“Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.”—Scott Adams
Being kind is often dismissed as a weakness. We live in a competitive environment that emphasizes winning at any cost. Nastiness and success seem to go together; this is borne out by the popularity of caustic commentators, narcissistic heroes and public put-downs, particularly on social media. Criticism, cynicism and aggression are taken are widely accepted as signs of a “superior” person.
Unbalanced Media Coverage
The majority of media stories are negative stories about events and people. While they were positive stories about the positive and caring responses of people and communities, and commentaries about the need to take proactive action to unite people and bring safety and security to communities, the vast majority of the news coverage focused on the negative aspects of the tragic events—images of the scene of the carnage, police, weapons, and experts providing endless detail about the events and bad behavior. The negative stories far outweighed the positive.
It’s true that we see and hear about the good stories—happy and positive events and courageous and kind people, but they are few and far between.
Yet, a study by David A. Fryburg and colleagues published in Frontiers of Psychology showed that “kindness and compassion are buffers for the negative effects of stress, likely through strengthening the positive interpersonal connection. In previous laboratory-based studies, simply watching kindness media uplifts (elevates) viewers, increases altruism, and promotes connection to others.”
The Damaging Effect of Viewing Negative Aggressive Behavior
A study, published in the journal Aggressive Behavior, co-authored by an Iowa State University psychology professor, has also found that onscreen relational aggression — including social exclusion, gossip and emotional bullying — may prime the brain for aggression.
“What this study shows is that relational aggression actually can cause a change in the way you think,” said Gentile, who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State. “And that matters because of course, how you think can change your behavior.”
And some of the most highly publicized effects have been a result of the rising incidence of cyberbullying, which Gentile says is a classic case of relational aggression.
In a global climate of increasing complexity, competition, intolerance and impatience, there has been a steady erosion of public trust in both public and private sector organizations and their leaders. At the same time, there are calls for a more responsible and respectful form of leadership in business and society, for leadership that fosters a sense of inclusion, connection and belonging.
What is Human Kindness?
According to the dictionary, kindness is the “ability to demonstrate generosity and consideration towards others. Kindness involves thoughtfulness, compassion and empathy, not only to people we know and love but to anyone who may need it.” In other words, true kindness is not selective; it’s shown to others irrespective of whom they are, based on the understanding that we all have something important in common: being human.
Human kindness has been practiced and valued since immemorial times. Although we may not be able to trace specific or individual acts of kindness thousands of years back in time, we have reason to believe that they have always been present in society, in the form
of religious and/or spiritual beliefs, or as social norms and expectations. Religions, such as Christianity, Confucianism, Taoism and Hinduism also consider human kindness to be a core value.
In a global pandemic, or climate change crisis events who has time to be kind? But kindness expert Houston Kraft suggests you think about it within this worldwide crisis. Kraft, the author of Deep Kindness: A Revolutionary Guide for the Way We Think, Talk, and Act in Kindness, is trying to spread the. He’s the founder of Character Strong, a curriculum and training company that has helped provide him with a platform to work with schools around the world.
Kindness is becoming popular as evidenced by media titles such as “Spending Money on Others Promotes Happiness” and “Empathy Triggers Oxytocin Release”, which has led to articles in the popular media trumpeting “5 Ways Science Proves Kindness is Good for Your Health”. Popular science books such as Franz De Waal’s The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society have re-asserted what Darwin himself observed: that humans have an enormous capacity for prosocial, cooperative and altruistic behaviour.
Websites focused on spreading kindness, organizations embracing it and educational initiatives aimed at cultivating our better nature are in abundance. And scientific reviews, such as Sonja Lyubomirsky’s and Kristin Layous’ paper in Current Directions in Psychological Science, claim that people can increase their happiness through practicing kindness.
This surge in popular interest in kindness stems from a wealth of converging scientific evidence which shows that empathy, compassion and altruism are innate, and emerge spontaneously in early childhood according to Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello, writing in the British Journal of Psychology. This coincides with a rise of positive psychology; and our current disparate need to hear some good news. In the current political, economic, and environmental climate, having something like kindness to believe in is vital for keeping us positive and hopeful.
