What Employees Really Want: Kindness in the Workplace

Remember there’s no such thing as a small act of kindness. Every act creates a ripple with no logical end.” –Scott Adams, “Dilbert Comics”

Our firm works with a variety of organizations—midsized companies to large Fortune 500 cultures—all seemingly wanting the same things these days:

  • A way to figure out the employee engagement problem
  • A way to encourage teams to work together (collaborate more) to accomplish more while eliminating dysfunction and silos

So what does team dysfunction and shrinking employee engagement levels have to do with kindness? To define kindness, “the quality of being warm-hearted and considerate and humane and sympathetic.”

Nice Guys Finish Last?

Humbling stuff, this characteristic called kindness. Take one of the leaders we have had the pleasure of working with these last few years—we’ll call him Larry* (not his real name). Larry was recruited to a new company almost 3 years ago. With his big contract and past track record of success, he was encouraged to make the changes necessary to “get the business unit back on track in a reasonable time.”

The thing that became most clear about Larry as we started to work with him around team alignment and cultural change was this—Larry was a kind leader with a set of values and high integrity. He wanted to go straight at disagreements and work through the issues. He assumed that because the CEO supported what he was doing, the rest of the senior leadership would support him as well. As he battled inside the culture that told him to make the changes necessary, he began to realize that others were not as direct and were not in support for the needed changes. He began to get cut out of meetings. His peers went out of their way to disagree with his approach. His budget was cut and he saw responsibility reduced. The CEO pulled away and began to question his decisions.

The Case for Kind Leaders

Larry has since moved on to a different company with a more engaged culture, a CEO who is transparent and straight forward, and a group of peers he really feels connected to. We recently caught up with him and asked him if he regretted his move to the other company. His answer surprised us, “no, I don’t, what I learned there is invaluable. I learned that I am more committed than ever to working in a culture where hard work, integrity and transparency are the norms. I learned there that I want to be the kind of leader who builds people up rather than tears them down.” Former CEO of Tesco, Terry Leahy makes the case for a converted dog-eat-dog approach to one of more generosity in the effort to build stronger relationships at work thus getting more things done.

So is recognition for kindness growing? Recently, celebrity Ashton Kutcher got in on the act with his incredibly inspiring acceptance speech at the Teen Choice Awards about the 3 most important things in life (video has gone viral with over 2.6 million views). One of them was about being generous.

What’s Engagement got to do with Kindness?

Not long ago, Gallup conducted a study with 10,000 employees to ask what they most wanted in a leader. The results were not as expected. Sure setting strategic direction and getting results still matter, but what followers really need is more trust, compassion, stability and hope from their leaders, http://businessjournal.gallup.com/content/113542/what-followers-want-from-leaders.aspx“The best part of life is not just surviving, but thriving with passion and compassion and humor and style and generosity and kindness.” – Maya Angelou

The High Cost of Treating People Poorly

Disengagement levels remain a dismal 70% at organizations today because we have lost the ability to see things as Larry does. Organizations continue to gauge their organizational health increased focus on employee engagement surveys. We are often hired to work with companies after the scores are disappointing or have slipped from prior year’s results. We typically come in and work with teams to action plan around the solutions they would like to see come out of the survey process. In working with close to 100 different teams in a variety of cultures, we see the biggest problems in employee engagement center around:

  • Employees do not feel valued
  • Employees are not recognized
  • Employees do not know what others do versus what they do
  • Employees do not trust senior leadership
  • Employees are not trained for career development
  • Employees are not aligned around the company goals
  • Employees do not understand the changes expected of them
  • Employees feel overworked

We certainly know that kindness won’t eliminate all the problems on the list above, but we do propose that it goes a long way towards creating an environment where people feel like they matter. And, feeling they matter leads to greater collaboration and stronger employee engagement levels.“Unexpected kindness is the most powerful, least costly, and most underrated agent of human change.” – Bob Kerrey