Today's blog in the #BeTheRippleBlogs series is a piece from Ian Buckingham's 'Coaching Conversations' series entitled 'The Viability of Kindness at Work'. The piece is expertly put together by Ian, bringing thoughts and perspectives from different people into a cohesive whole. A number of professionals were involved in the conversation and we are very proud that some of the #BeTheRipple team are amongst them.
You can find Ian on LinkedIn: Here and on Twitter: @IanPBuckingham
Over to Ian:
The Viability of Kindness at Work.
At the pinnacle of panic about the #COVID19 pandemic, like many peers in the communications, leadership and hr hot seats, I would break up the 14 hour days with a brisk stroll in the fresh air. A week in and I stumbled across a pile of coloured pebbles on a pebbly beach.
There were about eight of them and each had a colourful image and a word painted on it, an uplifting word like "love" or "hope" or "be kind".
Doubtless many a person, in the grip of fear and anger (or both), would either miss or disregard those stones. But then something special happened. The pile started to grow until now, they have become a sort of totemic stopping off place or shrine to simple human niceties. People pause there every day. And a few stones have become several hundred.
The stone dedicated to kindness was especially poignant. Started as one. And now there are a dozen.
Simultaneously, something similar was happening on social media, twitter especially. My global network of professional contacts were all suddenly talking about kindness and positivity as an antidote to the relentless negative news. And this ripple has continued to flow outward. This online pile of pebble messages has continued to grow.
To illustrate this point and to explore the commerical value of kindness at work (for surely, a commerciality it must have to survive), I've once again been joined by a cohort of respected contacts who first offered up their "killer kindness question" they wanted the group to unpack. They then set out to suggest answers, freed from the need to group think or be identified with the answer as this was an exercise in "gut" and "heart" liberated from the need to be seen to be right.
The global gathering of folk inviting you on the journey this time include the following:
Ian P Buckingham
This "conversation" is a long one. But given the subject, that seems kind of appropriate.
Question 1: How do we really convince senior leaders that a kinder way of working is truly the only sustainable model going forward?
As with most things, think CFO/FD, sell the business benefits- be clear on the return on investment.
This is tricky. Trying to tell a senior leader they are not kind (enough) is like telling Michael Jordan he's too short to play basketball. I tend to favour the Lao Tzu (5th C BC philosopher) method "But of a good leader, his work done, then they will all say we did it ourselves". For me, this means finding ways/evidence to show the benefits of kindness and reframing it so that the leader believes it was their idea. We don't need the credit. We just need to get the job done.
Educate them in the basics of human biology and make the direct link to the bottom line. Back it up with practice-based evidence.
This is a question I grapple with a lot as it comes to the new way of leading and what is effective given the types of problems/challenges we face today versus in the past. Is this a transition we have to weather out, waiting for the slow change in attitudes to emerge, like the hour hand of a clock so slow that it is barely noticeable but nevertheless moving forward?
My experience when it comes to introducing a more human-centred and therefore emotion embracing way of leading, has been that of dismissal. I find dismissal difficult to overcome as it reflects an unwillingness to explore that perhaps there is something else to consider. I know results speak for themselves and we will see the rise and fall of companies based on how well their leaders adapted to the new ways conducive to creating the environments where people could thrive. My worry is the price we all pay in the process and the time that will elapse until we get there.
Understanding the emotion and connection the employee now feels - this leads to trust, loyalty and engagement.
Search out an evidence base on the impact of kinder working, setting out the systemic links with business objectives and how people feel in the workplace and the impacts this can have on elements such as recruitment, retention, brand image, customer experience.
By example. Not by whining, which is the current model. Show that it can deliver better bottom line results. Data helps but the best and most effective way for our leaders to understand that kindness will put the organisation in good shape is through listening to the stories of their employees.
Question 2: How should HR functions balance tough decisions with kindness?
Be able to ask, "Did we make this tough decision from a strong base of our values?" If not, why not? What is missing in this picture?
Understand the policy, how has it been applied previously and then action humanly. The delivery of the outcome makes an enormous impact on the individual. Ensure you see the person you are speaking with not just what they did or didn’t do.
This assumes that 'tough' and 'kindness' are on separate scales. So if we let go of 1000 people but give those that remain an extra days leave then balance is maintained... However, if we have to let go 1000 people, do so with dignity, help with outplacement and practical support, but also reassure those that remain, then HR is getting the balance right.
Tough decisions can still be kind, if you are using data from a range of sources to inform decisions and can communicate with empathy, authenticity and get across the important WHY, it can be done, which gains credibility from leadership and employees.