On a personal level, I had the privilege of seeing my father practice many acts of kindness throughout his life, even though he had spent a dozen years in war zones as a soldier in the British Army. And my mother and sister and aunts spoke about his acts of kindness towards others when we were in a POW camp as prisoners of the Japanese in Hong Kong in WWII. His example made an indelible impression on me growing up.
Some Research on Kindness
The Scottish Government values kindness so much that it included it in its National Performance Framework. The new framework outlines the purpose of the government. It also identifies outcomes all public institutions need to achieve. Their values statement is: “We are a society which treats all our people with kindness, dignity and compassion respects the rule of law and acts openly and transparently.”
Penelope Campling’s publication, Intelligent Kindness: Reforming the Culture of Healthcare, summarizes some of the evidence for the impact that kindness can have on our brains. For example, she found that in altruistic individuals, increased activity in the posterior superior temporal cortex has been reported (when compared with less altruistic individuals). Individual acts of kindness release both endorphins and oxytocin and create new neural connections. The implications for such plasticity of the brain are that altruism and kindness become self-authenticating Campling says. In other words, kindness can become a self-reinforcing habit requiring less and less effort to exercise.
A study by Melanie Rudd, Jennifer Aaker, and Michael I. Norton concluded “Small, concrete goals designed to improve the well-being of others are more likely to lead to happiness for the giver than act with large, abstract goals–despite people’s intuitions to the contrary,” and keeping that fact in mind can provide a considerable boost to your well-being.
Kindness reaps great benefits for the giver. Research at Mayo Clinic shows that it can increase self-esteem, empathy, and compassion, improve your mood and even help you live longer. Kindness can increase your sense of connectivity with others. It lessens loneliness and enhances relationships. Kindness can positively change your brain by increasing levels of dopamine and serotonin which give you pleasure, satisfaction and a sense of well-being. When the recipient of your kindness responds and smiles, your brain increases the “love hormone” oxytocin that adds even more pleasure. These studies reinforce what we’ve heard since childhood — it can be better to give than to receive.
A study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion by Lynn Alden and Jennifer Trew suggests that performing acts of kindness might help lessen social anxiety. Alden said “We found that any kind act appeared to have the same benefit, even small gestures like opening a door for someone or saying ‘thanks’ to the bus driver. Kindness didn’t need to involve money or time-consuming efforts, although some of our participants did do such things. Kindness didn’t even need to be ‘face-to-face. For example, kind acts could include donating to a charity or putting a quarter in someone’s parking meter when you notice that it is blinking. Studies by other researchers suggest that it is important that the kind act is done for its own sake and that it not feel coerced or be done for personal benefit. Aside from that, anything goes.”
Kindness in Children
A team of developmental psychologists led by Julia Ulber has published evidence in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology that paints a more heart-warming picture. These psychologists point out that most past research has focused on how much toddlers share things that are already theirs. The new study looks instead at how much they share new things that previously no one owned. In such scenarios, toddlers frequently show admirable generosity and fairness.
When Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany watches young children in the experiments he’s designed, he sees acts of altruism and cooperation — along with more examples of what sets humans apart from other species. “From when they first begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings, young human children are naturally cooperative and helpful in many — though not all — situations,” Tomasello said during one of two lectures about the origins of human cooperation. “And they do not get this from adults; it comes naturally.”
Research by the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences, or I-LABS, finds that altruism may begin in infancy. In a study of nearly 100 19-month-olds, researchers found that children, even when hungry, gave a tasty snack to a stranger in need. The findings not only show that infants engage in altruistic behaviour but also suggest that early social experiences can shape altruism.
Kindness in the Workplace
Kindness is not the first word we associate with business. The image of business still largely includes old scenes from industrial America in the early twentieth century: the age of hard work and tough bosses.
We mistake the need for precision for the need for managerial control, the need for oversight with the need for corporate autocracy, and the need for vigilance with the need for icy objectivity and personal detachment. We conclude that what every business presumably needs is a leader who is calculative, single-minded in the financial purposes of the enterprise, and, perhaps, competitive to a fault: to the point of being overbearingly aggressive and belligerent. In this new age of competitiveness, we assume that managers who are incapable or unwilling to grimly snip away at expenses, to relentlessly push employees, and to be unyieldingly tough are too compromised to succeed in a harsh and unforgiving business world.
