Is kindness in leadership the key to recovery?

We are often given the impression that to be successful in business, leaders must be detached, cool and hyper-competitive.

Author: Vanella Jackson, Global CEO at Hall & Partners
July 12, 2021

Unsurprisingly, kindness is not an attribute that always features highly on business leaders’ agendas. And, if it does, for some it represents maintaining status and getting people to do as you ask. But given the turbulent year we’ve all been through, perhaps change is afoot.

So why now? Well, on a grander scale, kindness builds trust and improves productivity and loyalty. As we look to recovery and building back better, now is the time for leaders and businesses to adapt. The opportunity is to move quickly to focus on optimism and embrace kindness as integral parts of long-term recovery plans. Demonstrating kindness is fast becoming the leadership style that will achieve change and aid recovery in a fragile world.

On a more personal, less grandiose scale, if there’s one thing we as business leaders can do to make a difference, it would be to lead by example and show a little more kindness because even the smallest actions can have huge consequences. As the Dalai Lama once said: “If you think you’re too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.”

The strength of kindness

In our research – The power of kindness – which was inspired by a unique collaboration with Oxford University Saïd Business School, Global Thinkers Forum and Women of the Future, we revealed an overwhelming agreement among people that kind behaviours and actions have a positive impact on the people and culture of organisations and the desire to perform. This leads to better overall business performance.

When people feel valued and respected, they feel motivated and perform better, therefore making the business case for being kind, robust and strong. Simply put, kindness makes people happy, happy people work harder, which in turn helps businesses do well.

The challenge here is to change our perception of how we view kindness, particularly within a business environment. It’s not hard to see why some may view kindness as a weakness. By definition, kindness is seen as giving a part of yourself for another’s benefit.

As media and business psychologist Charlotte Armitage points out, this goes against our innate need to survive and make ourselves stronger. She explains that kindness is not typically associated with strength. However, sometimes it’s the strongest people who can be the kindest. They don’t feel the need to use defences, or put up barriers to protect themselves. They are therefore more able to offer genuine kindness because they themselves feel safe and secure with who they are. Armitage argues that offering kindness shows a level of psychological strength and resilience which is grounded in acceptance of oneself. Being kind is in reality a show of personal strength.

Collaboration, not isolation

Kind leaders put their people at the centre of their organisations. They recognise that people are key to organisational performance and impact. Through their kind behaviours and actions, they stimulate collaboration, encourage inclusivity and inspire commitment. Collaboration, rather than division and isolation, is much needed, within teams, in our organisations and our wider society. Indeed, most of the biggest challenges facing the world today are not matters that can be resolved by any one person, organisation or institution. Collaboration amongst diverse minds is key to success and human kindness is at the heart of a more collaborative and inclusive society.

Are you listening carefully?

Of all the kind behaviours discussed in our research, listening was among the most frequently mentioned. Our most basic need is to be heard and so listening attentively is a big part of being a good leader in any business.

During the pandemic, I have personally been challenged in so many new and unexpected ways. Managing the outpouring of emotion from friends and colleagues, that kept coming wave after wave throughout the year was difficult. I have tried to stay much closer to people by connecting to them more often and in more informal ways. Sending a message or just thinking about them; a personalised thank you or one-to-one chats.

However, becoming a kind leader isn’t about checking off a list of attributes from a ‘how-to’ list. Leading with kindness is more a way of life and how you conduct your daily actions with those around you. It is something you have to proactively work on and be more aware of.

Brand value

Kindness is increasingly important in organisational culture. Businesses are being judged on their actual (rather than their claimed) behaviour and if that is perceived to be unkind then this damage to their brand value can be catastrophic.

Recent examples are easy to find. Boohoo was exposed for unacceptable failings in its supply chain, while JD Wetherspoon’s outspoken chairman Tim Martin received widespread criticism at the start of the pandemic for his comments towards staff and did little to portray him as a kind leader.

However, from proactively offering paid lockdown leave, to advertising all jobs as flexible, finance giant Zürich is an excellent example of a company that understands what it means to embrace a kindness in leadership approach. With its ‘Family Friendly Workplace’ policy, it puts people and kindness at its core. This is a first-class example of how doing the right thing for people isn’t just a business choice, but also an essential ingredient of modern leadership.

Kind leadership in a crisis

Hall & Partners has also been looking at the value of kind leadership in a crisis, compared with ‘normal’ everyday work and beyond. Leadership in a crisis can take many forms, but importantly, kindness is found to underpin any and every response required to help an organisation successfully navigate the current pandemic and to keep staff happy, engaged and willing to stay the course.

The global workforce has been clear; it wants to be better informed and have a clearer oversight of its organisation’s overall purpose, strategic direction and, increasingly, its values.

Many people are facing indefinite job insecurity as the threat of a deeper global recession looms. Companies will therefore need to step up and communicate with greater clarity on business continuity and long-term recovery strategies to invoke confidence and engage their employees. And they need to deliver all this with sensitivity and compassion.

The post-COVID-19 workplace is looking quite different to the world of work we previously inhabited and it won’t return to ‘normal’ overnight – if at all. However, businesses can now seize this unique opportunity to support workers physically returning to work and prove how a kinder more empathetic leadership style and an inclusive collaborative approach is embedded in their organisation to drive permanent and long-lasting prosperity.

I believe businesses and brands have the power to change the world and this starts with people. The COVID-19 crisis, combined with impassioned social movements, have led us to reassess our core values and question the things that are important to us. What we are seeing is a fundamental shift in values and expectations from those around us. This in turn is impacting what people want from their work and their lives. They are looking for a new employee/employer contract, one that feels more equitable, fair and flexible.

Focusing on the importance of kindness in leadership is neither a fad, nor a shallow pitch made by a motivational speaker. Everyone can aspire to kindness; it gives life a richer meaning and has been shown to make us happier in the process. It’s time to challenge the traditional conversation, which has, in the past, overlooked the importance and power of kindness in leadership and the immense impact that it has in all areas of business and all areas of our lives.