Why kindness is the make or break for modern leadership

In part one of our new 2-part feature series on kindness in leadership, we explore the concept of kindness and how it's becoming increasingly critical to business success

Blooms the Chemist former CMO and now COO, Pamela Bishop, never thought to use the phrase “kindness in business” two years ago. Fast forward to today and not only is it part of her vocabulary, it provides the foundation of her leadership and ESG approach.

Bishop was recently honoured with the ‘Gamechanger Award’ at the 2022 Corporate Kindness Conference and Awards Ceremony. The award recognises a leader who operates with integrity, authenticity and exhibits kindness in actions, intention and influence. The awards are the brainchild of social enterprise, Bambuddha Group, which provides coaching, corporate programs and consulting services oriented around bringing more kindness into organisations and leadership.

“I am convinced that business can be a force for good. I believe there is a need for the corporate world to be more human, kind and to step up to do more good,” Bishop tells CMO.  “Now more than ever, we need extra kindness in the world, especially after the last two years.”  

Practically and at an individual level, that could mean checking in on our family, friends and neighbours. Or it could be random acts of kindness.

“And it could – and should – also apply at work,” Bishop continues. “We spend more than 50 per cent of our waking hours at work, so we should do whatever we can to make that a positive experience. When we actively foster kindness at work, the business benefits through engaged, happy teams and improved culture. That then flows onto results.

“But it’s also beyond the human interaction with teams. Companies can be kind to our planet, to society, to customers, employees and communities.”

Bringing kindness to work

Bambuddha Group’s definition of ‘kind leadership’ primarily focuses on how leaders show up with regards to their understanding and sphere of influence.

“Yes, kindness is about being generous, loving, caring and giving and all those things. But it’s also how leaders show up then take positive, intentional action to create improved, sustainable and inclusive outcomes for all stakeholders,” says Bambuddha Group founder and CEO, Anna Sheppard. “And it’s not just when it’s easy to be kind, it’s also about being kind where it’s hard to be.

“That’s the difference and what drives authenticity of kindness in leadership: What do individual leaders and businesses do when the going gets tough? How do they ensure there is a human-centred approach to the actions they take, which results in good outcomes for all stakeholders, not just shareholders?”

It’s taken Bambuddha Group years to get to a place where it can clearly articulate kindness in action. The systems change agenda it has built uses the lens of ESG – typically, the most effective way to get investment across the line with the board. Five key areas are assessed through the corporate kindness curriculum: Self, Customers, People, Community and Environment.

“Under those pillars, we might look at belonging, or mental health and wellbeing, or how an organisation connects with the community and charities, how it leans into brand purpose and how to do that authentically under those five key areas,” Sheppard says. “Four of those areas are nothing new – they are core areas assessed under a B Corp certification, for example. That helps with understanding who are the fundamental stakeholders involved in any business and the impact you have on the world.

“But really what gets lost is how we bring this to life in a way where we can take positive action, not just tick boxes.”

So Bambuddha built a ‘Kind Leader’ program into its offering based around a 12-month, in-house academy. “In facilitated environments, we bring leaders together from mid-management and up into peer groups. These are safe places to get together monthly and unpacked challenges and opportunities,” Sheppard says.

“It’s also about understanding what areas of the curriculum we need to build more knowledge in and within those leaders throughout the year.”

For instance, one of the challenges a CMO with community engagement under their remit might face is influencing the wider organisation to adopt a more authentically kind approach to society.

“What happens when you get into the exec room and try to engage with all the other leaders on the journey, who don’t really understand what modern slavery is or that fits with them? Or an exec who might get customer management but say they’ve already got performance management frameworks in place and don’t understand why they need to be made kinder?” Sheppard asks.

“What the Kind Leader program does is build vital knowledge across all those components. This joins the dots between brand, marketing, people and CSR in a way everyone understands it’s a system. And if the system isn’t joined up over here, then this is the effect and the outcome it’s going to have over there.”

Knowing system change can be quite overwhelming, Bambuddha brings all this back to kindness. “If there is any point in the road where someone is getting confused, just think about being kinder,” Sheppard says.

“Think about the kindest thing you can do for the community right now. What is actually going to solve problems? It’s not just making your narrative story clear and fitting things into it. What can our products, services and actions do that will actually solve problems in this world? Then how do you measure it?

“That’s why we launched the Corporate Kindness conference and awards in 2022. That was firstly about celebrating businesses and leaders taking moves in the right direction. But we’re also building an index that underpins it.”  

