Kindness matters in business: why the nice guys finish first

Nick Liddell

  • Director of Consulting, The Clearing
  • Website
Nick is the Director of consulting for The Clearing, a brand strategy firm, as well as co-author of Wild Thinking.

It’s easy to get the impression that it pays to be bad.  

A recent 1000-page Royal Commission report on misconduct in Australia’s financial sector revealed hair-raising stories of excessive commissions, rampant mis-selling and charges levied on the dead. The report declared individual greed and an imbalance of power and knowledge between banks and their customers contributed to these actions, and that companies who broke the law were not adequately detected, punished and deterred.  

So how do you stop a bank from misleading its customers?  

Many recommendations in the report are practical yet predictable suggestions combining more rigorous oversight with more transparent self-assessment. So far, so sensible.  

Read more: 4 lessons for customer leaders from the Banking Royal Commission

But recent news suggests the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) has started to think more creatively, investigating how Artificial Intelligence (AI) and natural language processing could detect financial misconduct. It’s also engaged an organisational psychologist to observe and report on the boardroom deliberations of large listed financial entities. Participation is voluntary, but as one anonymous chairman observed, ‘You know what it’s like to be volunteered for something’.  

The psychologist’s focus is on identifying both good and bad behaviours that determine how bank boards make decisions. But there are industry nerves over whether this is a permanent shift in corporate oversight.    

Australia wouldn’t be the first. The Dutch central bank employs two full-time psychologists to evaluate group dynamics, decision-making, leadership and communication. In the UK, behavioural psychologists have been involved in tackling gender issues and racial diversity on FTSE100 boards.  

The latter reviews extended beyond banking – the FTSE100 spans the mining sector, aerospace and defence, construction, telecoms, apparel, retail, food and drink, travel and leisure, media and tech. While it’s fun to knock bankers, many observations made in the Royal Commission report could apply to companies in any of these sectors: Greedy individuals are as likely to work in tech or fashion as banking and regulatory imperfections exist in almost all of these sectors.  

Do businesses inevitably descend into a race to the bottom without strict and constant oversight? Is the cycle of scandal and censure an inevitable aspect of corporate life?

And will the nice guys always be taken advantage of?  

British medical psychotherapist, Penelope Campling, confronted similar issues in a 2015 paper on reforming the culture of the National Health Service in the UK, written in the wake of a series of scandals involving abuse and neglect. Her concern was similar to that expressed by the reluctant volunteer quoted by the Australian Financial Review: That the most obvious response would be yet another program of activity ‘on top of an already toppling tower of initiatives’ designed to appease public outrage rather than fix the underlying problem.  

Intelligent kindness  

In her report, Campling pointed out healthcare is an emotionally stressful environment where workers face situations in which they can feel hopeless and helpless. This leads them to protect themselves in all manner of ways. They deserve our understanding if these coping mechanisms reveal vulnerability and insecurity.  

What’s more, financial services aren’t alone in developing cultures of fear and paranoia. Biscuit companies and beauty magazines are just as likely to evolve into toxic workplaces.  

Beyond these individual challenges, we can add organisational dysfunction, poor communication and unclear boundaries to the list. Excessive accountability dehumanises the workplace, desensitising workers to the needs of colleagues and customers. Campling suggested the cumulative effect of these forces erodes compassion or kindness at an organisation-wide level; when people are left to fend for themselves in challenging situations, or feel threatened by a culture of regulation and performance management, our instinct towards self-protection takes over.  

Campling’s antidote is ‘intelligent kindness’ – an approach to problem solving that develops a virtuous circle of closer and more compassionate relationships at an individual, team and organisational level. The virtuous circle begins with the simple idea that people working in a system should be driven primarily by a sense of kinship. In other words, healthcare workers should see the person in the patient and seek to deliver the sort of care they would wish for family and friends.  

The same notion applies to the corporate world. ‘Customer’ or ‘consumer’ are dehumanising terms encouraging a sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’. CMOs and marketers are the most likely of all professionals to fall into this trap, referring to ‘consumers’ and defining people by their degree of brand loyalty or their purchase frequency. How often are we happy to substitute the messy reality of a person for the comforting caricature of a customer persona?  

An important aspect of intelligent kindness was discussed last year by Elizabeth Arzadon, the organisational psychologist commissioned by ASIC to report on boardroom behaviours. Her insight is that while everybody agrees culture is important, leaders often avoid dealing with it because they lack confidence in their ability to change it.  

Arzadon prefers to cultivate an attitude of health and prevention on the part of leadership. Her suggestion is similar to Campling’s: Blaming leaders for poor culture will only make them defensive and inert. A more intelligent approach is to manage cultural risk.  

This means accepting this risk is inherent in all businesses and all business strategies but that it can be managed. In her own words: “Acquisitions, geographical expansion, management turnover or cost imperatives can all increase the likelihood of cultural issues arising. That isn’t the fault of leaders, it’s simply an outcome of situational variables.”  

Whether we’re talking about a consumer, a customer, a chairman or a CEO, the more we focus on the person, the more likely we are to build a relationship of mutual trust and respect. Ultimately, this delivers a more satisfying outcome for all.  

Beyond being more empathetic, an organisation that practices intelligent kindness will be more efficient: Improved communication and collaboration will deliver productivity benefits, as well as a culture where issues can be more clearly identified, more openly discussed and positively resolved.

Tags: brand strategy, leadership

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

State of the CMO 2020

CMO’s State of the CMO is an annual industry research initiative aimed at understanding how ...

More whitepapers

Latest Videos

Launch Marketing Council Episode 3: Launching in the technology sector

Our multi-part video series, Ready to Launch, is focused on unlocking the secrets of launching brands, products and services by exploring real-life examples from Australia’s marketing elite. The series is being produced as part of the Launch Marketing Council initiative by CMO in conjunction with independent agency, Five by Five Global.

More Videos

NetSuite started out as a cloud-based provider of Enterprise Resource Planning software or as NetSuite solution provider, which companies...


NetSuite to acquire Bronto's digital marketing platform for US$200m

Read more

Thanks for sharing this post, its really good information I get through this blog.CDPO Online Exam Training


3 ways is improving its B2B marketing game

Read more

Time is of the essence, especially for customer service teams. With chatbots, you can interact and assist customers at a larger scale, al...


Triple-digit customer database growth, personalised engagement become reality for Stone & Wood

Read more

Hey Emilie - great read, and I particularly liked the section on the pressure of having brand purpose/Gen Z spending habits. It's great t...

Chris Thomas

Have customers really changed? - Marketing edge - CMO Australia

Read more

Extremely informative. One should definitely go through the blog in order to know different aspects of the Retail Business and retail Tec...

Sheetal Kamble

SAP retail chief: Why more retailers need to harness data differently

Read more

Blog Posts

The ultimate battle: brand vs retailer

At the beginning every brand is pure. Every founder with a dream cherishes the brand like a newborn. But very soon that newborn goes out into the big wide world.

Simon Porter

Managing director, Havas Commerce

How the CMO can get the board on the customer’s side

For some CMOs, it’s easy to feel alone in the undying quest to better serve the customer. At times, it feels like the marketing department and the boards are speaking a different language, with one side trying to serve the customer, and the other side more focused on the shareholders and financials.

Jeff Cooper

CMO and board, Business Excellence Australia

The Secret Ingredients of a CX-Led Company Culture

When I talk to organisations around the world about their customer experience strategy, it is often the CMOs and their marketing teams who take the lead. They’re keen to improve the ways they attract and engage customers, and they want to understand the technologies that can help them make their customer experience truly outstanding.

Steven van Belleghem

Author, CX expert

Sign in