Kindness in Advertising: “A little dab’ll do ya”

“If you want to be a rebel, be kind.” (Pancho Ramos Stierle)

Attribution: Donna CameronDuring my career in the nonprofit world, I was privileged for a time to work with a trade association representing the floral industry in the U.S. and Canada. These were tremendous people who grew flowers and plants, and who sold them at the wholesale and retail levels. They were artists, farmers, business-people, and were extremely generous with their time, their product, and their talent. It’s an industry without a large profit margin and one very dependent on weather and growing conditions. Holidays are also an essential element of the industry’s success.

Invariably, as we approached a major floral holiday, such as Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day, the airwaves would be filled with negative advertising wherein one industry would promote itself by putting down another. Jewelry stores often encouraged sales of necklaces, bracelets, and rings by saying things like “Flowers wilt, diamonds are forever.” Or a posh resort would advertise that “Chocolates will be forgotten in a week, but memories of a romantic weekend at Lavish Lodge will last a lifetime.” Or “Give Mom something that won’t die in a week; give her {fill in any product eager for sales, from appliances to footwear}.”

As an industry, we were frustrated to be the target of negative advertising, but we were also committed to not perpetuating it. So, whenever we started to see ads that criticized our members’ products to promote alternative gifts, we countered with kindness.

We usually sent a letter saying something along the lines of: “We were sorry to see that you are promoting jewelry sales for Valentine’s Day by disparaging flowers for their impermanence. This is disappointing. Your jewelry is so lovely that you should have no need to elevate it by criticizing another product. We encourage you to reconsider your advertising strategy and focus on the beauty and desirability of your own product, not the perceived shortcomings of something outside your industry. We love jewelry and hope people will buy jewelry, as well as flowers, to express their love.”

Since many of these advertisers were local businesses, we would often accompany our letter with a beautiful plant or floral arrangement from a florist in the same city.

Often our efforts had no effect, but many times we’d see those ads pulled from TV or radio and replaced by an ad which just focused on the positive aspects of the seller’s product, not the perceived deficits of a potential competitor. We frequently received messages of thanks, also stating that henceforth advertising would take a positive, rather than negative, approach.

So What?

Why am I thinking of this, when it’s been 20 years since I worked with this fine industry? Well, Valentine’s Day is just days away and we’re already seeing and hearing advertisers who still think the best way to promote their product is by demeaning another. Often it’s not the advertiser, but an ad agency that has bought into the zero sum game philosophy that one can only win by making someone else lose.

Perhaps in the scheme of things this is a “small potatoes” issue. Who really cares what one advertiser says about another, especially in a society where choosing among jewelry, flowers, or fashionable electronics is what we might call a “first world problem”? But it’s not just in advertising that we see this pervasive attitude. Sadly, it reflects the times we’re living in. Think about much of the political speech that bombards us: are politicians making a well-reasoned and well-supported case for their position, or are they using divisive rhetoric to tear down an opposing position?

There seems to be a certain laziness involved here. It may be easier to attack and vilify than to take the time to examine information and then communicate it in a constructive manner. More and more, it seems that the media, and even our own daily conversations, are filled with choosing negative over positive, choosing to attack rather than engage or advocate.

We see it when politicians respond to questions about their policies or proposals by attacking either the questioner or another public figure with different views. I always want to say, “If you can’t defend your position logically and civilly, then maybe it’s indefensible.” I also wonder if individuals who are incapable of reasoning and formulating coherent and logical statements belong in positions of great responsibility. Whether we are voting for people to serve on a school board, town council, U.S. Senate, or President, we owe it to our nation to advance candidates who are committed to building rather than destroying, to cooperating rather than blaming.

We are living in a time when many people seem to find it easier to negate, mock, accuse, or criticize, rather than elevate, engage, discuss, or even think. Perhaps if we can listen with more discernment—whether to advertising, pundits, politicians, or our own friends and acquaintances—we might be more apt to recognize when rhetoric is weak and substance is absent.

