By Judith Sills Ph.D., published on March 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
Does kindness have a proper place at the office? Or is it found mostly on a stool in the corner with a small but definite dunce cap?
On the one hand, employees might be inspired by the likes of the Dalai Lama, who said, "This is my simple religion—Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness." On the other hand, the Dalai Lama never had to make his numbers.
Kindness, it turns out, is controversial.
"Kindness is not a word I would use in my trainings," one executive development coach insists. "The leaders at the level on which I work don't relate to it, because it describes a social value. The closest we come is an emphasis on creating a respectful workplace, avoiding sexual harassment, racial intolerance, or gender bias."
Good, of course, but not exactly the tender offer of kindness. Perhaps it's that very sense of tenderness that gives kindness its image problem. One female litigator described her own wariness regarding warm civility: "If a male is pleasant and easy to work with, he's regarded as a nice guy. But if I extend opposing counsel a common courtesy, say, on a scheduling matter where he has a legitimate conflict, I am often seen as a pushover, and that works against my client's interests. I can't afford to be seen as a pleaser."
One CEO vigorously defended his own check on compassion: "I'd love to be able to step in and hand a valued employee some cash because I've heard his wife got laid off and I know he needs the money. But people aren't discreet about that kind of thing; they tell. And then every other employee wonders why I didn't do the same for him or her."
You could argue that the milk of human kindness is pretty much curdled at the office when it stirs images of weakness, naivete, self-promotion, or self-defense. All the downsides notwithstanding, there is a strong current of kindness stubbornly running through some workplaces. And where it flows, people smile more. They work harder, too.
In their book, Leading with Kindness, William Baker and Michael O'Malley contend that corporate kindness positively impacts profits. They identify six qualities of kind managers—compassion, integrity, gratitude, authenticity, humility, and humor—and believe a kind management style improves employee performance and retention.
Depending on how you define it, kindness can be seen as an individual character trait, present or not as a function of who works where. "Some guys are just total pricks," says a manufacturing rep. "They wouldn't say hello to an entry level associate or look at the cleaning lady. But they would do a favor for a client."
The provost of a local college spoke admiringly of the school's president. "He's just a terrific guy who is genuinely interested in the well-being of people. He knows the life story of everyone in the building. He makes everyone feel valued."
But kindness can just as readily be a corporate cultural value, one to be supported or snuffed out depending upon the attitude of the people on top. Said one veteran of five top financial firms, "These companies were not identical in their basic human spirit. If you had one of those badass guys at the top, the signal was clear: Do whatever it takes. Losers will be bounced out. Winners will be rewarded. Kindness was just something that got in the way.
"When a decent guy ran the ship, it filtered through, made us more willing to collaborate with each other. It was better for business, not to mention morale. But better or worse, the CEO sets the emotional tone."
Overall climate control has its impact, but so does specific strategy. Kindness has found its place as a training tool and as a team-building approach. One physician referred to the importance of correcting staff error in a kind, sensitive fashion. "We try to prevent mistakes. But when they happen, they have to be addressed immediately. I'm a hyper guy, but when I review a staff error I deliberately calm down and give that nurse or that resident a chance to explain her error. If I'm too mad, I take time to get it together. Then we go over the correct course. I'm conscious of mentioning something they've done right recently, so we can end the conversation on a positive note."
This same physician sees kindness as a simple staff development strategy. "It's my job to make the people who work for me happy; if they're happy, they'll work harder. So I do stuff like bring them doughnuts, send out for lunch. I make sure to tell them how often my patients say they love you guys, how much the sick people appreciate their efforts."
A lot of people would be happier if they worked for him.
Each definition of workplace kindness has its own truth, but all have a common thread. Kindness is a step beyond respect or fair play, a step out in front of the corporate policy manual. It is personal, thoughtful, and—for want of a better word—caring. And it exists at the office.
I offer anecdotal proof, reported by a senior marketing division manager: "I worked for 10 years at a Fortune 100 firm. When my husband was dying, the CEO called me in and said, 'Go take care of your family. Your job will be here. You've taken care of us all these years. Let us take care of you.'" Chainsaw Al Dunlap took that company over five years later.
Yes, work is about making money—that's why it's called work. But money and humanity do not have to be mutually exclusive. Call on your kinder side: