Why Being Kind at Work Matters

This story appears in the
Association Focus Pub 2 2022 Issue 2

Kindness is most challenging when it requires taking the high road and being kind in response to negative behavior.

Kindness is a soft skill. Since kindness can be hard to teach, measure or master, many people dismiss it as a nonessential nicety that won’t make or break your business. They value other capitalist-oriented skills more, such as ambition and grit.

Consider a fictional example: Scrooge, the main character in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens; people recognize he is a miserable, lonely man, and no one would want to be like him. They don’t even want to be around him. Yet Scrooge also fits the idea of the selfish and ruthless business owner who makes money because he is willing to take advantage of others. As the story begins, he thinks any generous act that detracts from profit is foolish.

No business leader is likely to make similar claims in public, but when they consider the business ideas separate from the man, some might secretly think Scrooge’s ideas have some merit. They are making a big mistake. It turns out that the soft skill of kindness is not just an important life skill; it’s also an important business skill. Being considerate, friendly, helpful and generous is a strength. It does not mean being a pushover, and it does not mean finishing last. It does mean giving people the benefit of the doubt and remembering they may be dealing with difficult issues.

What are some of the business benefits associated with kindness? Kindness strengthens business relationships within any culture, and many of the benefits from that involve employees. When the workplace culture is kind, communication is smoother and more effective, and employees trust their leaders more. Employees are more focused on their work and less likely to compete negatively with other employees. Not only are relationships in and outside the company improved, but research also shows that employees with opportunities to be kind at work feel more loyal to their company.

Companies with a reputation for being kind find it easier to recruit and retain new employees. That’s a huge plus, as there are currently more open jobs than people to fill them, and qualified applicants have their choice of jobs. Who wouldn’t prefer working at a company where they can feel valued and respected?

Productivity also improves. Everybody makes mistakes, especially when trying out new business ideas. Employees can safely share information and be more innovative if the work culture embraces learning from failure instead of punishing it. Consider this: according to a study from Deloitte University, business performance improved 80% at companies with high levels of diversity and inclusion. That may seem a little indirect, but a company can’t be kind without successfully promoting diversity and inclusion.

Kindness is most challenging when it requires taking the high road and being kind in response to negative behavior. If you are trying to figure out why someone behaves badly, rather than treating them harshly, kindness is more likely to open someone up, giving them a chance to explain their side.

When there is an opportunity to talk with anyone, engage in meaningful but not polarizing conversations, such as talking in a general way about weekend plans, previous work experiences and family.

Customers respond positively to companies they believe are kind. When customers interact with an employee who is kind to them, a bond forms between them, resulting in increased customer engagement and brand loyalty. People do not want to work for or do business with companies that unfairly exploit others.

Kindness is also helpful during difficult conversations. Suppose you are speaking candidly to someone about a problem. Delivering what you must say kindly is essential if you want the conversation to be a success. Choosing to be kind doesn’t mean avoiding any discussion of difficult things. If you are kind but withhold negative information completely, people won’t correctly understand the situation and can feel complacent and entitled. But balance honesty with kindness. The goal is to be empathetic and curious instead of harsh. This article isn’t the right place to talk in-depth about how to conduct difficult conversations kindly (and with your backbone intact), but to get you started, here is an alphabetical list of books that might help:

  • Crucial Conversations, by Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler and Emily Gregory
  • Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen and Roger Fisher
  • Difficult People, by Barry Winbolt
  • Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations, by William Ury
  • Getting to Yes, by William Ury and Bruce Patton
  • How to Become a Great Boss, by Jeffrey Fox
  • The Power of Positive Confrontation, by Barbara Pachter

Some ways companies and employees demonstrate kindness is to respond kindly and politely if someone treats you rudely.

All employees should be courteous to everyone, regardless of status. They should smile often and say thank you. It’s also important to use a pleasant tone of voice when talking, be clear and positive when you communicate, and express your feelings and ideas accurately. The cleaning crew deserves the same level of civility as the company owner. Managers might also encourage employees to help others when their tasks are complete and to be generous about sharing space and material resources when necessary. Be punctual and considerate.

Be a good listener. Listening skills improve communication, reduce mistakes and encourage collaboration. Make time for others when they need it. If they need a substantial amount of help, schedule a time when you can work with them on a project.

Do little things, like complimenting someone’s work and recognizing others when they do well. Recognize each person’s strengths and abilities. You can also communicate appreciation with food. If appropriate, a manager could bring people breakfast in the morning or provide a snack tray during an important meeting. If it’s impractical to treat the whole office to lunch and dietary needs within the company are complicated, managers could plan a potluck meal instead. Team-building activities create a positive environment and show you want the workplace to be enjoyable.

Since some employees are gatekeepers, their opinions and influence may be larger than you think. Please treat them with respect. Start by introducing yourself and asking for their name if you can’t see their name on a tag or desk when you meet them. If they are busy, keep conversation to a minimum. If they seem open to small talk, keep the conversation pleasant and neutral. Notice photos and awards. The next time you see them, say something to let them know you remember the last conversation.

Don’t be overly familiar with people you’ve just met, and treat them the same way you would like to be treated. Avoid terms that might be deemed insulting or condescending, such as “sweetie,” “babe,” “son,” or “dude.” When there is an opportunity to talk with anyone, engage in meaningful but not polarizing conversations, such as talking in a general way about weekend plans, previous work experiences and family.

Notice when someone is struggling with a door or carrying large packages, and offer your help. Also, help other people succeed. Recommend people, or send them referrals and be willing to give expert advice if they ask.

If appropriate, mentor new employees. Mentoring can involve introducing a new employee to others, training them in their job responsibilities and helping them feel comfortable.

Being kind at work and everywhere else matters because it contributes to creating and maintaining a more positive world. It makes sense from a business perspective, but it also makes sense from a human perspective. There are no regrets about being kind, which is something you can’t say about everything.