Interestingly, there exists an Advertising Slogan Hall of Fame. It currently recognizes 125 advertising catchphrases for their memorability and effectiveness in promoting a product or service. These include such familiar lines as: Snap! Crackle! Pop! … Finger lickin’ good … Say it with flowers … Good to the last drop … Cats ask for it by name. None, you will notice, are slogans that demean or degrade another product. There’s a lesson here.

As we approach Valentine’s Day and other gift-giving holidays, pay attention to how advertisers promote their products. And as we approach another election season (sigh), pay attention to how politicians promote their positions. It takes practice, but honing our skills as astute and discerning listeners is an important step in restoring and preserving our civil society.

“The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.” (Paulo Coelho)

Kindness Takes a Hit

“I would rather make mistakes in kindness and compassion than work miracles in unkindness and hardness.” (Mother Teresa)

attribution: Donna CameronIt’s been a bit disheartening this week to see that kindness—simple, elemental kindness—has become a political issue.

For the most part on this blog, I have avoided writing about politics, as I’ve avoided writing about religion. I have a possibly old-fashioned view that these are private matters and little benefit comes from either proclaiming one’s religious or political beliefs or denouncing somebody else’s.

I will admit that I did write about Donald Trump a couple of times last year—not so much as an aspiring politician, but as a practiced bully.

In recent days, Hillary Clinton has called for “more love and kindness” in America. Seems like a reasonable observation to me, but it has issued forth a storm of criticism and downright vicious comments. On news sites that reported candidate Clinton’s statement, comments were overwhelmingly negative. And not just negative, but mean, sarcastic, at times even crude. A call for love and kindness unleashed comments calling Secretary Clinton a murderer in Benghazi, a crook, a liar, a cheat. They further criticized her marriage, her looks, her voice, her authenticity, and her intentions. One blogger mocked Clinton thoroughly and concluded her remarks by saying love and kindness were “completely irrelevant in public life.” She further said “we need integrity and courage to live our values. Love and kindness optional.” I’ve always thought that integrity and courage go hand-in-hand with love and kindness, and that none of these qualities are inconsequential.

Perhaps that’s why we are where we are today, why there is so much anger and incivility, and so much inequity: love and kindness are viewed as optional.

Even those who may agree with Hillary’s politics made jokes about the fuzzy, woo-woo nature of her call for love and kindness. Really? Are love and kindness that ridiculous that they can’t be viewed as a possible pathway to a stronger country? If I learned one thing during my year of living kindly it’s that kindness is a strength, not a weakness. Choosing to be kind is not wimpy or weak. It takes courage.

Although I said earlier I don’t want to use my blog to talk about either religion or politics, I’ll make an exception here: I stand with the Dalai Lama who says, “My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.”

I’m not here to endorse Hillary Clinton or anybody else. I’m endorsing kindness.

“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” (R.J. Palacio)

Kindness and Curiosity

“Curiosity is the single most important attribute with which humans are born. More than a simple desire to discover or know things, curiosity is a powerful tool, like a scalpel or a searchlight. Curiosity changes us. It is also a way to effect change, perhaps even on a global level.” (Loren Rhoads)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” (Albert Einstein)

Twice in the last week I’ve seen kindness equated with curiosity.  That made me curious. I’ve always thought curiosity is an important quality to have if one wants a rich and insightful life, but I hadn’t directly connected curiosity with the value I hold dear: kindness.

In an article entitled “Kindness and Curiosity in Coaching” that recently appeared in the Huffington Post, business consultant and executive coach Ruth Henderson described how her mother would posit a kind explanation for other people’s behavior: after being cut off by a speeder, Ruth’s mom speculated, “Maybe his wife’s having a baby and he’s trying to get to the hospital.”

