This week I have been thinking a lot about kindness, a thing that it feels like for a long time languished on a dusty bottom shelf of human behaviours labelled "Not At All Cool And A Bit... Wishy Washy?" but one that, maybe thanks to the pandemic era, seems to be making something of a comeback.
At the heart of kindness is something very simple (which is not to be confused with something easy), the ability to stop and think how it feels to be another human being. Empathy, the younger, hipper sibling of kindness, is a word that has come to get a lot of air time in board rooms and appraisal documents, and rightly so. Collaboration in a cross-functional matrix-based organisation, consumer insight, M&A deal negotiation, trade sell-ins, client pitches... the lifeblood of companies boils down to working out what other people want and showing them you can deliver it. The best way to work out what someone wants is to put yourself in their shoes. What pressures are they under? What targets do they need to hit? What are they trying to prove or disprove to the people around them? The ability to empathise is one of those skills that can pay dividends depending on how you choose to harness it.
Kindness is not empathy, or rather it is not just empathy, it is the next stage in the evolutionary journey. Kindness takes the understanding of the other person and says, OK, so how do I think they would they want to be treated in that position? Then going ahead and doing it. And it is that last part that is the real difference. Empathy exists in thoughts, kindness in deeds.
While I was ready for a learning curve, hard but satisfying work and some bamboozling tax documentation, what I was not prepared for in starting my own business was the amount of kindness I would experience. A former colleague and friend, Jinal Shah, referred two potential clients to me on my second day in business. She also posted a glowing recommendation for me on LinkedIn that I couldn't have scripted better myself (I promise, I didn't script it). One of her contacts, someone I had never met (thank you Krystal Plomatos!) reposted the recommendation to her own network. A recruiter I chatted to for the first time sent me a gift to congratulate me on my new venture. A coaching certification classmate who I have coached and I know is slammed at work wrote a testimonial for my website during his lunch hour. A friend I have just coached through a job change hand-delivered a thank you card that made me cry. And these are all things that happened only THIS WEEK.
My message is not - start your own business so people will be nice to you - although if you're thinking about it, I'd say go ahead and give it a shot. It's rather that these acts of kindness were not huge grand gestures that cost a fortune or took a huge amount of time. They were simple acts, but done with great care and generosity of spirit that meant a disproportionate amount to me as the person on the receiving end. It has been observed that being the recipient of kindness makes you more likely to be kind yourself; the cynics would say it's a biological response to the oxytocin that's released in your body when someone does something that benefits you, impacting your body chemistry, and therefore your actions. I prefer to think of it the way that Buddha talked about, that kindness begets kindness like a chain reaction, because when you know how it feels, why would you not pay it forward?
Kindness as a leadership trait is one that can be hard to cultivate in a corporate world where you're judged on the P&L and not your employee engagement scores. Some people see the two things as diametrically opposed, there's no opting out of delivering results, and how are you supposed to do that with a (fluffy) carrot and no stick? Isn't it asking for failure? In which case I would ask - have you ever worked for a kind leader? I have, and, yes they made the working environment warm and fuzzy. They were also the kind of leader that their team would follow off a cliff, because when the person you work for shows that you matter enough to make an effort for, instead of making you feel like an interchangeable tool that gets the job done, those are the leaders you will bend over backwards for to prove they got it right. In case you were wondering, the leader that I'm thinking of is the SVP of Customer Engagement and Loyalty at Delta Air Lines, Sandeep Dube, and no he didn't script this recommendation either.
The best thing about kindness is that it's simple, it's just a thought process and a follow up action. So why not pick a person to be kind to today? Imagine a world with a lot more (fluffy) carrots and fewer sticks. Doesn't that sound like a fabulous place to live?