Kindness at work may seem oxymoronic. Indeed, the majority of employees neither particularly enjoy being at work or feel that it is a place where they experience much kindness. According to Gallup, 87 percent of the employed global workforce, 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 arguably more importantly, also in terms of human suffering – it is likely the most common factor triggering suicides in men. The fact that there are 20 percent more heart attacks on Mondays is also likely related to negative emotions that going back to work elicits in many employees.
Organisations large and small, publicly and privately funded, play a significant role in all of our lives. We all rely upon organisations to make our lives happen and many of us will spend the 100,000 hours of the average work life in an organisation.
It is therefore in everybody’s interest that organisations perform well and that those of us who are employees of organisations do not experience fear, stress and become ill because of work, but instead feel supported, respected and able to thrive, or in the words of the CEO of Accenture, the multinational Professional Service Company, we need organisations “to be truly human”.
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. Big claims, yes, but if we stop to think about it, it makes sense and there is mounting research indicating that kindness in an organisation is a key driver of differential, and competitive, advantage.
When people operate in a kind environment they feel safe from social threats, which in turn means they can devote their energy and attention to their work. It also makes it safer to be creative, to give feedback and speak honestly. This enables rapid learning from mistakes and supports innovation which are reasons why the CEO of Seagate, the largest hard-drive manufacturer in the world, emphasises the importance of kindness at work. When information flows more freely and quickly, problems are averted and creative solutions found more readily. In industries in which speedy, co-ordinated team work is required such as in healthcare, travel services and the hospitality sector kindness is essential for ensuring that levels of trust, information flow and collaborative problem solving are optimised.
Research has shown that the fundamental element of the success of the low-cost airline in the US, Southwest Airlines is their culture of care, support, egalitarianism and kindness among all employees. To maintain profitability, operational efficiency is paramount. This requires cooperation between different people with different roles and levels of status. These differences can thwart rapid, good quality communication and co-operation. However, kindness dissolves people problems and facilitates seamless co-operation and communication. Similar findings from healthcare research show that kindness and compassion among healthcare professionals and allied staff fuels the optimised collaborative and coordinated work that ensure excellent patient care.
Research also demonstrates that enabling employees to be kind to each other and customers is strongly associated with engagement, motivation and wellbeing. Acting with kindness can give work a greater sense of meaning and purpose. In this way kindness in the workplace also has positive implications for recruitment and talent retention. A study examined performance across forty business units in the financial services industry. When employees of a business unit rated kindness as a value of their unit, it had better financial performance and achieved higher employee and customer retention.
What is more, kindness improves an organisation’s ability to adapt to change, making it more resilient. For instance, studies have shown that for organisations undergoing downsizing, the extent to which employees felt their organisations were kind in their approach to change was strongly related to organisational profitability, productivity and customer retention.
Some sources of suffering are an inevitable part of life. In any organisation there will be people suffering from the trials and tribulations of life. Other sources of suffering can originate from organisations themselves especially if, for example, people feel undermined, disrespected, expected to achieve unreasonable targets and constantly under threat.
Organisations, by considering at a system level how to respond kindly to the inevitable suffering in the lives of their employees and how to reduce and avoid causing distress and promote wellbeing through their own actions, demonstrate they care for their people. To do this, organisations need to prioritise the value of kindness by identifying and removing inhibitors and identifying and promoting facilitators of kindness within their procedures, culture and leaders. When people operate in an environment in which they feel cared for and have opportunities to care, they cope better with distress and are more willing and able to give more of themselves to their work. Prioritising kindness is not just the right thing for organisations to do, it also offers a strategic advantage by affecting factors such as co-operation, information flow, learning, innovation, commitment, motivation, retention and adaptability which impact productivity, performance, competitiveness and profitability. It pays to be kind ethically and financially.