Later, when Ruth was a business professional, her own coach encouraged her to approach difficult or frustrating situations with an inquisitive mind.  She told Ruth:  “Kindness and curiosity leave no room for anger and resentment.”

I think it’s true.  If I ponder a work situation where a colleague did something that seemed terribly inappropriate, or a client blew up and offended everyone within earshot, it’s easy to get angry or judge that person harshly.  But if I tap into my curiosity first, I have a very different response.  What made that colleague choose to act inappropriately?  Was she acting out of fear?  Was there a misunderstanding? Did she somehow not realize the nature of her action?  Was something else going on that I’m not seeing?

And what made that client blow up?  Fear is often behind many such outbursts—what might he be afraid of?  Or maybe he’s not feeling appreciated, or perhaps there’s a personal calamity in his life that has stretched him to his limits?  What don’t I know that might explain his behavior?

As soon as I yield to curiosity and allow for the possibility that there may be something going on that is beyond my awareness, I can replace my reflex response of anger or disgust with a desire to understand and even a desire to help.  Curiosity leads to kindness.

“When we aren’t curious in conversations we judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.” (Kirsten Siggins)

Curiosity vs. Discipline

In a recent article from the Harvard Business Review—one that I think should be required reading for anyone who manages or supervises other people, or who wants to—Stanford University research psychologist Emma Sepppala, PhD, describes how compassion and curiosity are more effective than frustration and reprimand in responding to an underperforming employee or one who has made a serious mistake.

Traditional, authoritarian management approaches tend to focus on reprimanding, criticizing, even frightening the employee—the rationale being that fear and embarrassment might teach the individual the error of his/her ways.  Instead, the research shows, it serves mostly to erode loyalty and trust and to impede creativity and innovation.

A more effective response to an employee’s error or underperformance is to first get our own emotions in control, and then view the situation from the employee’s eyes.  Here’s where curiosity comes into play.  What caused the mistake or what might be the reason for the poor performance?  What is the employee feeling about the error that he made?  Chances are he is horrified, embarrassed, and frightened.  A kind response—this doesn’t mean overlooking the error, but using it as a teaching or coaching opportunity and doing it compassionately—will engender loyalty, trust, and even devotion.  It will also be far more effective than reprimand or punishment in helping the employee avoid such mistakes in the future.

The loyalty engendered by the kind response extends beyond the particular employee you may be dealing with.  Seppala notes that “If you are more compassionate to your employee, not only will he or she be more loyal to you, but anyone else who has witnessed your behavior may also experience elevation and feel more devoted to you.”

It makes sense.  Everyone makes mistakes, and if our employees see their boss or manager respond kindly to a coworker’s blunder, they can feel secure in the knowledge that when they make a mistake, the response is likely to be similarly compassionate.  This fosters a culture of safety, one that encourages innovation, creativity, productivity, and loyalty—these are the qualities that the best and the brightest are seeking for their career homes.

Whoever said “curiosity killed the cat,” had it wrong.  Curiosity is one of the most beneficial qualities we can cultivate.  Combine it with kindness and magic happens!

“Let go of certainty. The opposite isn’t uncertainty. It’s openness, curiosity and a willingness to embrace paradox, rather than choose up sides. The ultimate challenge is to accept ourselves exactly as we are, but never stop trying to learn and grow.” (Tony Schwartz)

Positive Feedback Nets Positive Results (and the converse is also true…)

“When we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are. When we treat them as if they were what they should be, they will become what they should be. ” (Thomas S. Monson)

Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; attrib: Donna CameronCarol’s comment about last week’s “Kindness in the Workplace” post got me to thinking.  She noted her experience that treating people with kindness and encouragement brings out their best work.  The carrot, she said, is far more effective than the stick.

That recalled my first real job after college.  It was my first “9-to-5” office job and it was for a textbook publisher—a small publishing division incongruously owned by a huge publically-traded corporation that had a global presence in technology and defense.  The president of our little division was a bully.  He motivated—if that’s what you call it—by fear and intimidation.  That was about the time that a variety of books on winning through intimidation, looking out for number one, screw the other guy, and nice guys finish last were gaining in popularity.  I’m pretty sure he stayed up nights underlining these texts and planning how he was going to terrorize the editorial and sales teams working under him.

My immediate boss trembled at the mere mention of his name, and a call from the “home office”—3000 miles away—always triggered panic.  The twice-yearly meetings that brought together staff from all the division’s offices were an opportunity for him to browbeat his employees one-on-one or in small groups.  He would berate, belittle, and threaten employees in front of their peers.  After a national sales meeting, there was always a spate of resignations—mine was one of those finally.  And yet he wondered why the company had high turnover.

I worked with some really good people at that company, and I was sorry to be leaving them when I resigned.  But I wasn’t sorry to leave the company, its chief executive, or the pervasive culture of fear and intimidation.

I don’t regret the three years I worked there.  I learned a great deal, met a lot of tremendous people, and developed some professional confidence.  I also had an opportunity at a very early age to make some decisions about what I would and would not tolerate in my professional life.  I vowed to myself that I would not work for another bully, and that I would not be a part of a culture that didn’t value its employees or that relied on threats and intimidation rather than encouragement and support.  I don’t think I articulated it at the time, but from that day forward, I sought kind employers and managers, and when it was my turn to step into the employer/manager role, I sought to be kind and encouraging.  I don’t think I always succeeded, but it was my intent.

Last week, I mentioned Lance Secretan’s books on leadership as being ones that addressed leading with kindness and compassion.  D. Michael Abrashoff—a former Naval commander—has written a couple of great books that also approach leadership from a positive and compassionate perspective.  In It’s Your Ship, he describes how he took over command of the USS Benfold—positioned dead last in naval rankings—and, in partnership with its crew, quickly turned it around to be deemed “the best damn ship in the Navy.”  It’s an inspiring story, and a great lesson in leadership.

One of Commander Abrashoff’s guiding principles was to empower and support his people.  He said, “I prefer to build myself up by strengthening others and helping them feel good about their jobs and themselves. When that happens, their work improves, and my own morale leaps.”

He further noted of his shipmates and crew, “The more I thanked them for hard work, the harder they worked.  The payoff in morale was palpable.  I’m absolutely convinced that positive, personal reinforcement is the essence of effective leadership.”

His next book bore the great title, Get Your Ship Together, and it was a collection of case studies of successful businesses—ones that achieved their success through various means of positive personal reinforcement..

In neither book does Abrashoff diminish the need for criticism or discipline, but shows how it can be applied firmly, fairly, and with compassion—and to great result.

We All Need Feedback

Feedback isn’t always going to be positive—we’d never learn or improve if it was.  But any manager or leader who thinks a steady stream of negative feedback will motivate employees and make them eager to improve is woefully misguided.  Professor Kim Cameron (no relation, but coincidentally, I do have a sister named Kim Cameron) of the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan asserts that both positive and negative feedback are essential, but that effective motivation requires a ratio skewed heavily to the positive.  He reports that high-performance teams demonstrate a positive statement ratio of 5.6-to-1 vs. low performance teams which exhibit a positive to negative ratio of 0.36 to 1.

Expanding Dr. Cameron’s research beyond just the business world, what if we apply his findings and ratio to family settings, and friends, and our day-to-day interactions with all our planet-mates?  What would happen if each of us committed to a personal goal of making six positive comments for every one negative remark.  That would make for either a very positive world … or a very quiet one.  Either way, it’s an improvement.

“Invent your world. Surround yourself with people, color, sounds, and work that nourish you.” – Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy (Sark)

Uber Kindness

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” (Desmond Tutu)

If You Are GrouchyI’ve been reading about how Uber and other companies are changing the dynamic of customer relations.  That old “the-customer-is-always-right” mentality is being stuffed in the trunk with our luggage, and in a nifty bit of table-turning, businesses are rating their customers and rejecting those who don’t measure up.

One would hope that the ultimate outcome will be both companies and customers who strive for pleasant and kind interactions.

In the case of Uber, while passengers have always rated their drivers, now drivers are also rating passengers, and low marks may mean the customer is left waiting at the curb for future transport.  From an Uber blog post:

“An Uber trip should be a good experience for drivers too – drivers shouldn’t have to deal with aggressive, violent, or disrespectful riders. If a rider exhibits disrespectful, threatening, or unsafe behavior, they, too, may no longer be able to use the service.  Have partner drivers been deactivated for consistently poor ratings? You bet. Have riders been given a temporary cooling off period or barred from using the app for inappropriate or unsafe behavior? Yes. The system works to make sure the most respectful riders and drivers are using Uber.”

Lyft, a private-driver taxi company similar to Uber, has followed suit in rating passengers and using those ratings to help determine whether or not to accept ride requests.  Home rental service Airbnb also makes ratings of guests available to help home-owners decide whom they will and will not rent their homes to.

It makes sense.  If I have a choice in who I drive to the airport or who I rent my house to for a week, I’d like it to be the courteous passenger or guest—not the ones who are rude, ill-behaved, or unpleasant.  Admittedly, courtesy can be subjective: one driver might give high marks to the passenger who sits quietly in the back seat, while another might feel that person was cold and unfriendly.  One driver might like conversation and banter, while others prefer silence.  The same holds true with passenger preferences.  Maybe it all comes down to simple common sense: when we meet a person, we gauge their communication style and their personality and we adapt to them.  Ideally, they do the same to us and we meet in the middle, recognizing that we’re each doing the best we can.

The implications are fascinating.  In the case of Uber and Airbnb, customers are learning to be polite and considerate.  They’re learning that people in service industries expect and deserve to be treated with respect.  And they’re learning about the consequences of behaving otherwise.

When the customer rates the service and the service rates the customer, the hope would be that the rating is approached with a spirit of positivity.  All are looking for what’s good rather than for what isn’t.  Those who are optimists and seekers of virtue will find what they are looking for.  The danger is that people who are naturally critical or negative will revel in their new role as faultfinders.  Perhaps the answer is a complex algorithm that calculates each individual in his or her role as both the reviewer and the reviewee.

While there is always the chance of abuse if a subjective system is utilized by subjective and/or flawed individuals, if the company culture is positive, I suspect the system will settle into one that is also predominantly positive.

The Comcast Factor

If one starts out with poor intentions, though, a two-way evaluation system is rife for abuse.  Look at what happened recently with Comcast—a company notorious for both abysmal customer service and a poor company culture.  In February of this year several stories of customer abuse were revealed.  When a customer tried to cancel service, her closing bill arrived addressed to A%#hole Brown.  Another customer who called Comcast to resolve channel access issues found her first name had been changed to “Super Bitch” on her next bill.  It would seem that these are not isolated incidents.  On another customer’s bill, the word “whore” was added before her first name and another customer was given the appellation “dummy.” Stories like this go all the way back to 2005, which would lead one to believe that Comcast has a serious culture problem and is doing little to fix it.  That obvious assumption is supported by the fact that Comcast consistently has the worst customer satisfaction ratings of any ISP in the country and is was named the “Worst Company in America” by a 2014 consumer survey.

The Beginnings of a Consideration Movement

Leaving aside companies like Comcast which show scant hope of ever exhibiting kindness or quality, perhaps there is a burgeoning consideration movement whose time has come: service companies rating their customers … dentists rating their patients … movie theaters rating their patrons….and all with the intent of creating a more pleasant and rewarding two-way relationship.  What do you think?