Applying a very human lens, even tough decisions and actions can be done kindly.
I believe kindness aids in the making and follow through of tough decisions. Kindness guides us on making the right (albeit tough at times) decisions for the right reasons and most importantly helps us implement how we go about acting on those decisions. Whether it’s how to deliver difficult feedback, how to implement a reduction in force (as we have seen so much recently), how to inform a candidate they were not chosen for the role, etc... Once those decisions are made, there is space for a choice on how to implement them. Kindness allows for empathy, clarity, non-judgement, caring, human-e delivery and execution of those decisions.
By taking tough decisions. But being kind to those impacted. Fair. Clear. Considerate, leading by example. Instead hr currently either lie, don’t tell the truth or “macho” it out but badly and rarely apply the same standards to their own departments. People see this. Daily.
Question 3: How do we think workplace kindness shows up differently across sectors and why?
Does it? Kindness is a human experience and therefore universal. I'm sure it shows up in different sectors.
Yes, norms do differ. Working on a production line is a fundamentally different experience to a nursing home. Which is why censoring cancel culture wielded by self-appointed experts is so ludicrous. Who are they to judge? Organisations have to really work on defining and role-modelling “optimal” behaviour, that’s where to place the focus.
Some sectors have more direct, forthright cultures. Others purport to be more “touchy feely”. Fools describe the difference as male-type vs female-type., stereotyping thinking vs feeling etc. Direct aggression and passive aggression are both part of the same, unhelpful defensive mindset whether in a primary school or building site. Look for the good that people do, celebrate it and recognise that kindness takes many forms not just the “hearts and flowers” of romance novels.
Different sectors will have different cultural drivers such as profit margins, customer experience, employee demographics, values. I wonder what the impact of these drivers are on the experience of employees particularly male dominated industries like construction/ logistics - is the language of kindness different, is it about health and safety cultures and letting employees know you have their interests at heart.
I am not sure that it does show up differently when it is present. For me kindness is about relating with those around us from a place of "everyone is a being of value" - and acting with respect, being curious and attentive about who others are, empathetic, and caring. It looks like listening, non-judging, communicating clearly, being helpful, following through in commitments and being truthful. Some industries may be more "reluctant" to apply kind principles in their environments due to the connotation associated with them of being "soft".
IDK (this is 10 y/o coolspeak)! My hunch though is that it doesn't. While the books might have very different covers, scratch the surface and what creates kindness in one place will likely have the same pages as others. For example, we might assume that the NHS and Social Care are overflowing with kindness. We clapped to show we cared too. But there are plenty of examples of poor leadership, toxic cultures, and ultimately poor patient experience. Take any sector and you are likely to get the good, the bad, as well as the ugly.
Ethos of the organisation is probably more relevant than sector. My assumption would be that the charity sector is better in this space.
Organisational and national culture play a significant role in how kindness is seen and valued within an organisation. If kindness fits within the norm of the culture then it will flourish, otherwise the organisation may need to review their strategy and purpose for culture to change.
Question 4: Capitalism is based on winning and survival of the fittest, a sort of Darwinian natural selection. Few examples of kindness exist in Nature. Why should it survive in business?
2 Reasons. (1) I'm not sure this premise is correct. In the animal kingdom many species show kindness, for example by refraining from violence when settling conflicts. (2) Let's consider the words we would use as the opposite of kindness. Venom, hatred, bitterness, selfishness to name a few. There's the why.
The premise on which this question is based kind of sums up why the planet’s in peril, does it not? The answer has to be to support a new model of ethics that has credibility rather than blind faith behind it.
When the idea of Capitalism was first put forth by Adam Smith, he described a system where there was balance between fundamental human motivations such as self-interest and caring for others. As Capitalism took hold and emerged as the economic model post American Civil War with the likes of Carnegie, Vanderbilt, JP. Morgan and Rockefeller a rise of the self-interest side of the equation took hold and the chasing of increasing margins by lowering labour costs and conditions creating an imbalance and zero-sum type of environment to operate in. I don't believe that Nature thrives on imbalances. There is a natural harmony and respect inherent in Nature and I believe that is kindness in action. It is a natural law of balance, an approach of everything has its value and its place and the system works because of it. It is abundance not scarcity.
Survival of the fittest may be synonymous with Darwin, however his research also spoke of communities displaying sympathy which resulted in healthier offspring - better for the community in the long run. Build up our people and the organisation will reap the rewards.
And capitalism is good because....? Perhaps not the place to discuss our economic philosophy and why GDP and growth are outdated and planet-killing approaches.
