Kindness. It’s a scorned, if not outright rejected concept in business – it’s too soft, too weak. We can’t be kind, because to be in business is to be tough, competitive, strong. Logic and rationality rule the roost. We don’t do feelings or soft, fluffy stuff. We’re here to do the serious stuff of business; please leave your kindness at the door.
Kindness isn't weakness
But kindness isn’t a soft, fluffy feeling – it’s a philosophy that holds individual human dignity as the ultimate value. It sees that dignity as more important than power games, point-scoring, and numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s much, much harder than the usual “hard-headed” business approach. And it is actually a solid business strategy for getting the best out of your people, making sure you have the right people on your team, and serving your customers well.
And it isn’t weakness, not by any means. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do, in business and life, is to have courageous conversations that put everything on the line. Whether that’s with an under-performing employee, a high-potential team member, or someone who just isn’t fitting in, kindness can help individuals and organisations to flourish. Brené Brown has written excellently on the subject of “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” I highly recommend her book Dare to Lead; it’s on regular rotation in my reading list.
Being kindly honest with someone is really, really hard. It can feel like we’re being downright cruel when we are in the middle of that conversation and see the pain and disappointment in the other person’s eyes. Of course, we need to give the feedback with empathy and compassion, but we can’t just avoid having the conversation because we don’t like how it will make us feel.
Allowing someone to fail by not giving clear feedback on expectations and performance is a deep unkindness. No one wants to realise that other people think we are incompetent, a burden, or dragging others down, but no one had the guts to tell us we weren’t meeting the mark. This is the Golden Rule at work: how we want to be treated is how we should treat others.
Unkindness isn’t just about avoiding tough conversations with underperformers; it’s also unkind not to challenge your star employees. We might worry that if we let them spread their wings, they’ll fly away from us, or that other employees will act up out of jealousy (requiring their own courageous conversations).
But bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator is unkind to those who want to excel and it’s unkind to your customers and industry too. Who knows what great improvements a high-potential employee could create, if you allowed them to follow their instincts, supported them with a budget, permission to experiment, make mistakes and discover new approaches, and surrounded them with people who will challenge, coach, and inspire them?
Sometimes, kindness is allowing, even encouraging, someone to leave a role or organisation that doesn’t “fit” them. If you can’t provide them with conditions to flourish, why not allow them to look for a place that can? Why would you want to keep someone around who isn’t enjoying working in your team or organisation? Trying to stay below an arbitrary turnover target or avoid hard questions about why you let a good employee leave aren’t good reasons to try to hold someone back in a place where they’re miserable.
Who knows what could happen if you give someone your blessing to find a new home for their talents? It’s a very small world: you might encounter them again in the future, as an employee, boss, or customer. Wouldn’t it be great to know you left things on good terms? Or maybe they’ll go on to revolutionise the industry, or they’ll remember the good boss who helped them find a path that better suited them, and will do the same for others? That’s how kindness multiplies.
Kindness to self
And while we’re talking about kindness, let’s be kind to ourselves too. Most of us feel like we’re making things up as we go – and we regularly face new situations (Covid, anyone?!). It’s OK not to know the answers. And it’s even more OK to admit that to your team, your colleagues and your boss – people usually appreciate honesty. (And if you’re working with people who aren’t OK with you not knowing the all the answers, every time, then you might want to find a kinder place to work!)
How will you apply kindness today?
It’s all well and good to read about how kindness can help us. But words on a screen don’t change the world – taking action does!
Commit to a single act of kindness today. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering – when a sculptor wants to break off a section of rock, they don’t aim one mighty blow, but deliver a series of gentle taps in just the right place. The same goes for kindness – many, small acts of deliberate kindness will nudge your team, your organisation and the world in the desired direction. All you have to do is start.