In the workplace, researchers looked at what differences appeared among co-workers after a month that was dosed with a few extra acts of kindness and those who went about their day as usual. “The acts of kindness don’t go unnoticed” reports the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog.
Katherine Nelson and colleagues published research in the Journal of Positive Psychology which showed that acts of kindness in the workplace increased subjects’ autonomy and competence.
One study found that people treated kindly at work repay the gesture by being 278% more generous to their co-workers than a control group. Not only that but it found kindness sparks increased well-being in the workplace, which, in turn, creates higher energy levels and an increase in positive perspectives and problem-solving.
Kindness in Leadership
Kind leaders treat others with respect, communicate with compassion, listen intently, share information transparently, accommodate employees’ issues, offer advice, encourage subordinates’ career growth, motivate employees without resorting to negativity, adapt to change, recognize employees’ talent and contributions, and prioritize fairness and inclusivity.
To lead with kindness, we must have compassion, which provides employees with the sense of security that they need to perform; integrity, which means acting based on values, keeping promises, and combating biases; gratitude, meaning appreciating others’ work; authenticity, which means that leaders must show that they’re genuine; humility, which means remaining grounded and down-to-earth; and humor, which eases tension and boosts morale.
Ovul Sezer, Kelly Nault, and Nadav Klein writing in Harvard Business Review argued that “Organizations benefit from actively fostering kindness. In workplaces where acts of kindness become the norm, the spillover effects can multiply fast. When people receive an act of kindness, they pay it back, research shows — and not just to the same person, but often to someone entirely new. This leads to a culture of generosity in an organization.” In their landmark study analyzing more than 3,500 business units with more than 50,000 individuals, researchers found that acts of kindness were related to the core goals of organizations. Higher rates of these behaviors were predictive of productivity, efficiency, and lower turnover rates. They concluded, “When leaders and employees act kindly towards each other, they facilitate a culture of collaboration and innovation.”
Boris Groysberg and Susan Seligson writing in Harvard Business Review Working Knowledge says that “the pandemic has challenged managers as never before, but one powerful leadership strategy is being overlooked: Be kind.”
The authors sought input from 200 leaders around the world in public and private sectors in both large and small organizations. A number of these had been participants in Saïd Business School’s Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership Programme, and others came from the author’s wide networks, including members of EFMD and European Women’s Management Development Network (EWMD).
Irrespective of their country of origin, these worldwide leaders emphasized that kindness in leadership has a universal appeal and is characterized by a variety of kindness-based behaviours. These included: adopting a humane approach; fairness and equity; accommodating personal issues; treating others with respect; caring and being responsive; communicating with a personal touch; transparently sharing information; explaining logically; listening intently, and valuing the views of others; counselling and mentoring; and being inclusive as a leader.
Kindness is teachable. Ritchie Davidson of the University of Wisconsin has compared practicing kindness and compassion to weight training: “People can build up their compassion ‘muscle’ and respond to others’ suffering with care and a desire to help,” he said. Great leaders attest that it is not a sign of weakness or relinquishing authority to be consistently kind to offer encouragement and show genuine interest in employees’ mental well-being in punishing times.
Research released by Signature Consultants, a leading IT and professional staffing and solutions provider, uncovered a clear connection between the practice of kind leadership and a company’s ability to create an environment which facilitates and supports innovation. In fact, according to the groundbreaking Humankindex Survey of U.S. workers, leading with kindness is the most effective leadership style to drive innovation and competitive advantage in the marketplace.
In its first annual release, the Humankindex for all U.S. companies is 58 and comprised of a Kindness Quotient of 31.5 and Innovation Capability of 26.5. According to U.S. workers, companies are more likely to be considered innovative when elements of kindness exist in the culture and leadership, including:
- 78% more likely if kindness is considered a core value of the organization.
- 5X more likely if employees feel a shared sense of purpose between their job and the organization’s leadership and goals.
- 28% more likely if the company’s leadership style is to “lead with kindness.”
