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)

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)