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 and Common Sense Often Go Hand-in-Hand

“There are few problems in life which kindness and common sense cannot make simple and manageable.” (Mary Burchell)

Attribution: Donna CameronI’ve been invited to speak at a conference later this month on the importance of kindness in business and the workplace. Working on my PowerPoint (of course, there must be a PowerPoint!) and putting some notes together this last weekend, I kept thinking how obvious it is: kindness is one of the keys to success in business—both individual success and organizational success. It seems like a no-brainer.

I’m old enough that I remember the days of “Chainsaw” Al Dunlap and a proliferation of business books about Winning Through Intimidation, Looking Out for Number One, and Nice Guys Finish Last. There really was a time when “profit at any price” was a prevailing business philosophy and when ideals like kindness, compassion, and even teamwork were viewed as soft, squishy, and oh-so-weak.

Managers believed—they were even taught—that they got the most effort from their employees through bullying, browbeating, and coercion. They overlooked the obvious—that those behaviors resulted in low morale, resentment, and high turnover.

In recent years, there’s been a whole lot of research on kindness. As I’ve noted in many earlier posts, there are health benefits, wealth benefits, relationship benefits, and, yes, many, many business benefits. Just as there were once many books on cutthroat business practices, there are now numerous books on compassion as a successful business strategy. Among them:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unlike the others, this last one isn’t a recent book. It’s 20 years old, but still one of the best business books I know. Certain ideas are timeless, and you’ll find them in this and other books by Lance Secretan.

 

Here’s just a sampling of some of the recent research on kind and compassionate workplaces, found in these books and elsewhere:

Employees of companies described as having kind cultures:

  • Perform at 20% higher levels
  • Are 87% less likely to leave their jobs
  • Make fewer errors, thus saving their companies time and money
  • The companies themselves have 16% higher profitability
  • And if they’re publically traded companies, they have a 65% higher share price.

Research has also shown that compassionate business cultures consistently have:

  • better customer service
  • healthier employees and fewer absences
  • far less turnover and an easier time replacing employees when they do leave
  • higher productivity
  • greater employee engagement and commitment, and
  • an atmosphere where learning, collaboration and innovation are more likely to flourish.

In business, kindness is your competitive advantage.

It helps to have some common sense, too.

Which brings to mind United Airlines’ recent incident. I’m sure you’ve heard the story: Passengers were bumped from their seats and removed from a plane to make room for United crew members who needed to get to the flight’s destination. One bumped passenger, a doctor of Chinese descent, was forcibly removed when he refused the bump, telling airline personnel he had to get home to see patients. Security dragged him from his seat and pulled him by his arms and on his back down the aisle; his face was battered and bloodied in the process. What did United gain by this? Well, maybe they got their flight crew to their destination, but it cost them millions of dollars (one estimate I saw said easily a billion!) in bad press, lost passengers, and worldwide contempt. In China, where United is among several airlines competing for a share of the huge travel market, videos of the incident have gone viral at record rates, and Chinese travelers are vowing never to fly United. The monetary and P.R. costs to the company are incalculable.

Common sense and a compassionate mindset would have told United there were numerous other options: buying tickets for their crew on another airline, seeking a back-up crew, allowing the stranded crew’s flight to be delayed, approaching passengers without the confrontational, stormtrooper tactics…they could even have chartered a small plane. The relatively small cost of any of these options would have been preferable to the “nuclear option” they chose.

But if kindness and compassion—and, let’s face it, common sense—aren’t part of a company’s culture, these are the sorts of things that happen. I’m guessing other airlines, and other businesses in general, are using the United story as a teaching moment for their executives and employees. Let’s hope United has the good sense to be one of those companies.

If they’re interested, I can recommend some good books….

“When the power of love overcomes the love of power the world will know peace.” (Jimi Hendrix)

Brace Yourself for an Epidemic of Bad Behavior

“Let us learn to live with kindness, to love everyone, even when they do not love us.” (Pope Francis)

Attribution: Donna Cameron

Wallace Falls State Park, Aug. 2015

It’s going to be a long 14 months until our next presidential election. Many other countries have very different approaches to their elections:

  • In Canada, the minimum length for a campaign is 36 days, and the longest ever—in 1926—was 10.5 weeks;
  • In Australia, the campaign must be at least 33 days; the longest ever was 11 weeks in 1910;
  • In France, the official election campaign usually lasts no more than 2 weeks;
  • In Japan, campaigning is permitted for 12 days.

