The Case for Kindness

By: Josh

I used to work with a colleague who was incredibly smart. He simply knew a lot of things about…A LOT of things, both within our work and beyond it. He was well read, informed about current events, and could engage on almost any topic. I respected him for his vast knowledge, and he brought a lot of expertise to our team.

The issue, however, was that he was not really kind. He said harsh things to other people. And even when meant as a joke, his words would suck the energy from the room. He focused more on sharing his opinion than listening to others’ or engaging in a quality conversation. He dominated ideas, people, and projects.

Because of that, I came to simply not care about what he had to say. Even if it was a great idea, I found it hard to be considerate of what he said. It took a lot of personal patience and grace to work with him in a positive, caring, and productive way.

The Case for Kindness

Who I am today and the type of leader I strive to be is based on many things my parents taught me while I was growing up. But there is one philosophy that has most influenced how I lead and work with people more than anything else. A saying that my mom would remind me of regularly that guides my behaviors still to this day:

No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.

It might be cliché, but nothing shapes my approach more with people than that single philosophy.

How we treat people matters. Research even proves it. When people consider fairness and justice within the workplace, it’s not just the end result (like how resources are distributed) or the process of how a decision is made that matters. How people are treated through decisions or processes, known as interactional justice, influences it as well. Moreover, when we look at team cohesion, some research categorizes it into three simple sources – task, social, and collective cohesion. Social cohesion, or the strength of relationships between team members, simply means people enjoy working with one another.

How we treat people helps them to feel seen, heard, included, and valued. It allows them to be more vulnerable and willing to bring their whole selves to work. In turn, they give us and the team their trust and commitment. How we treat people allows us to earn the right to speak truth into other peoples’ lives. And through all this, we create a more enjoyable, healthy, and productive place to work. Ultimately, we are improving quality of life.

What Kindness is Not

Being kind as a leader does not mean meekness, timidity, or softness.

It is not an unwillingness to rock the boat. It is not being consumed with worry about upsetting people. It is not being afraid to speak up or speak the truth. Kindness is not about being liked.

These behaviors are selfish and inward-focused. They lead to being “nice” or “polite.” Kindness, however, is others-focused.

Adam Grant, author of Give and Take and Think Again, regularly speaks toward kindness and leadership, clarifying it from the facades of niceness and politeness. He states that being polite is saying what makes people feel good today, where being kind is doing what helps people get better tomorrow. Polite teams withhold disagreements and criticism. Kind ones speak their minds and do so respectfully.

Saying what we think others want to hear is nice. From that, we get sugarcoated, ineffective feedback to allow others to feel good. We don’t want to rock the boat. However, sharing what we believe others need to hear is kind. Speaking honestly from a place of love in order to help others do better tomorrow because we want them to succeed is kindness.

Leaders can be effective, make hard decisions, speak truthfully, give quality constructive feedback, and can successfully pour into and develop others all while being kind. They are not mutually exclusive behaviors.

But again, we must earn the right to speak truth into others’ lives. One regular way we can do that is by living out simple habits of kindness.

Habits of Kindness

Kindness intended does not make kindness expressed. To move from niceness, politeness, or even mere apathy or aloofness, we need to materialize kindness through our actions. While not an all-encompassing list, I want to end this piece by offering eight simple habits of kindness that we can employ every day and week to earn the right to speak truth into others’ lives, to help them feel seen and valued, and to cultivate a more enjoyable work environment for others to thrive in.

  • Check in with people. It’s probably common for a colleague to come to you and immediately begin dumping what is on their mind or outlining an issue they have. It’s easy as a leader to go to people and immediately dive into task execution mode, talking about what you need from them. But I believe people are always more important than the issue at hand. So, consider checking in with people before you get into work talk. Ask them how they are doing or how their day is. How was the weekend, the family, and so on? I believe kindness is signaling, “hey, we will get to this task in a minute, but I want to see how you’re doing first.”
  • Simply listen. People need someone to listen to them much more than they need advice or guidance. Giving your full attention and allowing someone to share is an act of kindness. Step away from distractions (phone, computer screen), look them in the eye, and make no attempt to interrupt. Let them talk and share everything they want. Ask questions. Learn more. Affirm their challenges and perspectives. Don’t listen to just respond.
  • Show appreciation. Say thank you to people. Share gratitude whether in person, in an email, or in a handwritten note. Routine habits like this generate shared positivity, and let others feel seen and valued. Appreciation is nothing more than a simple form of positive feedback.
  • Show an interest in talking to people. Leadership is the business of people and of problems. Undoubtedly, people are going to “bother” you every day, bringing you problems. Or they will need help. Or have a question. People are going to disrupt your time, its part of being a leader. We can view these as nuisances or as opportunities to pour into people. When people come to your office with a, “hey, you got a second?” consider that an opportunity to show kindness. Show you are interested in talking with them about whatever is on their mind through your words and your gestures. Even small things like a smile, raised eyebrows, and a “yeah, I’d love to talk,” can go a long way to show them you’re interested in supporting them and helping them feel comfortable and cared for.
  • Know and treat people more than just a title and role. People have family, passions, baggage, and life (good, bad, and ugly) outside of work. Get to know them and engage with them on things beyond their work. It doesn’t have to be extensive, either. Even simple things like knowing a hobby of theirs or a little bit about their family can go a long way. Know and acknowledge birthdays. Know a personal or professional goal of theirs. Support them through life’s ups and downs.
  • Be available. Time is often a leader’s scarcest resource. So, it might be infeasible to push for giving people more time in order to “be available.” But availability does not have to mean more time. It is really an attitude. Be generous in your offers to provide help or support. In meetings, emails, or conversation, be deliberate in offering support. Reiterating phrases like, “let me know how I can help,” or “reach out anytime, I’m happy to support,” can send clear signals of kindness and care through availability.
  • Follow up. Earlier this year, I was in a season of crisis at work. There was a lot of change and competing requirements occurring simultaneously and I felt I was struggling to keep my head above water. During that season, a mentor reached out to me to check in and in my response, I made my feelings of overwhelm apparent. While his support at the moment was encouraging, it was the fact that he followed up a month later that was most impactful. And in that follow up, all he did was simply send me a text message that read, “morale check.” That tiny gesture meant the world to me. Following up does not have to be complex or intricate. It just needs to send the message that “I care and I’m thinking of you.”
  • Share “truth in love.” Kindness is still candor. We share feedback from a place of love because we genuinely want to help others grow. We don’t share feedback as punishment or with judgement. When we share feedback, we should communicate “I care about you, and I care about our team. I truly want both to get better. To do that, I think we should discuss some truth.”

What would happen if we were willing to make our workplace a kinder place to operate? What consequences are we worried about?

What is holding us back from the willingness to be more kind?

What is one thing we can do today to show kindness as a leader?

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