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Why kindness should be fundamental for leadership

Kindness has been a pretty high-profile topic over recent months. During the pandemic, we have seen neighbours pulling together to help each other out. ‘Be Kind’ messages have appeared on noticeboards on the London Underground, and random acts of kindness by strangers have been hitting the headlines.

Kindness is not, however, a quality that is high on the agenda in our workplaces. It is rarely explicitly referenced in corporate values and is not a quality typically sought when recruiting or promoting leaders.

Further reading:

Make kindness your kind of success

In times of crisis compassionate leadership is a must have

Emotional intelligence to have upper hand in post-COVID-19 recruitment

Many of our HR policies and management systems are the very antithesis of kindness. When things go wrong, as surely they will, we drag people through damaging and destructive disciplinary and grievance procedures, which cause huge amounts of stress and anxiety, and rarely achieve a positive outcome for the parties or the organisation.

HR and managers rely on outdated and demotivating performance management systems which are focused around pulling people up for what they have done badly, rather than catching them doing something well.

Part of the problem is that people perceive kindness as a soft option that has no place in today’s fast-moving, competitive environment. In fact, the very opposite is true.

Kindness is not about smiling sweetly and delivering fluffy platitudes. It is about fairness, compassion and having effective and constructive conversations that help employees perform at their best.

Simply put, kindness equals high performance.

Some fascinating research to come out of the University of California shows that kindness also creates a positive ripple effect that can help to transform organisational cultures.

Employees in the study who were on the receiving end of even quite small acts of kindness (a cup of coffee, a thank you email) over a period of a month reported feeling significantly happier and more positive.

Those who were doling the kindness out were more satisfied in their roles and reported feeling a greater sense of autonomy and competence.

As HR magazine editor Jo Gallagher pointed out in her recent editorial, HR professionals are in the privileged position of having an opportunity to make a positive impact on employees’ lives. So what should be profession be doing to act on this and embed kindness into the organisation psyche?

As someone who has helped many organisations untangle themselves from toxic cultures and integrate a transformational culture, I am in a good position to suggest the kindest thing HR could do would be to ditch the bureaucracy and red tape they insist on hanging onto, and replace it with a more people-centred, values-driven approach.

It is perfectly possible to develop a policy framework which is robust enough to protect the needs of the organisation, while also looking out for the wellbeing of individuals.

Policies that are underpinned by dialogue and discussion are always going to be more effective than the dysfunctional, and frankly often cruel formal processes we use to deal with the conflicts, complaints and concerns that are a feature of everyday working life.

HR also needs to give leaders the green light to take a more compassionate approach. If kindness is to truly become integrated into the culture, it needs to be role modelled, seriously acknowledged and addressed in those areas where it is lacking.

I’m not saying that we all have to go round giving each other hugs and forcing smiles. It’s about encouraging leaders to listen to their people with curiosity and empathy, making it clear their views are valued and respected.

At times of enormous challenge and uncertainty for everyone, it’s also about showing an authentic interest in people’s personal circumstances, supporting them as much as possible and showing genuine gratitude for their efforts.

Organisations spend an inordinate amount of time and money repairing the damage that results from lack of kindness – or worse from outright unkindness – in the workplace.

Creating a transformational culture, which has compassion, dialogue and high-performance at its heart should be a primary focus for HR. And if they are not delivering that right now, it begs the question, what is the point of HR?

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group.