Sigh.

In our wisdom, we Americans draw out the process longer than the War of the Roses. And, to add to the fun, our candidates engage in incivility that would cause them to have their mouths rinsed out with soap, or at least an extended time-out, if they were really the 8-year-olds they act like.

But they are adult men and women, and for many of them, name-calling, lying and rudeness are standard operating procedures. And, sadly, their supporters cheer and egg them on, giving tacit approval for boorish behavior. Recent research indicates that this is likely to be the beginning of an epidemic of incivility.

According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Florida, rudeness is contagious. Really, it spreads like a cold or the flu—it’s passed from one person to the next until most everybody’s got it. Not only do people who are subject to rude treatment themselves subsequently behave rudely, even those who only witness rudeness succumb to rude behaviors.

The study, published in late June in The Journal of Applied Psychology, asserts that, “Just like the common cold, common negative behaviors can spread easily.” Lead researcher Trever Foulk further stated, “It’s very easy to catch. Just a single incident, even observing a single incident, can cause you to be more rude…. Rudeness is contagious, when I experience it, I become rude.”

We Tolerate Bad Behavior

“Part of the problem,” he adds, “is that we are generally tolerant of these behaviors, but they’re actually really harmful.” Where outright abuse and aggression are far more infrequent—and less readily accepted—rudeness is something people face daily, and its effects can be widely devastating.

“Rudeness is largely tolerated,” Foulk said. “We experience rudeness all the time in organizations because organizations allow it.”

Maybe our presidential candidates should come with a warning label: Caution: listening to this man could be hazardous to your humanity.

Perhaps most concerning: the study revealed that all of this happens at an unconscious level. “What we found in this study,” said Foulk, “is that the contagious effect is based on an automatic cognitive mechanism—automatic means it happens somewhere in the subconscious part of your brain, so you don’t know it’s happening and can’t do much to stop it.”

Does that mean that those people who abhor what Donald Trump says and stands for, but who watch him for his entertainment value only, are nonetheless “catching” his rudeness? Sounds like it to me….  Also sounds like my friend Kris is wise in declaring a news fast.

Responding to the study, Barbara Mitchell, human resources consultant, and author of The Essential Workplace Conflict Handbook, says rude behavior can be stopped if it’s clear to all that such behavior will not be tolerated. “To me it starts from the top…. How does the leadership behave? What kind of culture do they want? And how do they live their own values within the organization?” She further notes that bad behavior must be addressed immediately. It must be made clear to everyone the moment it surfaces that rudeness will not be tolerated. While she is talking about workplace incivility, it stands to reason that the same factors exist at a broader, cultural level: How do our leaders behave? What values do they model? What are we—as members of that culture—willing to tolerate?

If being treated rudely, or even just witnessing rude treatment, causes people to behave more rudely themselves, over the next 14 months we are likely to see an escalation of discourtesy of unimagined proportion.

If we want to advance a kind and courteous culture, we need to take a stand. We need to politely say “no” when a politician speaks disrespectfully of an opponent, a celebrity, or a mere dissenter. Or when the media or political pundits engage in name-calling or deceit. We need say “that’s not acceptable” and turn our backs if they persist. That’s how the contagion is countered.

Fortunately, It Works Both Ways

The news isn’t all bad. There’s also been research that kindness can spread like a contagion, too. Scottish scientist David R. Hamilton, Ph.D., has done considerable research into the health benefits of kindness.  He asserts that just as colds and flu (and as we now know, rudeness) are contagious in a bad way, so is kindness in a good way. “When we’re kind,” Hamilton says, “we inspire others to be kind, and it actually creates a ripple effect that spreads outwards to our friends’ friends’ friends—to three degrees of separation.” As an example of that ripple effect, Dr. Hamilton cites the story of an anonymous individual who donated a kidney to a stranger. It triggered a ripple of family members donating their kidneys to others, the “domino effect” ultimately spanning the breadth of the U.S. and resulting in ten people receiving kidneys as a result of one anonymous donor.

Whether one extends kindness, receives kindness, or merely witnesses kindness, the result is the same: it acts as a catalyst for more kindness.

So, as cold and flu season approach, not to mention the malady known as campaign season, we can choose what sorts of bugs we will expose ourselves to. We can choose to breathe the air of reckless incivility or of well-mannered courtesy. If only there were a simple shot to protect us from election affliction….

