Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Last week, I had a really tough day.
I got into a heated exchange with a colleague. The argument itself, and resulting fallout, exhausted me. I took my negative feelings home that evening and they buzzed around my head all night. The next morning, on my journey into work, I was frank with a colleague who asked me how I was doing? ‘So tired’, I told him. ‘Why?’ he asked, ‘Tell me more’. So I did, and he listened.
That simple act of kindness changed my day. My colleague gave up 10 minutes of his time to listen to me talk, and in so doing helped me feel supported and heard. I carried on with my day feeling lighter and able to achieve what I needed to do.
How often have we all experienced this? The person on the bus who offers us their seat, or the stranger who returns our lost wallet. These small acts touch us profoundly. I don’t think any of us would deny the power of kindness in our lives.
Kindness in Society
There is increasing public policy research suggesting that in our often lonely society, kindness can create social bonds and help build communities. Research by the ONS has found that people’s personal wellbeing is far more affected by how regularly they talk to their neighbours than the physical infrastructure of where they live, and there is increasing research to show that loneliness is linked to higher mortality rates in our advanced societies. Our relationships, and how we treat those around us, has a profound impact on our own wellbeing.
But it’s not just being on the receiving end of kind acts that makes us feel good. An Oxford University review of over 400 published papers on the link between kind acts and personal satisfaction found that acts of kindness have a small but significant impact on our own happiness. For those of you after the hard science, being generous or behaving cooperatively with other people stimulates the striatum, the part of the brain activated by rewards. This is the source of that ‘warm glow’ feeling.
Kindness in Business
At Untapped, we work through the world of business, and in people’s professional lives. As part of our specially-designed Mental Fitness programme we ask our Users to monitor the kindness they give and receive throughout the day, alongside other key factors like sleep and exercise. The implicit message is that the social cohesion offered by kindness in our lives is as important to our baseline mental health as getting enough kip and moving our bodies regularly.
I was fascinated by the implications of this in our professional lives, because at some level it seems to at odds with prevailing business culture. So I did some research, and found that a Google search reveals increasing interest in this area, but interestingly, always from a somewhat radical standpoint (‘Kindness is the New Currency’ claims Inc.) Kindness is starting to make a splash in the business world, but it’s the plucky outsider wrestling its way into a culture often built more around values of competitiveness and aggression.
I spoke to business consultant and kindness advocate Dani Saveker. Dani has used her experience in the world of family business to think about how relationships are central to the success of any organisation, and focuses on kindness as a core value in her consultancy framework. She also believes passionately in living her values, and aims to perform an act of kindness every day in her own life. For Dani, living her values in this way has entirely changed her approach to life, and to being CEO of her consultancy. ‘I’ve dramatically altered the way I deal with everyone, but I made the change within myself first. For me the key was to reduce my judgement of other people, to approach people with empathy and compassion.’ Acting out the kindness she wished to see had a ripple effect, but the change had to come from within her, in her own sense of connection to herself. From there, she could connect authentically and compassionately with others. For Dani, this is at the heart of a business - a community like any other - functioning in a healthy way. ‘We have to re-connect, sure. But the first thing we have to do is to get individuals to connect at the source, by which I mean to themselves’.
As in wider society, bringing kindness as a stated value into the culture of an organisation can have clear positive effects. Warmth has long been seen as a key characteristic of successful leaders, and an unexpected act of kindness to a customer or client is likely to leave them with that inner glow, and see that client return. And if you want engaged employees who stay long-term, kindness and cooperation within teams and from managers are key factors. A kind manager is likely to reduce levels of stress among their staff, resulting in greater productivity and commitment.
This all seems clear to me. But as I read more about kindness, I kept coming back to some of the associations of the word. Because to me - and I know I’m not alone in this - I see kindness as all very well with neighbours, on the bus, or even in an employee evaluation. But what about when we really get into the rough-and-tumble of business - in high-pressure meetings, in sales calls, or on a deadline? What place does kindness have in these situations? And, to be honest, does it carry with it implications of being a bit of a, well, walkover?
Kindness and Weakness
Not to get too philosophical, but being truly kind often involves vulnerability. In being kind to someone, we take a step into the unknown space of offering ourselves to them. We anticipate that they will receive us warmly, but there is every chance that we will be rebuffed, and left rejected and vulnerable. And here is where that difficult feeling - shame - often rears its messy head. Last week, in my own moment of vulnerability, I might have felt embarrassed and defensive when my colleague offered his ear. Some part of me might have felt shame at the idea that I, a competent and grown adult, needed anyone else’s help or kind support at that moment. We’ve all been there: rejection and the sting it brings.
In business settings these feelings are all the more acute. Who wants to be kind in a meeting only to have your kindness publicly rebuffed? And who can accept kindness when it could be interpreted as making the receiver appear weak? This is where the warm friendly rhetoric of business kindness meets the cold harsh face of business culture, where appearing strong and capable is (understandably) important - even though we all, deep down, know that no one can be like that 100% of the time.
Dani Saveker spoke to me about some of her kindness education efforts, and meeting children in school who, at a very young age, tell her that ‘kindness is for girls’. What does this say about our prevailing culture, especially for boys and young men? Kindness - and warmth - are regularly associated with positive female traits, but seen as weakness in men. Where this is happening, it does a disservice to both men and women, aligning particular ways of being with certain conformist gender roles. In the workplace, female leaders can do the kindness thing (but not the confidence thing, as a result). Whereas for male leaders it’s the ‘might is right’ approach that still, in the twenty-first century, marks out what is deemed acceptable. Where kindness = weakness, particularly for men, its public place in our wider business culture will prove problematic to shift.
It’s here I hit a brick wall. I believe strongly in the power of individuals to create change from the bottom-up. Focussing on daily acts of kindness for ourselves can be hugely empowering and transformative for those around us, as well as improving our personal wellbeing. But what if you work in an organisation where kindness, warmth and cooperation doesn’t help you reach your ambitions and goals? How do you connect authentically with yourself and your inner kindness, while proving your mettle in a business culture sometimes - or even often - demanding the opposite of you?
It is in situations like this, where wider cultures push people to a distance from their inner selves, that unhappiness, even depression and anxiety, can sometimes take hold. How we grapple with this as individuals and as a wider society, whether in our communities or multi-national businesses, will be a key question of the coming decades. In this sense, integrating kindness into our way of doing business isn’t just a question of personal contentedness, but how we choose our values as a society.
Written by Claire Lamont