There are many examples in nature where species survive because they collaborate, co-exist, whether it's a bunch of meercats - with the Lookout on their hind legs all day in the desert, or a pride of lions working together for antelope stew, or the octopus and the grouper - two very different species that have worked out the benefits of a symbiotic relationship.
Survival of the fittest is being redefined in the business world, what was once accepted behaviour is no longer what people want from the workplace. People want purpose, belonging, security, flexibility, acceptance, inclusivity. Organisations and businesses who don't offer this, will soon find that they lack the talent needed for success. The socialism agenda is on the rise.
Because as humans we perform our best in kind atmospheres we thrive and grow and if human capital is an important part of business then this is critical.
Thriving environments based on kindness do exist, while they dont threaten those who want to exploit them. They are usually symbiotically connected or reserved for members of the family, troupe or tribe. When we see the mutual benefits of kindness and embrace others as part of our “tribe”, we embrace mutual goals and are better for it. But try telling that to a trading room full of investment bankers or venture capitalists……..Now you see the issue! Not sure this will ever change unless we tighten regulation and sort out the distribution of wealth more equitably. Even Victorian bankers did more than we do today.
Question 5: How can kindness improve the bottom line?
It’s a proven enabling activity that creates a climate of improved productivity via deeper engagement, more discretionary effort, attraction of talent, retention of talent creating a more harmonious internal culture.
Makes space for creativity. Increases retention and satisfaction. Lowers healthcare costs. All backed by a growing body of research and kindness doesn't cost a penny.
Leader and employee relationship is pivotal in any organisation. The ability to engage (intimately) with your employees leads to credibility, trust and kindness. If employees feel a connection to the organisation through purpose of what they do and why then they will perform, if the organisation is fair and consistent with policy application people will perform - communicate with honesty in hard/tough times and people will go the extra mile for an organisation which cares.
We know that unkindness/cruelty costs. It damages people, negatively impacts teams, and harms performance and reputations of organisations. Kindness costs nothing, but there is still limited evidence to highlight its impact on the balance sheet. We need to define it, measure it and show how it can influence our Key Performance Indicators.
If people feel valued, have purpose and they are surrounded by peers and managers who genuinely want them to do their best and bring their best, people will be prepared to deliver whether that is front line work or behind the scenes. The way people are treated makes a difference to well-being and when kindness shows up with integrity, honesty and authenticity, even if that means a hard message, the business will benefit.
Kindness facilitates the creation of environments where people can feel psychologically safe. It makes room for acceptance and inclusion of differences necessary for co-creating solutions to the challenges we currently face. It builds trust as others feel cared for, heard and that they matter. All these are ingredients critical for team success given the types of challenges businesses today are to solve and the experiences, products and services they are to create in order to be successful.
When it is seen as an enabler that drives business results. When the importance of culture is truly understood and sustainability is valued more than short termism.
Question 6: What coaching would you provide female leaders with who believe that kindness is weakness and nice "girls" finish last?
I'd ask them what they think their parent(s) would say if they heard them say that.
Start by making the point that the term leader is the important word and that the world doesn’t revolve around the obsession with gender. If you’re too “nice” and people take advantage then either toughen up or change professions. That applies to people of ALL genders. If you choose to change the commercial world instead, then prepare for a very, very tough struggle that may or may not fulfil you in the end. You have choice. So exercise it and respect the choice of others.
Firstly I would l say you are a woman not a girl so that statement doesn’t apply. You are educated and strong. Believe in yourself, stand up and speak your truth. Don’t change your behaviour to suit your male colleagues or expectations - be you and be great. Remove the child mindset, that is all of those “good girls, nice girls” etc ingrained behaviours and associated actions and work from an adult mindset.
Coaching a female leader to swim better in shark infested waters won't stop her being eaten. Erecting a net to stop the sharks from being in your water might not be as cheap but more effective over time. Fix the pool not the person. There is plenty of evidence to show that female traits (including caring and kindness) are what leaders need for businesses to survive and thrive.
I would want to explore their beliefs on kindness, how they define it and invite them to consider if this is true, perhaps invite them to provide some examples of where kindness has shown up to be strong (from who) and inquire how they think they show up versus a perception and reality of 'nice girls' and what that means to them.
Competition and aggression are not exclusive “male” traits. Predators come in all genders. Ever watched group dynamics in a peer group of women at work? It’s human nature. Get over the victim mentality and let’s all focus on positive human attributes and maximise those, of which kindness is a key trait.