More election comparisons: In Germany, political parties release just one 90-second television ad. In the U.K.’s last major election (2010), British political parties spent just about the same amount as the American presidential candidates spent on expenses related to raising money in 2012. Sigh.

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.” (Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The Jerk Shall Inherit the Earth?

Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies, God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” (Kurt Vonnegut)

Bandalier,NM-ladderWellcrap.  I’ve spent the last fifteen years reckoning the importance of kindness in my life, and the last five months deeply immersed in an exploration of kindness.  And I have become convinced that despite local, national, and world current events to the contrary, people are growing kinder; we are on the verge of a kindness Renaissance.

Turns out I was wrong.

At least that’s one interpretation from an article that appeared in the June issue of Atlantic magazine.  Entitled “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” author Jerry Useem asserts that—consistent with the old adage—nice guys generally do finish last.  He further claims that some of the most successful people in business are also some of the biggest jerks—think Steve Jobs—and that their jerkiness is exactly what led to their success.

Useem does caution that being a jerk can also backfire and lead to abject failure, but bad behavior done right in certain circumstances is often the path to the top.

For example, stealing supplies or provisions just to benefit oneself doesn’t advance you in the eyes of colleagues, but stealing and sharing the bounty with others puts you at the head of the team.

And someone who aggressively claims to have the answers, even when they don’t, is seen as a leader and often elevated to the leadership position.  Further, it seems that the more unaware one is of how unfounded and even deluded one’s self-confidence is, the more swift and direct is the narcissist’s propulsion to the top.  UC Berkeley Research Psychologist Cameron Anderson explained, “By all indications, when these people say they believe they’re in the 95th percentile when they’re actually in the 30th percentile, they fully believe it.” And somehow they make others believe it, too.

I think this explains so much about our political system, or “jerkocracy,” as I am moved to call it. It would seem that some politicians think they’re a lot smarter than they really are and we’ve bought into their delusion.  Okay, I know that’s a totally unkind thing to say, but really—do a quick run-down of presidential contenders—doesn’t it explain a lot?

Another distressing example in the article showed that people who are treated rudely and condescended to by salespeople in upscale brand stores (e.g. Hermes, Gucci, Louis Vuitton) tend to spend more money than they do when treated well by another salesperson in the same store.  There were some qualifications to this: the shoppers needed to value the brand, the salesperson must convey the image of the brand, and such tactics by the salesperson generally only work once with the same buyer (of course, if you’re selling Rolexes, one sale is probably sufficient).  It also completely backfired if it wasn’t a truly upscale store, i.e., don’t try this if you work at Kohl’s or Target.

Givers and Takers

If anything’s clear from the article, it’s that the whole subject is murky.  Useem cites research by Wharton professor Adam Grant, author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our SuccessGrant depicts “givers,” those whom we would generally describe as kind and generous, and “takers,” who are often labeled narcissists and jerks, noting that both givers and takers occupy the top—and the bottom—of the success spectrum.

The conclusion seems to be that you can be successful if you are kind and a giver as long as you are perceived as strong and are consistent in your behavior.  And you can be successful if you are an overconfident, narcissistic jerk as long as you are convincing and seen as someone whose success will have a spillover effect on those around him.  For both giver and taker, if you don’t convey your understanding of and ability to bring others along on your success journey, you can expect to make a nose-dive to the bottom.

So, it appears we have a choice if we want to be successful: we can be kind or we can be jerks—we just have to do either effectively.  While I have undoubtedly been a jerk at one time or another, I hope those episodes have been rare.  I choose kindness.  Being a jerk to achieve success would be soul-crushing.

Perhaps the choice between the kindness route and the jerk route depends upon how you define success.  I’ve never viewed it as either wealth or power.  Increasingly, I do define success as spreading kindness and helping others.  As long as power, intimidation, and obscene wealth constitute success for some, it looks like jerks will continue to lead.

So, the Atlantic article is discouraging.  There does not appear to be a straight path to a kinder and more respectful world.  Jerks are still reaping the rewards of their bad behavior.  There’s still a long way to go to reach the kindness tipping point.

Nobody ever claimed it would be easy.  But, we’re in this together and each time we choose kindness we move that much closer.

“Our lives are made of these moments.  Simple words and actions, taken together, weave a single day, and our days become our life.  Every gesture is a seed, and the seed determines the harvest.” (Wayne Muller)

Kindness in the Workplace

“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)

Cloudy Sunrise at Storm LakeOver 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.

Choosing Integrity

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)