In our small company, we have exercised our prerogative to dismiss clients a few times over the years—nearly always for behaving disrespectfully toward our employees.  In every case, the decision resulted in improved office morale and created a space for a better, kinder client to fill.  Invariably, our only regret was that we didn’t do it sooner.

While it would be preferable if courtesy and kindness came naturally as a first response, perhaps the threat of a public rating system is what’s needed to arouse our kindness awareness, and that will ultimately lead to habitual kindness responses.

One can always hope….

“Unkind people imagine themselves to be inflicting pain on someone equally unkind.” (Marcel Proust)

Great Expectations

“We become what we love.  Whatever you are giving your time and attention to, day after day, is the kind of person you will eventually become.” (Wayne Muller)

Attribution: Donna CameronI look at this year as an opportunity for me to practice kindness and to learn to extend kindness more often and more naturally.  It is also an opportunity for me to expand my kindness awareness, to see others acting kindly and recognize the act for what it is.

While I will undoubtedly observe many incidents of unkindness or of kindness opportunities missed—and many will surely be my own—I don’t want to spend my time looking for or focused on those negative examples.  As Jose Ortega y Gasset says, “Tell me what you pay attention to, and I will tell you who you are.”

It has been my experience that for the most part, in our day-to-day lives we get what we expect.  If I expect to be treated with courtesy and respect, I generally am, and am greatly surprised when not treated thusly.  Of course, I am saying this as a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman.  I am not so naïve that I don’t realize I could be treated very differently if I were of a different age, race, gender, background, or circumstances.  Far too many people still react out of prejudice, fear, and ignorance.  That brings to mind Tom Lehrer’s words in the intro to his classic song, National Brotherhood Week: “There are people in the world who do not love their fellow human beings and I hate people like that.” Still, I want to be a person who expects the best—of myself and others.

When What We Do Gets in the Way of Who We Are

There are a lot of people—smart, generous, and kind—whose professions have trained them to look for what’s wrong and rewarded them for their efforts.  We saw this with certain clients in our company over the years.  If success in their profession requires that they be good at finding mistakes, aberrations, or imprecision—as building inspectors, clinical diagnosticians, or auditors, for example—they sometimes extend that ability to other parts of their lives, often completely unaware that it may not be appropriate or appreciated.  They are always the ones to point out the typo in the newsletter … they find fault with the way the hedge was clipped or the lawn was mowed … they feel the need to inform their waitress in the Thai restaurant that “Wellcome” is misspelled on the menu (let’s you and I move to Bangkok and open a restaurant and see if we get everything right)….

Sadly, they listen for the missed note rather than for the music.

Sometimes, with only a few words, they can suck the life and joy out of an encounter.  They’re “just trying to help” by pointing out a flaw, but the person they’ve pointed it out to can be annoyed, demoralized, and even demotivated.  We saw the damage such behaviors wreak in a board room; I can only imagine what having such a critical person as a spouse or parent might be like.

The lesson here may be that what makes someone good at their job may not be the same skills that make them a good parent, board member, or friend.  Sometimes, the kindest thing we can do is overlook the unimportant blunder, the mispronunciation, the misstatement.  It’s hard, though, if you’ve been trained to seek out flaws, or if it’s important to you that everyone knows how smart you are.  I think it sometimes comes down to would you rather be right or happy? because you can’t always be both.  This is one of those lessons we learn and relearn, and choices we choose and rechoose.

An editor friend of mine once told me he finds it hard at times to read for pleasure, because he can’t turn off the editor in his head.  He finds himself looking for errors or better ways to craft a sentence rather than enjoying the author’s passion or the story.

Wayne Muller, in one of my favorite books of all time, How, Then, Shall We Live? elegantly describes the dangers of honing our critical skills to the exclusion of others:

“All we are is a result of what we have thought.  If we focus the lion’s share of our energy on what we believe is wrong…, we gradually grow into people who are good at seeing what is wrong….  Instead of creating a life of beauty and meaning, we may simply become better and better at seeing only what is broken.”