Unfortunately for a long time, the system was based (and it still is hence this conversation) on an imbalance favouring masculine energy and traits. Many women (me included) face the challenge of having to operate with only our masculine energy if we want to be seen and valued as equal contributors. It is a system that rewards certain behaviours and not others and we "learned" very quickly what to do and what not to do. We all have both types of energies within us and the proper balance of both in a Leadership position is what I believe will bring success. We need to challenge and nurture. We need to embrace emotions as information instead of asking others to suppress them and use them to help facilitate change.
The coaching would be aimed at all leadership as a culture where this prevails would most likely have poor leadership behaviours from both genders.
Question 7: Given people are intrinsically good, why are there so many examples of bad behaviour, especially at a senior level?
Who told you people are intrinsically good? Or evil? It’s conditioned behaviour. If leaders role-modelled different traits, these would become endemic. But perhaps we need to ensure that leaders’ objectives aren’t just focused on short termism and cost cutting and critique. What if they were rewarded for values like kindness, catching people doing things well AND financial and other hard goals tied to those behaviours? What gets measured gets done......
We do what we perceive we have to do. In those contexts what is black and white becomes less clear. We live in a world where if you make people money, you can get away with bad behaviour.
I think one will find examples of what one is looking for and that there examples of great behaviour and awful behaviour in senior levels. I do believe that we have been operating with a Leadership model that did not evolve. I believe people work within the parameters and again do what is rewarded and don't do what is not. I am grateful that we are questioning and challenging how we do things so we can continue to grow and evolve and provide better and much needed Leadership to the teams we have the privilege to work with.
Culture and history play a significant role with the acceptance of bad behaviours. Organisations are afraid of their shareholders who are in it to make money. People are afraid to speak out to challenge and maybe organisational policy is weak and or there are trust issues when reporting. Behaviour will not change unless the policies and practices of the organisation do, this also includes other Senior leaders accepting the behaviour - call them out.
Probably because good people can and sometimes do, bad things. This is often down to pressure - from politicians, from shareholders, from boards to chase the bottom line.
I think we need to ensure we aren't making assumptions about what happens at senior levels. There should be no excuse for poor behaviours, but what are the pressures at that level and what impact is this having? Who are their role models, who is checking and importantly challenging this behaviour - where is the mirror?
Simple. We don’t reward the right behaviours consistently enough.
Question 8: As kindness is unlikely to appear in board room conversations very often, why are we, as hr people and coaches bothering to waste our time and energy discussing it?
Because employee experience has to move to the human experience. Blending top down, organisation led approaches with bottom up people led approaches.
I think kindness appears in the board level conversations (at least for successful companies). It may appear with different words such as how do we increase collaboration, engagement, trust, co-creation, innovation etc... It may also sound like “how do we provide better customer experience, better products/services” - it all rests on your team members - the customer experience will reflect the experience of your employees. Are they engaged? Do they feel valued? Are they able to contribute in an additive way not a conforming way?
Because it’s important and the more we discuss it the more likely conversations will move to the board room and result in change.
Just because kindness isn’t discussed doesn’t mean you ignore it or don’t make it a practice of your own. You may not use the word kindness in the boardroom however the way in which business is conducted can be kind, compassionate and with the human in mind. Kindness is demonstrated through many avenues policy, organisational change, development, procedures - demonstrated through how and why they are built, created, communicated and how they will apply.
Some boards talk a good game, others might be characterised by what James Brown described as "Talking loud and sayin' nothing". Kindness though is what you do, how you are, not necessarily what you say. Elvis said - "A little less conversation, a little more action...please, " so let's worry less about the chat and find ways to translate kindness into the culture so that boards can hold their organisations to account for better, kinder practices. I would rather a board behaved well than spend time talking about kindness.
Kindness the word but how a business discusses this at board level could involve different language which is still kindness but masked - it could be about flexibility and choice in how you work, the Employee Assistance Programme, investing in Mental Health First Aiders, Terms and Conditions, Values. We need to explore the language of kindness in line with the organisation.
Because we want things to be different. I would encourage boards to include kindness to stakeholder groups as a core value. It’s a testing notion. But worth the focus. May start as a drop in the ocean or one bright pebble on a beach. But it will soon attract others. And if you don’t understand this in 2020 and still refuse to put down your kindness marker, I wonder whether you ever will.
Thank you so much to Ian for sharing this thought-provoking piece, shining a light on the importance of kindness in all organisations and sectors and at all levels.
Do you have anything to add to the conversation? We would love to hear your thoughts.
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Thank you once again to the Ian and the individuals who took part in the conversation for sharing their views.
If you would like to submit a blog for this series, please send your work via email to: firstname.lastname@example.org or send to me via LinkedIn.
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