- On the whole, when companies score higher on elements of the Kindness Quotient, they are 5X more likely to be considered innovative by employees.
How Leaders Can Show More Kindness
The pandemic is not a time for a stern, iron-fisted approach to leadership and management. The virus’s vast fallout demands a kinder, gentler approach. What can CEOs and managers do to infuse their leadership with kindness and empathy? Here are straightforward, effective ways to practice kindness as a matter of course:
“I hear you.” Listen. Be fully present and don’t judge. Encourage employees’ questions and concerns. Listen actively — no side glances at the phone. “When someone shares that they’re struggling, you won’t always know what to say or do,” write Kelly Greenwood and Natasha Krol in Harvard Business Review. “What’s most important is to make space to hear how your team members are truly doing and to be compassionate. They may not want to share much detail, which is completely fine. Knowing that they can is what matters.”
“Are you okay?” Show a willingness to provide comfort and monitor for signs of distress such as social withdrawal and poor performance. Know when to refer an employee to get professional help.
“What can we do to help?” It may be as simple as validating an employee’s challenges during the pandemic. But being kind might also involve taking an active role in offering mental health resources or creating a virtual support group or sounding board.
“How are you managing these days?” According to the MIT Sloan Management Review, “some companies are creating deeper insights into the specific situations their workforces face by surveying home workers.” What they’ve found is that being single and working under quarantine alone carries a very different set of stresses than being a member of a working family with young children. For employees experiencing the pangs of social isolation, one company launched daily virtual coffee breaks. For those working while caring for children, leaders must be sensitive to issues of exhaustion and the difficulty of working during pre-pandemic office hours. “Leadership signalling that working unorthodox hours is okay could make a real difference to their stress levels,” according to the article.
“I’m here for you.” Let your employees know routinely that you are there for them when they need to share concerns or simply require a sympathetic, nonjudgmental ear. Consider making yourself available at times outside work hours; these are not normal times.
“I know you’re doing the best you can.” This statement is, with few exceptions, true. In scores of first-person accounts and on social media, people are reporting they are working harder than they did pre-COVID. This makes perfect sense; as layoffs and furloughs skyrocket, employees live in fear of losing their jobs. In times of crisis, bosses must alter their expectations. As Bryce Covert wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “Keeping output steady while maintaining our physical and mental health just cannot be done. We have to work less, and employers have to get on board.” Public schools are closed in a majority of states, most childcare services have ceased operations, and a majority of couples with school-age children both have jobs. “These working parents are logging on after the kids are asleep and answering emails before they wake. Bosses must acknowledge how incredibly hard this has been.” But as Covert noted, “far too often, employers are acting as if little has changed. Their employees are responding to their expectations by working themselves even harder. Enough.”
Recognize, kindly. Celebrate the successes of others you work with. Global research, from the O.C. Tanner Institute, shows that when employees were asked what their boss or company could do to inspire them to strive for better results, recognition was, hands down, the number one answer. It was bigger than pay increases, promotions, training, and autonomy. Celebrating is kind.
Give feedback, kindly. A 10-year study by Harvard Business Review shows that the biggest reason second-rate executives don’t move up is their inability to create trusting relationships. As leaders, sometimes we have to tell employees when they’re not meeting expectations. Critical conversations are tough but can build trust if they are handled with kindness — meaning you have the desire to help an employee become their best, rather than just improving your numbers.
What would it do to our society if kindness became elevated in importance? It has been fashionable over the last few decades to devote oneself to pursuing “happiness” and to become “mindful” — this, so positive psychology says, is the route to a good life. But there has been a backlash against this individualistic and inward-focused approach to living. The real value in directing one’s attention to helping other people is perhaps that it gives meaning to life, in a way that self-attention never can.
The beauty of kindness is that it is open to anyone. We can all opt to choose kindness if we wish. It is free, easily accessible to rich and poor alike, and is universally understood. Thus, if it turns out that simple acts of everyday kindness can send ripple effects of well-being through society, then promoting and facilitating that has to be a constructive pursuit. And when leaders embrace kindness as a value and key behaviour, the positive impact on the organization is powerful.