Why aren’t we more kind at work, when kindness really helps?
I write this at the end of a busy month, which has given me another great opportunity to ask people about one of my current themes: kindness.
The reason I’ve been asking about kindness is down to my previous month’s coaching work. This was absolutely packed with situations where I couldn’t help thinking that maybe just a little bit of kindness would have dealt with everything even before I’d arrived!
There’s variety in my work and so it’s good that I also get to work with people in some very successful businesses and organisations where kindness is a way of doing things. In fact, some of the most successful leaders I know are very good indeed at doing kindness and I can’t help feeling that in the long-run, there’s probably a high correlation between the two.
I know there’s an emotional side to this. The sort of world I want to live in and to leave for my son, is driven by kindness. I want there to be room to care for and raise-up others to their full potential. And for me, there’s also a really practical side. I love being able to do things well, and doing them well also means doing them effectively – with efficacy, efficiency and gracefulness. If I genuinely thought that being unkind was more effective in the long run than being kind, I’d probably give it a go! But I just don’t see it. What I do see is opportunity wasted, potential unused and crucial errors being allowed.
Human beings are practically hard-wired to both take care of themselves and to take care of each other because of our evolution as social animals. The basic tools to be kind to each other, and the practical reasons for doing so, are already available to us. So, if we’re not being kind, there must be a reason. And, if there’s a reason, there’s also got to be a way to create the right conditions for more kindness.
Here’s my thoughts so far.
Unchecked self-criticsim vs. useful Purpose
In my experience as a coach, people who are critical of others in a damaging rather than useful way are often unconsciously highly-critical of themselves. With that going on in the back of their minds it’s very hard to be supportive of others. Contrast that with the joy of being around someone who has a genuine sense of Purpose, something meaningful to work on and who will carry you along in their enthusiasm.
Self-doubts and limiting beliefs vs. Connection
Some people let the self-doubts, the “I can’t”s and the “It never works for me”s, take over the focus of their attention. This self-limiting place is one where there’s no spare energy, time or resources to be kind to others. It’s a place where kindness looks dangerous, like a zero-sum game of winners and losers. They say that you become the average of the people you spend time with and it seems true to me that having quality time Connected with people who don’t think like that is a great enabler of kindness
Cultural Norms vs. Opportunities to Serve & Nurture
Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to having more kindness at work is “the way things are done around here”. Just like individuals, organisations have an unconscious set of stories, beliefs and self-criticisms. Left unchecked, Cultural Norms can become very damaging to an organisation’s ability to make the most of its people. As an antidote, creating Opportunities to Serve and Nurture, as many companies are doing with community and volunteering initiatives, is a great way to remind us just how uplifting it is to be kind and caring for others.
Unhealthy Habits vs. Resilience
Setting aside the false criticisms and limiting beliefs, it is probably true that, in the short-term, kindness comes at a cost. Time, money, effort and attention may all be involved. If somebody has habits that don’t help them to be resourceful, that make them unhealthy physically and emotionally, they may well find that the ‘cost’ of being kind is too high for them. What I’ve found is that the most Resilient people are also often the kindest. They work on themselves and that helps them be resourceful enough to help others. If you want to be kinder to others, start with being healthily kind to yourself. As they say,
You can’t pour from an empty cup
Fear vs. Choice
Fear is a very useful mechanism, designed to keep us safe and ensure our survival. People sometimes regard themselves as weak or wrong for being afraid, or for acting badly when they experience fear. When I’m with clients, I celebrate fear as another signal about something important. We can’t not have any fear; it’s part of our whole brain and body system. And without fear, there’s no courage either.
What we need are more behavioural strategies for dealing with our experience of fear. Instead of freezing like a rabbit-in-the-headlights, or lashing-out in fight mode, or running away in flight from our fear, we need Choices about how to behave.
This is especially true in businesses and organisations, which are themselves social systems and quite like the circumstances of our evolution as social animals. What makes us successful in those circumstances is co-operation with others. To co-operate well, we need more and better choices about how we behave. And one of the most important behavioural strategies is kindness.