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

How to manifest kindness

So how do you intentionally manifest kindness as a leader? The first thing is to recognise being kind isn’t about being soft.

“Sometimes the kindest thing to do for someone at work is to be really honest and direct and give some tough feedback,” Bishop says. “Some people shy away from giving or receiving feedback, but if it comes from a good place, with good intent – it’s kind.”

Boo describes two ways of manifesting kindness: A commitment in mindset to the values of kindness; and adopting behaviours that are more kind while discouraging those that are not.

“One way to change people is to change their mindset around why kindness is important. That translates into leaders following through more and being more willing to prioritise kindness,” Boo says. “Then there are downstream skills related to communication and people management. These include active listening, being boldly vulnerable and empathetic responding. The point is we have it within us. Kindness is not like public speaking. Unless you’re a psychopath, you have capacity to be kind.”

Getting to this point nevertheless requires awareness of what kindness is in a team context. “That means leaders design for, and are strategic about, how to reduce suffering and promote wellbeing,” Boo advises.

“There’s a capacity to detect here. If someone has a seriously ill member of the family, what do we do about that? It’s about being creative in how we respond, how we facilitate staff to pool holiday time together to donate to that staff member so they can have more time off. Perhaps the leader has a system in place to know staff birthdays and send a card. It’s about how you can design for a kinder work environment.”

How do we make it easier to play to the better angels of our human nature, as well as how we make it more difficult to be nasty or highly competitive

Sebastian Boo

This doesn’t mean you’re pleasing everybody. “Kindness is how we reasonably run this operation and be a leader true to the belief that the right way to live is reducing unnecessary suffering and promote wellbeing,” Boo says. “There is a load of suffering in organisations that directly relates back to not being kind, or just not being bothered to think about how to do this better.”

Another element is being sensitive to the facilitators and inhibitors of kindness. “How do we make it easier to play to the better angels of our human nature, as well as how we make it more difficult to be nasty or highly competitive?” Boo asks. “Think about the things that promote that. Leaders set that example. It’s also about how to reward and celebrate kindness and the things sitting on top of that.”

The Cause Effect chief purpose activist and Path to Purchase author, Carolyn Butler-Madden, identifies five core facets underpinning kindness in leadership today. The first is respect.

“Kind leaders create environments where respectful relationships thrive and where people feel safe,” she says. “This includes self-respect, respect for others, respect for diversity and the value it brings to an organisation’s culture. Psychological safety is a key outcome of kindness in leadership.”

The second element is practicing curiosity over judgment and actively seeking to understand people with genuine depth. The third is care.

“Kind leaders care about their wellbeing, not just as players in the game of business. They care about them as human beings,” Butler-Madden says.

What’s more, kind leaders act on empathy and actively bring their humanity to the workplace. Finally, kind leaders recognise and encourage others to recognise people’s achievements, Butler-Madden says. An example at The Cause Effect is a weekly huddle that always kicks off with #recognition and opportunity to recognise someone else’s actions or efforts.

“It’s a great way to instil a culture where people value their teammates and learn what behaviours are valued,” Butler-Madden says.

LinkedIn chairman, Geoff Weiner, is another evangelist of compassion in workplace. In a speech made in 2018 at Wharton Business School graduation day, he described compassion is putting yourself in the shoes of another person and seeing the world through their lens for the sake of alleviating their suffering.

“I vowed that as long as I’d be responsible for managing other people, I would aspire to manage compassionately. That meant pausing, and being a spectator to my own thoughts, especially when getting emotional. It meant walking a mile in the other person’s shoes; and understanding their hopes, their fears, their strengths and their weaknesses. And it meant doing everything within my power to set them up to be successful,” he said.

“The long-term value of a company is based on the speed and quality of its decision-making. It’s hard to make better decisions faster when people on the team lack trust in one another and are constantly questioning each other’s motivations.

“The flip side is developing a culture with a compassionate ethos. That’s what our leadership team has tried to do at LinkedIn; create a culture where people take the time to understand the other person’s perspective, and not assume nefarious intention; build trust; and align around a shared mission.”

