need to take all the credit or recognition or else someone else will rob me blind of what I earned or deserve”

How can kindness be nurtured?

1.   Learning to open our hearts after we have been hurt is a risk we have to take in the quest for personal growth. To begin the process, take small experimental steps in showing kindness while at the same time, observing: “This stuff works”. Start by choosing someone who is likely to respond positively to kindness. Note the results and keep on going.

2.   Start with the premise that kindness does not let others off the hook in enforcing high expectations. If you feel others have exploited your kindness, it’s difficult not to believe that you have compromised your strength. However, if you can see kindness as a way of supporting others to achieve goals, that it is kind to set high standards, then you can find strength in being kind.

3.   The belief that the workplace is a ‘zero-sum game’ is a lose-lose proposition for you and sure to stifle kindness.  The way to nurture kindness in this context is first, to change your beliefs about your workplace. Data that may help are recent findings that kindness begets kindness.

A study by Fowler and Christakis (2010) demonstrates the cascading nature of kindness in human networks. When one person starts showing kindness, many follow suit. Start with an experiment in showing kindness to someone you respect and value and see if it becomes contagious.

4.   Be kind even when you don’t feel like doing so. Granted, in many circumstances being kind is not easy.  But do it all the same. The magic of behaving in a kind way is that you will eventually come to feel kind and express kindness naturally.

5.   Adopt the belief that “The golden rule works”; however, not in the way most people think! It’s not a “If I scratch your back you will scratch mine” rule. Rather, we do it because it is the right thing to do and that’s how we like be treated as well.

6.   Similarly, show kindness but do not expect a return in kind.  The Bhagavad-Gita says, “Do your duty unto god without your eyes on the fruit of your action.”  The fruits of our work should not be our motive or preoccupation.

7.   Learn to do it without any fanfare. We often acknowledge people in public for acts of kindness. However, acts of kindness mean more when they are expressed privately (that is, unseen by an audience wider than the recipient). Remember that being kind isn’t about shifting the focus to yourself; that is, getting credit for what a nice person you are. The focus should remain on the person you are helping.

Ways to Show Kindness at Work

1.   Unofficially mentoring others. This is probably the most important act of generosity you can make to another. When people remember their past, they always point to those key mentors or teachers who made a difference in their lives.

2.   Writing letters of appreciation or condolence. To show compassion during a time of huge loss and appreciation for a job well done is never forgotten. In both instances, you are expressing to the recipient that he or she is cared for and valued. Contrast this to a recent example of a CEO who proclaimed publicly that the community of senior executives was a ‘family’ and then mostly ignored an executive who was diagnosed with cancer.

3.   Showing a kind disposition toward others while setting high standards and expecting the best from others is a powerful way to achieve a motivated team that works to their potential. An example of this is one of the statements in the HP Way: “People want to do a good job” and to this, we’d add: “when they know how much they are valued.”

4.   Demonstrating humility by giving others credit for goals met as a team: “My career was built on the shoulders of others”

6.   Celebrating and promoting the fact that others have skills superior to yours.

7.   Refuse to rub peoples’ faces into their failures. Be compassionate to yourself and others in the face of failure.

Please leave a comment

What are some examples of kindness that you have experienced?

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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