Defining kindness in leadership

Kindness might be one of those universal truths we all agree is important, but its relevance in organisational leadership has only gained ground in recent years. Ten years ago, in a survey among university students studying business, Holt & Marques found kindness perceived as the least essential quality in a leader.

Yet since then, a growing body of work is increasingly showing kindness and compassion – a more specific form of kindness – are catalysts for creating optimal performance across an organisation. Throw in a global pandemic, and you have even more reasons for taking kindness in leadership seriously.

Sebastian Boo certainly subscribes to this theory. As well as a trainer and researcher at The London School of Economics and Political Science, he’s the founder of the Kindness Advantage and author of Kindness: A Pocket Guide. As he notes in this book, kindness is the key that enables organisations to be more human, reduce suffering, promote wellbeing and unlock extraordinary individual, team and organisational performance and success.

And it’s needed more than ever. Gallup surveys into employee satisfaction show up to 87 per cent of the employed global workforce is unmotivated and uncommitted to their work. Stress and anxiety caused by work-related issues is now recognised as a significant problem in terms of lost productivity and even more critically, human suffering.

Mounting research indicates kindness can not only be a differential for an organisation, it’s becoming mandatory in a world driven by values-based exchange and displaced and transformed ways of working triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

As Boo puts it, kindness is neither soft nor ‘nice’. Nor does it get in the way of efficient decision making and efficient teams. “Most people in their hearts want to be kind and see a kinder world. If we want to see that, that requires taking action. Sometimes that’s about taking difficult action,” he says.

Helping the concept of kindness in leadership along is substantive work already done around compassion in the workplace. In their work Awakening Compassion at Work, Jane Dutton (professor of business administration and psychology and co-founder of the Centre for Positive Organisations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of business) and Monica Worline (organisational psychologist and research scientist at Stanford University’s Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education), define the process of expressing compassion at work as a focus on “preventing and reducing suffering”.

Boo defines kindness as broader than compassion, not only covering a commitment to reduce suffering but actively promoting wellbeing in the first place.

“If I lend you my umbrella, or a give you a cup of tea, then that’s kind because it’s an action motivated to promote your wellbeing. Compassion, which is a subset of kindness, is about knowing you are in distress and trying to alleviate your suffering,” he says. To put it another way, making up a collection to buy something for a colleague who has experienced bereavement would be an act of compassion. Making up a collection to buy something for a colleague who is moving to a new job or getting married would be an act of kindness.

“So kindness is a broader, more accessible term: One of the things I like about kindness is people get straight away what it means,” Boo says.

This kind of leadership is powerful, too. “A team’s ability to be productive and perform at its best is not just related to technical ability, but social and emotional factors which we know about now – things like psychological safety. That’s about people feeling safe to be who they are, safe to give critical feedback,” Boo continues.

In creative industries, which thrive on ideas, such psychological safety provides an invaluable forum where people feel able to share their ideas. 

“Kindness will fuel creativity, trust, employee engagement and motivation, resiliency and wellbeing. If you’re my leader and I perceive you genuinely want the best for me as a human being, you have my loyalty, because at a biological level my brain knows you’re good for me,” Boo adds.  

In their Kind Leadership During a crisis and beyond: The power of Kindness booklet, University of Oxford Said Business School professor, Dr Marc J Ventresca, Hall & Partners global CEO, Vanella Jackson, and Women of the Future Programme and Kindness and Leadership Leading Light founder and chair, Pink Lilani, describe kindness in leadership coming from strength, both internal and shared.

Their latest booklet encompasses findings from the second annual Kindness in Leadership survey of 1500 men and women across multiple countries including Australia, plus in-depth interviews with industry leaders in various sectors and Hall & Partner’s 2020 employee research. The latter found 47 per cent of participants agreed the actions and decisions made by their companies during the current crisis made them feel grateful to work in an organisation “where everyone is kind to each other”.

“We see kindness as a place which we must intentionally bring ourselves to,” Ventresca stated. “This is what enables leaders to hold within themselves the tensions of competing needs, contradictions and the duality which exists in most decisions made under uncertainty – upholding those on the journey, while experiencing that journey alongside them. In acknowledging the plurality and vulnerability of human experience, a leader offers the kindness allowing others to fully experience the depth and impact of their own reality.”

In the Hall & Partners 2020 Employee Research, the top five kind leader traits according to respondents are being ‘fair’, ‘uniting’, ‘candid’, ‘compassionate’, ‘optimistic’ and ‘present’.

Up next: How to manifest kindness plus why CMOs and brands leaders are best placed to bring kindness to leadership

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