Thanks to this approach, LinkedIn can make important decisions in minutes or hours that some companies debate for months, Weiner added.

Compassion versus empathy

It’s worth noting here the distinction between kindness and empathy. Virtually every leader in businesses across Australia has talked about the need to be more empathetic over the last two-and-a-half years.

Yet it’s clear many have struggled with how to maintain empathy in the face of ongoing pandemic uncertainties. Leaders are often exhausted by it, too.

Boo agrees emotional empathy too often leads to ‘empathetic distress’ – one of the big challenges of being a more vulnerable, responsive leader. By contrast, he says compassion and kindness are more generative ways of engaging with your teams.  

“There has been research on the neuroscience side where you look at the difference between empathetic responses versus compassion,” Boo explains. “Empathy more often precedes being kind, so you feel the distress. But technically, empathy is just feeling what they feel. Compassion and kindness provide the behavioural component – you go from feeling to doing something.

“What we know is if you focus on the compassionate response or even just simply focus on the desire and motivation to lessen suffering, that tends to be generative. People don’t feel as fatigued by that. If you put yourself in compassionate, kindness mode, you don’t get as much stress. That’s why kindness and compassion can be energising in a way that being empathetic can be draining.” 

Brand leaders taking the first kind step

Through Bambuddha’s consulting work, Sheppard is finding kindness in an organisational context always starts with an empowered leader who recognises they could make an impact if they could get everyone else on the journey. Commonly, this is the marketing and brand leader.

“One of the most beautiful and powerful places to begin is brand and marketing. Because no one tells a story like brand and marketing – stories bring people on the journey,” she says. “Humans want to feel connected. We don’t do business like one-night stands anymore, it’s about long-term relationships and movements that we join and that align to our values and promote the world we want to live in. And no one sticks to a deadline like the marketing and comms teams: They get stuff done.”

Sheppard also sees an opportunity to create what a ‘new normal’ looks like coming off the back of the pandemic - not just organisationally, but as individuals and how we show up.

Humans want to feel connected. We don’t do business like one-night stands anymore, it’s about long-term relationships and movements that we join and that align to our values and promote the world we want to live in

Anna Sheppard

“It’s the first time in a long time there’s been a big wave of a lot of people looking in the mirror and thinking ‘who am I, and what do I stand for?’. It may be the first time in our lives we’ve asked that question,” she says. “It is ok to be on the journey – a lot of people are. How you look after yourself as a leader, from an emotional, mental, spiritual, community, family perspective, and keep yourself well so you can be well for the people you lead, is key.

“I like to look at this through three lenses: Individual, organisational and societal. Another analogy for kindness is a ripple effect: If you are filling your cup and creating that time for yourself – what you do with it doesn’t matter that isn’t just about output – you’re able to show up in a way that’s so much kinder for the people around you. It’s also around understanding your sphere of influence.

“Who am I is number one; what do I stand for; am I looking after myself; and now how can I influence the things around me so we can make things better?”

Manifestations of kindness in the workplace ultimately creates an environment that allows people to be the best they can be and ticks all these boxes about agile management, flexible organisations and creative problem solving, Boo says. All the things modern organisations are looking for to cope with macro trends such as rapid digitisation, demand for more diversity and inclusion, and retaining satisfied employees.

Boo points to US airline, Southwest Airlines as an example. Research shows its culture of care, support, egalitarianism and kindness among employees are fundamental elements driving its success. Similarly, in a study analysing performance across 40 business units in the financial services industry, employees rating kindness as a value of their unit belonged to units with better financial performance plus higher employee and customer retention.

“As the world changes more and more quickly, we face ever more challenges and problems we have not come across before. There are no ready solutions and the quality of what we make will lie in how creative we are and how many people share their ideas,” Boo concludes. “If we want to have strong problem solving, communication skills, and we want to attract and retain talent it, you have to be kind. It’s not optional.”

Coming up: Kindness in leadership part 2: How Australian marketing and business leaders are putting kindness into practice


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