The Kindness Myth at work

by Claire CroftMember of the Business Culture Community, Director, Corporate Punk

“Everyone here is really kind to one another” is a sentence you hear repeatedly when discussing culture with leadership teams. It’s something they tend to say with pride and satisfaction. And why wouldn’t they? The context in which we work today is hugely challenging with pressure being felt from multiple directions. So, it is more important than ever that we are warm, friendly and considerate* towards our colleagues.

Kindness is what any good leader should be striving to foster, isn’t it?

Or is it?

The answer, of course, is yes. But this ‘yes’ needs qualification. Our collective understanding of what it takes to be kind at work is too narrow in scope. And it drives behaviour which has a huge impact on people’s wellbeing – the very opposite of the outcome that kind actions seek.

An understanding of kindness that is grounded in being warm, friendly and considerate can offer people a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card. It contains the implication that avoiding challenging conversations and conflict is acceptable. This is because challenging conversations and conflict do not by their nature feel like warm, friendly, or considerate courses of action.

Most people are conflict averse, so this can feel like a gift. We can self soothe and tell ourselves we are being kind by letting problems and issues go unchallenged. Even if we do try having an uncomfortable conversation, we might wrap it up in so much warm, fuzzy language that Sherlock Holmes himself would struggle to grasp the issue being raised.

But here’s the rub. By leaning away from challenging conversations, we are actually putting our own needs first; we are permitting ourselves to avoid something we don’t want to do. Thus, the only person we are being kind to is ourselves. We feel better but, in that moment, we have failed to serve others.

Just because conflict is not being discussed does not mean that people are unaware of it. We are constantly sensing and feeling the emotional dynamics of our interactions with others. We know when things are not right.

In the absence of conversation, we seek to create meaning. Because we are primarily wired to detect threats to our survival, this will tend towards worst case scenario thinking. This means that we start to worry and become anxious. We start second guessing and doubting ourselves. We can become overly self-conscious. Our brains experience it as a sort of social isolation. The brain registers this isolation in the same way that it does physical discomfort. The experience literally hurts us.

Having this sort of impact on one another is not kind. It is the very opposite of kindness.

For organisations to flourish, with people feeling able to work creatively, collaboratively and productively, conflict must be addressed openly and directly. In practical terms this can be achieved in a way that supports a kind culture.

In our Uncomfortable Conversations training course, amongst many other things, we teach clients that there are there are five attributes to embody. Each begins with the letter C.

The first is Clarity. In many places of work, people are unclear about what the business requires of them by way of role, responsibilities, objectives, targets, and so on. This is unkind: people have no way of knowing if they are performing well or not, and what consequences to expect. It is also unkind to the organisation, as it predicts wasteful inefficiency. So, clarity means establishing standards, boundaries, and expectations so if issues do arise they can be explored through this shared and objective understanding of what good looks like.

Next is Candour. In general, people are not wired to thrive in conditions of ambiguity, remember we tend towards the negative narrative. So, to be kind we need to be candid. This means communicating with openness and honesty. Being able to simply articulate that an issue is present which needs to be addressed, avoiding the temptation of the proverbial “s**t sandwich”, which again tends to confuse and create unkind ambiguity about the nature or severity of the issue.

Compassion is the third C. Most of us have complex lives, with any number of problems (financial, emotional, familial) to manage. Not acknowledging this is not only unkind at a human level but also bad for business. People will not commit to places that make no effort to understand their emotional landscape. No one goes to work of a morning intending to do a bad job, so it is kind to try and walk in others’ shoes and understand the challenges they face.

Important note: being compassionate does not mean tolerating endless poor performance. The challenge for leaders is to balance compassion, candour, and clarity.

“Do as I say, not as I do” is still the depressing mantra of many, and it points to our fourth C: Consistency. Acting in ways that are consistent with the behaviours you expect of others — and doing so day in, day out — is kind to you and to them. It demonstrates and even enhances your own sense of integrity. It also helps people feel secure and understand what behaviour you expect of them.

Finally, there is Courage. This is the hard yards of offering support to others — giving them what they need, especially when what they need is not what they want. In fact, what is kind is not always what is easy to do; and sometimes it can be the very hardest course of action to take. In that sense, courage is often the nucleus of all kind acts.

Make no mistake, then: being kind is tough, both on you and, from time to time, on your colleagues. It is the essence of what Seth Godin calls “emotional labour”. And it requires you to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable in service of others. This is not about whether or not to be warm, friendly or considerate: it is about how best to serve those around you, and your organisation, while honouring everyone’s humanity.

(* The Oxford English Dictionary definition of kindness)

For more about Corporate Punk and Change Training, including having Uncomfortable Conversations, click here.