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Karen Liebenguth


Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

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Cultivating kindness in the workplace starts with the leaders

Kindness begins with the leadership: Encouraging this practice within your organisation will bring much more than just a happy workplace.

Being too kind is viewed by some leaders as a sign of being soft or weak, consequently, kindness is not considered a key leadership quality. However, more and more research suggests that kindness is at the heart of ethical leadership and manifests in qualities such as caring, compassion, fairness and trust which in turn has a positive impact on the organisation and society.

The perks of being kind

Kindness is the quality of openness, friendliness, curiosity, care, understanding, warmth and love. We don’t need to fabricate it or make it happen. It’s already present, intrinsic in our human capacity. Your kindness muscle may be a bit stiff, but it can be trained, developed and cultivated through daily practice just like any other physical muscle. 

Kindness makes us emotionally robust and positive. Research shows that people who practice kindness, friendliness, respect and appreciation towards self and others are better able to acknowledge their mistakes, imperfections and negative actions, to learn from them and to change for the better, than those who do not.

This is because, writes David Hamilton is The Five Side Effects of Kindness, having a positive and kind attitude towards themselves allows them to admit to their failings and those of others without being overwhelmed by negative emotions.

Forget the fluff, kindness has power

As leaders, kindness can enable us to see and hear our team members and colleagues fully. Being kind doesn’t mean being nice and fluffy. Kind leaders can still be assertive, firm, honest, have difficult conversations, hold people accountable etc. The attitude is key, i.e. how we have difficult conversations makes all the difference. 

According to Rick Hanson, author of Hardwiring Happiness, when we practise bringing a kind, patient, respectful and friendly attitude to ourselves and others, we bring about chemical and structural changes to our brain that will help to establish ‘kindness circuits’ – the creation of millions of new connections (neuropathways) in the brain –  wiring our brain for more kindness.

Words to live by

The power of kindness is beautifully expressed by the ancient Chinese philosopher and writer Lao Tzu when he says: 

'Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profundity. Kindness in giving creates love'.

We could add: 'And when we feel loved, we feel safe and connected, when we feel safe and connected, we naturally want to do well and are more committed and willing to go above and beyond.' We don’t need research for this, everyone knows this, it’s the very fabric of our human condition. This applies to leaders and staff members alike.

Kindness helps us to develop a sturdy loving heart so that we can stand tall in the midst of adversity without being swayed by the worldly winds

In his book Ethical Leadership, Michael Brown, leading researcher in the young and emerging field of ethical leadership at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that the key qualities that define an ethical leader are: kindness, integrity, honesty and humility; leaders who are open to feedback, good at listening and able to hold people accountable. Ethical leaders have a profoundly positive effect on the culture of an organisation and hence the wellbeing and mental health of its people..

But is it possible to be a kind, ethical leader when stress levels are high? Absolutely. But when we feel stressed it’s harder to be kind because we often go into auto-pilot or reactive mode of behaving because we feel under pressure. We also often revert to unhelpful habits such as being highly judgemental of ourselves and others, short tempered, snappy, aggressive or controlling. 

How to become kinder

The good news is, we can change. We can become aware of our habitual ways of feeling and behaving when stressed, and begin to slow down and be kind to ourselves. Easier said than done. Again, attitude is key, how we are with ourselves and others when faced with high demands and workload at work. Robin Banerjee, professor of developmental psychology and the founder of the Sussex Centre for Research on kindness says: ‘When the going gets tough, it’s the kind that gets going.’

This may sound sentimental but it isn’t, it holds some deep truth and a paradox. When we feel stressed and want to feel calm, intuitively we want to get rid of feeling stressed and work hard to feel calm which makes it worse. To feel calm, we really have to feel the stress in the body with kindness and compassion. When we do, the experience changes, we feel more calm. And this also benefits others around us. 

Kindness helps us to develop a sturdy loving heart so that we can stand tall in the midst of adversity without being swayed by the worldly winds. Here are some simple steps to make a start at cultivating kindness –  and cultivating kindness means that the seed of kindness is already here.

1. Start where you are

Become aware of the attitude towards yourself – if it’s harsh and critical, pause, take a few deep breaths and bring curiosity to the narrative: What is the inner critic telling you? Then ask: ‘is it true that I’m weak, soft, a rubbish leader, a failure?’ Most of the time it’s not true which can reduce stress levels enormously. Begin to bring an attitude of kindness and respect to yourself and allow yourself to be human. ‘Right now, I’m feeling stressed, tired, tight, fearful…. It’s ok. It’s human.’

2. Know you are kind

If you are telling yourself: ‘I can’t do kindness or I’m not a kind person’? Try this: Recall a situation when someone was kind to you. Step into the experience. What did it feel like? Then, recall a situation when you were kind to someone. What did it feel like? Whatever you feel - warmth, connection, open-heartedness, love, understanding - that’s the quality of kindness. 

3. Practice kindness daily

Expand the attitude of kindness with openness, empathy and curiosity towards others remembering our common humanity. Set an intention to do some conscious acts of kindness regularly if not daily. For example, genuinely ask a colleague or staff member: ‘How are you?’  Make time to listen, say ‘thank you’ even if you don’t feel like it, offer a helping hand and support in small and bigger ways.

It’s important to remember that kindness is infectious because it feels good and that our kind actions always have a positive impact on ourselves and others. 

Interested in this topic? Read Leadership: Why kindness is an underrated quality at work.

Author Profile Picture
Karen Liebenguth

Executive and Leadership Coach & Workplace Wellbeing & Conflict Resolution

Read more from Karen Liebenguth

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