The case for kindness

By Andrew Leigh, Co-founder, Maynard Leigh Associates 17th December 2021 Leadership

“How come when I want a pair of hands, I get a human being as well?” asked Henry Ford. The updated version says: “let’s replace humans with robots that don’t expect kindness.”

Kindness is the defining quality or essence of being human. We look for it in the people we love, and it lies at the heart of our lifelong friendships.

From a company perspective, kindness makes a workplace humane, whether it uses robots or not. It can be a potent catalyst for positive change and says a great deal about the culture of any business. It’s an ingredient in our company mission to help companies develop humanity at work.

Next time you open a brown parcel from Amazon, for example, consider how it reached you. Many involved in sending it say that it’s a cut-throat, unpleasant place. Amazon may be super successful in terms of profits. Yet like many places, it suffers from a misguided belief that only a pressure-cooker culture gets results on the front line. “The harder we crack the whip, the better people will perform” is how many employers, and not just Amazon, think that it’s the best way to manage a business.

Amazon, in particular, relies on hand-held devices for tracking its people’s every move. The company constantly checks the results against speed and accuracy norms. It’s enough to make the Stasi blush.

While such tools provide data for Amazon managers, they also enable a regime of terror on the shop floor. Pressures can become so severe that some workers even use bottles to urinate rather than take breaks. In Shenzhen, China, known as Foxconn City, over 230,000 workers toil making Apple’s iPhones and many other products. Their factory has suicide nets designed to catch anyone who leaps from the roof.

There are so many examples of businesses reaping the consequences of unkind behaviour. British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have attracted worldwide criticism for the treatment of staff. The share price of the fashion retailer Boohoo has struggled under the weight of claims about malpractice in its supply chain.

A 2020 poll out for the strategy consultancy BritainThinks revealed that just one person in eight wanted life in the UK. to return to “exactly as it was before” the coronavirus pandemic. It found a widespread appetite for a kinder society that “allows workers more time off with family and friends, cares about the environment and ensures high levels of employment.”

No amount of management spin can hide the unpleasant reality that a business has substantial and measurable costs when kindness is in short supply. For example, high-pressure organisations need to spend more on healthcare for their employees than ones with a more positive, supportive environment. Even worse, most workplace accidents (80%) happen through people coping with hostile, uncaring environments.

To any reasonably intelligent leader, cut-throat organisations make little sense. So why do they so often prevail? Mainly through weak and ill-informed leaders. Many do not recognise or acknowledge the cost and downside of their style of management.

Minimal kindness, for instance, makes people less engaged with their work which reduces their productivity. Nor will they care much about the enterprise and what it does.

In stark financial terms, disengaged employees produce 40% lower earnings per share compared to engaged ones. Employee attrition, or the rate people leave, can cause sky-high recruitment costs.

When our clients seek help with people issues, these commonly involve interpersonal conflicts, gossip, poor teamwork, low productivity, or poor communication. While there are many avenues we can explore for solutions to these problems, kindness invariably forms part of the answer.

Kindness in action

You doubtless know the phrase “Survival of the fittest”. But have you come across “Survival of the kindest?” When people around us act with kindness, it makes us feel safe and even confident. Such a benign environment encourages us to look beyond our immediate survival needs.

Co-operation proved essential to our ancestors. Their survival improved if they were kind and worked co-operatively. Others stuck in conflict and isolation lost out. Hence “Survival of the kindest” makes sense, even today. In its many guises, kindness helps us achieve a more connected and harmonious way of living.

Even invisible acts of kindness can make a difference at work. It’s now a sensible way to improve productivity. That’s why some companies encourage their people to do random acts of kindness during the working day.

There is now even a Random Acts of Kindness Foundation that promotes such unexpected acts. Its research confirms that these can trigger beneficial chemical reactions in the human body, such as:

• Oxytocin, a hormone chemical affecting blood pressure and heart health.

• Endorphins are a feel-good natural pain killer

• Serotonin promotes a sense of happiness.

• Cortisol is our natural alarm system, affecting stress, mood, motivation, and fear.

The case for kindness in business stems from many studies, including by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. It found that kindness: 

The Productivity Prize

Every sensible business wants to encourage high levels of productivity. The challenge is how to create this and how to maintain and improve it. While hand-held devices like those used by Amazon can provide data, kindness turns out to be cheaper.

For example, according to The Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada, those working in respectful, kind environments deliver more energy than others in less caring places.

Creating a kind work environment also encourages people to let down their guard. That helps them connect with colleagues to share ideas that drive innovation and productivity

Yet another gain is that being kind proves to be contagious. Its ripples can affect the entire company culture. One study published by the American Psychological Association found that those on the receiving end of kindness repaid this by their positive social responses over 200 times over. *

Make it real

We are rich in practical ways to show and benefit from kindness at work. We are limited less by opportunity than our willingness to invest in being kind. For example, some simple individual actions appear in the sidebar shown here.

Our ability to use kindness well relies on our readiness to look around and spot the need for it. For instance, we tend to think of loneliness as a highly personal issue. Yet, it can happen even within well-run teams, with some members feeling isolated and unable to do their best work. Loneliness may require a new approach to teamwork, including exercising more kindness taking varied forms.

Some of our most successful work colleagues may appear enviable for their confidence and drive. Yet unknown to us, there may lie damaging fears such as Imposter Syndrome. The latter is a fear of being found out and feeling like a fraud.

Imposter syndrome disproportionately affects high-achieving people, who find it difficult to accept their accomplishments. Do such people need kindness? Of course, they do, and that is why even bosses may respond positively to thanks and appreciation!

Gallup surveys in the US reveal the positive impact of kindness at work. A compliment, words of recognition and praise can all be transformative. Those on the receiving end tend to feel more fulfilled and have higher self-esteem and hence productivity.

When we act with kindness at work, we are investing in something bigger than ourselves. It shapes how others perceive us and therefore improves our reputation and how we view ourselves.

Giving compliments at work, for example, actually makes people happier than receiving them. Many leaders and their subordinates do not realise these positive benefits. On the other hand, kindness does its magic best when it comes from the heart when spontaneous and genuine.

Emojis, those tiny graphics, such as hearts and different facial expressions, try to convey emotions visually. Whatever these achieve, it is not offering kindness. They are a painless substitute for having to express feelings. Sometimes just a brief word, a quick face-to-face contact, or even a phone call can better convey genuine kindness.

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