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Karen Liebenguth


Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

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Leadership: why kindness is an underrated quality at work

How to make your organisation a kinder place to work.

Love (or kindness) and connection are two universal human needs. These, along with other values like trust, respect, safety and acceptance, help us to thrive and feel fulfilled, but where do they fit in a workplace environment? Do leaders and managers do enough to foster and encourage kindness and meaningful connection at work?

It takes only one person to start changing their behaviour and the ripple effect kicks in.

Being kind is an innate ability we all share, and to be genuinely kind comes from the heart, not from the head. It requires us to let our defences down, and to show our tender side. It means taking a risk to be vulnerable in a world where performance, productivity and competition are more highly valued.

Is there room for vulnerability in the workplace?

Brene Brown, research professor and author, studies human connection. Her TED talk in 2010, The Power of Vulnerability has been viewed by more than 22 million people, one of the highest number of TED talk views ever. Is this statistic telling us something we need to listen to?

When you share a personal experience or a story about yourself you make yourself vulnerable. Personal stories often reveal a flaw, a mistake, or an obstacle that was difficult to overcome. Many professionals are nervous about sharing their personal lives or revealing their struggles when they’re at work for fear it will open them up to judgment or criticism, however people are drawn to the transformative power of vulnerability. Sharing stories like these can help colleagues to connect. “We are hardwired to connect with others,” explained Brown in her talk. “It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives”.

Holding up our armour, guarding ourselves against others, and showing how tough, competent and independent we are, can lead to a sense of alienation, isolation and loneliness.

An alternative way: ‘survival of the kindest’

We are all familiar with the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ but you are probably less familiar (or have never heard of) ‘survival of the kindest’ – a term originally coined by Dacher Keltner, and now used increasingly by other leading social scientists. To understand how this term came about, we need to look at the three emotional regulation systems or survival instincts that drive human behaviour.

The first is the avoidance system driven by the brains’ negativity bias that helped the human species to survive. Today it is often best served by being cautious – by avoiding life’s ‘sticks’. The second is the achievement system, which is our drive to seek out new opportunities and resources or life’s ‘carrots’. The third facet to our survival instinct that also governs how we approach the world is known as the soothing and contentment system. When we no longer feel the need to constantly defend ourselves against danger, and when resources are abundant, so that we are not just struggling to survive, we feel a pleasant and deep sense of contentment. It’s a sign that we are happy with the way things are and that we are in tune with our environment.

When we feel safe, we are confident enough to look outwards beyond the immediate needs of survival and are able to live a more connected and harmonious way with those around us and that in turn allows us to be kinder to ourselves and to others. This bolsters the social bonds that encourage us to cooperate, rather than compete with each other. Such cooperation was critical for our ancestors because those who were kind and worked cooperatively with each other survived better than those who struggled in conflict and isolation – hence the phrase ‘survival of the kindest’.

Changing your company’s culture

Shifting the emphasis in your organisation can have substantial effects, according to Emma Seppala, associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University. “A new field of research is suggesting that when organisations promote an ethic of compassion rather than a culture of stress, they may not only see a happier workplace (since a lack of bonding within the workplace has been shown to increase psychological distress, while positive social interactions at work have been shown to boost employee health), but also an improved bottom line.”

A small group of committed people can change the world. It is indeed the only thing that ever has.

– Margaret Mead

It takes only one person to start changing their behaviour and the ripple effect kicks in. A change in thinking impacts behaviour and this in turn creates influence and inspiration to others to change their own behaviour. As group thinking and behaviour changes, the organisation also changes, improves and grows.

Top tips

You can start practicing kindness and encourage connection with others at work by carrying out random acts of kindness during your day. Below are a few examples.

  • Slow down when you come into the office and say good morning or hello to colleagues more often. Smile when you do.
  • Smile at a colleague (or as many as you like) every day for one week and notice what happens and how you feel.
  • Be considerate: when you make yourself a cup of tea ask others whether they’d like a cuppa too.
  • Be more vocal in your praise: pay a different colleague a compliment every day for one week and notice the effect it has on you.
  • Engage your ears: when asking colleagues ‘how are you?’, stop and listen, be interested in how they really are (it only needs to take five minutes).
  • Help a colleague in need when you can: pay attention to those around you and try to notice if someone is stressed or under the weather, or if they’re aiming to meet a deadline, prepare for an event or perhaps struggling with staff absence.
  • Make time to write a personal thank you note/email/gesture to a colleague to show them that they are appreciated.
  • Make time for colleagues: every week, go out for lunch and talk about other things than work with your colleagues.
  • Show appreciation: complaining is easy, but how about taking some time at the end of each meeting to highlight some positives about all the participants in the room? For example, you could say, ‘I appreciate how you really listen to others’. Or ‘I appreciate how you ask helpful questions rather than telling us what to do’. Or ‘I appreciate that you follow up on your action points and do what you said you were going to do’.
  • Wish someone well: throughout the day, wish someone at work well. It can be the same person or different colleagues. When you bump into someone making coffee or on your way in, seize that moment, and for just a few seconds wish them well – wish them a good day or afternoon. Notice the effect and how you feel.

Of course, it’s helpful and crucial that leaders walk the talk too, but let’s not forget, as anthropologist Margaret Mead once said, “a small group of committed people can change the world. It is indeed the only thing that ever has”.

The beauty of acts of kindness is that they benefit the giver and the receiver. Give it a go – you’ll not only boost your own wellbeing, but also gain a deeper sense of purpose in the workplace. Investing in regular team building can also help colleagues to connect and gain a deeper understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses; valuing differences to help foster meaningful connection in the workplace. Let’s face it, happy and motivated staff members are at the heart of a well-functioning and successful business.

Interested in this topic? Read Why you need to nurture Emotional First Responders in the workplace.

Author Profile Picture
Karen Liebenguth

Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

Read more from Karen Liebenguth

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