As organisations and their employees continue to feel out the optimal hybrid office-home approach, and with the great resignation continuing to unfold, many leaders are looking at how they can attract, retain and engage the best of their talent.
As our latest research shows, and as wider secondary research proves, kindness is one of the most powerful ways for leaders to respond to the whirl of issues before them.
Humans are wired for connection. We’re relational beings. Kindness releases chemicals like serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine, and these trigger a ‘helpers high’ that makes us happier and calmer. That’s true for both the person giving and the recipient. Creating a baseline of kindness, empathy and understanding creates a safety net in your organisation. People feel able to try things, to voice concerns, to show up to work authentically and give their best if they know they’ll be met with kindness.
In stark contrast, feeling ostracised, excluded or rejected triggers our most primal emergency systems. Once upon a time, in tribal communities, being included or excluded could be the difference between life and death. Of course, a mediocre appraisal or harsh tone isn’t quite the same, but our brains haven’t quite caught up. When we feel attacked, the ancient part of our brain comes online – often leading to a sub-optimal response for today’s world, such as fight or flight.
So, kindness is more likely to foster a warm, productive and happy environment – no surprises there. This means that a trait often perceived as being ‘fluffy’ offers concrete business benefits. Employees in organisations where leaders are kind are twice as likely to stay in their organisation for at least another twelve months, twice as likely to say their team produces outstanding quality work, and three times as likely to say they’re highly motivated. And employees are almost twice as likely to report that their company is performing well financially when leaders are kind.
Here’s how you can start to cultivate a culture of kindness at work:
Assume the best of people
People generally live up or down to our expectations. With a blame or control culture, people are more likely to rebel or react badly. In contrast, when we trust people to get on with their jobs, when we assume good intent and give people the benefit of the doubt, things tend to go better.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a good test of this for many leaders, as organisations – and leaders – had to trust their people to get on with the job in challenging situations, working from home with less in-person contact. When working with a large US healthcare organisation, we asked members of the change teams to describe their vision for the organisation and the impact they would like to have. Rather than relying on managerial coordination, they were trusted to create and deliver their own ways of working. Crucially, this work must then be recognised. Because the best leaders are ego-less, they’ll regularly and publicly recognise the work of their team, not their own leadership – and they’ll bring team members into key meetings and discussions to represent their own work.
Don’t just recognise kindness – reward it
Kindness lives in big and small actions. So set up your systems and processes to reward kindness – whether that’s allowing space for people to support each other, or rewarding collaboration over competition. The only way to cultivate and embed kindness is to build the recognition and reward of the behaviour into reward schemes, review processes and ad-hoc feedback meetings. The more you recognise and reward kindness, the more you’ll find employees willing to sacrifice their personal interests for the greater good.
At the same time, don’t neglect the basics – listening to people, responding to their feedback and being authentic will go a long way. Alongside the big picture processes, find the places where a small and thoughtful act can make the difference. That could be sending a personalised thank you card instead of a one-line ‘good job’ email. And kindness can come from tough choices too – being honest about challenges in the business, not just telling people what they want to hear. Tone and intention are both key here.
Understand that happy colleagues make for happy customers
Kindness is contagious. So, whoever you’re serving, whether consumers, businesses or any other end users, bear in mind that what happens internally will translate into your user experience. One UK council adopted a premature birth policy, enabling staff to take extra leave at full pay during a difficult time, displaying sensitivity to workers in a high-stress situation – and this kindness will be repaid: in recruitment, retention and in outcomes. Elsewhere, we’ve seen organisations such as Standard Chartered Bank, having seen the clear connection between employee engagement and performance, take a strengths-based approach to recruitment.
Measurement is key here. Taking time to track happiness and satisfaction internally and externally will help you find the places where there could be more kindness within the business. It’s also important for leaders to demonstrate their own vulnerability. By openly admitting mistakes and sharing failures, an empathetic bond is created between people at all levels – while also creating a culture of continuous improvement. It’s an approach that calls for humility, empathy and the willingness to listen.
Kindness might feel like a ‘nice-to-have’. But make no mistake: in the battle to find and keep the best people, and support them to work at their best, kindness is one of the most important qualities to foster for yourself and your organisation. Creating a happy workplace, and a happy team.