“The common mistake that bullies make is assuming that because someone is nice that he or she is weak. Those traits have nothing to do with each other. In fact, it takes considerable strength and character to be a good person.” (Mary Elizabeth Williams)
Over the years, I’ve accumulated a lot of books about business, management, and leadership. A lot. Probably enough to fill a good-sized bookcase. Many I purchased; many were given to me by authors who wanted to introduce me to their ideas in hopes that I would hire them to speak at a client conference. I haven’t read them all, but I’ve read quite a few, and I’ve started many more but never gotten past the first few chapters.
I’ve been leafing through them over the last few weeks and have been disappointed—though though not surprised—to see that words like kindness and compassion are mostly absent. Even the books that approach leadership in refreshing and enlightened ways: The Art of Supportive Leadership, Love and Profit—The Art of Caring Leadership, Leadership Jazz, Leading Change, Leading with Soul…. They’re all good books with good ideas, and good intentions, but the authors don’t seem to see kindness as an important element of leadership. It baffles me.
It’s as if kindness is too weak and nebulous a concept to be put forth in a serious book about business. There were a few exceptions and those books happened to be not only the ones that I read all the way through, but often they were the ones that I have read several times and highlighted extensively. Notable among these were Lance Secretan’s excellent books, Reclaiming Higher Ground and Inspirational Leadership.
I can’t think of many places more in need of kindness than the business world and the American workplace. Or many places where kindness would make such a difference. I have to assume that there are business books that address the importance of kindness in the workplace, and I just haven’t come across them yet. I hope someone will point them out to me.
Several years ago, one of our company’s long-time employees retired. At the retirement party we held for her, she said the word she would use to describe the company if she were asked was “kind.” I remember thinking at the time that I could think of no word I would rather hear used to describe our company.
Oh, sure, I want us to be daringly innovative and wildly profitable, but even above these qualities, I want us to be kind. Since that day when Margaret labeled our company’s defining trait, I think we have been more conscious of that value and more committed to it. Kindness was always modeled by our company’s founder, Lynn Melby, and as each subsequent partner joined the ownership team, we implicitly accepted kindness as one of our personal values, and we continued to cultivate kindness along the way. That’s not to say we haven’t slipped occasionally. We’re human, after all, and the business world can, at times, challenge the kindest intentions.
It isn’t easy to always be kind in business, and there may be times when kindness is well-disguised, but if the underlying culture is kind, the intention generally shines through. Whether we are interviewing, training, correcting, or even terminating an employee, we do our utmost to approach it kindly—using empathy and compassion. In client or vendor situations, likewise, when problems arise we look for solutions that are fair and respectful to all. Where we have perhaps failed is in keeping clients too long that don’t share our values. Clients who don’t practice kindness themselves. Clients that don’t want to pay for the services they receive, or who put the blame on others for mistakes they make, or who ask us to bend our integrity on their behalf.
A few years ago, after a large conference, a couple of our staff noticed that the hotel had missed a sizable food and beverage charge on the bill. The client’s convention chair directed them to pay the bill quickly and not point out the error. Our staff followed their consciences rather than his instructions. They pointed out the error to the hotel and asked for a corrected bill. The chairman was not happy.
In doing this, our team not only did the right thing, but also modeled our values to our client and to their office colleagues. The longer I am in business, the more certain I am that success lies in working with people—employees, clients, suppliers, business partners—who share our values.
Unkind people can learn to be kind, just as dishonest people can learn to be honest. But if they choose not to value those traits it is probably because beneath it all they believe that others are just as unkind or dishonest as they are. Our job, then, is to decide whether to work with such people. If they are likely to change, we should give them that chance, but if they are unlikely to, we should seek our business partners elsewhere.
There’s so much more to be said about kindness in business and in the workplace. What has been your experience of kindness (or its absence) in business? Please share your thoughts below. Maybe we can start a dialogue.
“We live under the illusion that organizations are ‘them’ when, in reality, they are ‘us.’ If we wish to work in evolved organizations, we must each be the first to start the journey.” (Lance Secretan)