While preparing this article, I interviewed a number of people to understand their perspectives on kindness. Although most considered themselves to be kind, almost everyone felt that being kind, as a characteristic, was not valued. What astounded me was how many people felt that being kind equated to being soft and weak, which puts them at risk of being taken advantage of. My analysis of this is that people don’t distinguish between being nice and being kind. Being nice is subjective and superficial and can camouflage ill intent. Being kind means being strong in character. As George Sand expressed, “Guard well within yourself that treasure – kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to learn without regret, how to acquire without meanness.” I would suggest that we all know people who are nice, but do not “treasure kindness”.
Today we are living in a world where the abnormal is being normalized. It is becoming okay to lie, cheat, deflect, deceive and dehumanize. We are witnessing the worst of human nature, largely because of the great economic, political and social divides.
John Steinbeck captured the moral dilemma, which all too many people seem challenged by in their interactions with others, when he wrote, “It always seemed strange to me that the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits that we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.”
In understanding the power of kindness, all of us should reflect on what we learned in kindergarten – the ethic of reciprocity, which is the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Were it not for the kindness of a German Soldier who captured my father after he was shot on the first day of the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands, it is not likely that my four brothers and I would have been conceived. This soldier gave real meaning to the ethic of reciprocity when he allowed Dad to flee, indicating that if their roles were reversed, he expected that Dad would do the same thing.
We are also witnessing with Hurricane Harvey that when we see the worst of Mother Nature, we see the best of Human Nature.
I was taught that the essence of kindness is to treat everyone with grace, class and dignity. I was also taught that being kind, particularly in difficult times or situations, is the most effective way to build loyalty, trust and respect.
This is something I have put into practice over my career in some pretty tough situations. For over a decade, I was chief labour relations spokesperson for management with Canada’s largest corporation (George Weston Ltd/Loblaw), negotiating with multiple unions who represented over 30,000 employees. Throughout my career, I have had the human resources functions in my portfolio of responsibilities, going through a number of restructures, divestitures and integration of acquisitions. While benefiting the organizations as a whole, there were obvious negative impacts on some people.
I take great pride in claiming under my watch, for over 35 years, other than a lock out in a small distribution facility, there was not a single labour disruption or a grievance that went to arbitration, nor was there a single civil trial related to employment. I attribute this 100% batting average to our philosophy of minimizing the negative impact on people, and continually and consistently treating everyone with grace, class and dignity, in good times and in bad.
I have coached many managers on having critical discussions with their employees. Those with low emotional intelligence have great difficulty with this, and usually either procrastinate or feel that they have to be harsh. Others cannot differentiate between being tough and being mean. And others are just mean.
I contend that one can be tough by setting high standards and expectations, holding accountabilities, and correcting deficiencies and behaviours. Being tough is not mean when it is done with the right intention, and in a positive respectful way. I further contend that not doing what is expected of you, as a manager, is actually unkind because most employees want to be challenged and to receive constructive feedback – both good and bad.
Throughout my career, I have had to invite many people out of the organizations I worked with. Dismissing an employee is one of the most difficult things a manager has to do, because it is critical to maintain that person’s dignity. It never fails to amaze me how people are destroyed, not so much by this final act, but by the method with which the action is taken. In August of 2013, a new standard on how not to dismiss employees was established, when AOL Chief Tim Armstrong was addressing the unit’s 1,100 employees. He cruelly chose this moment to publicly fire Alex Lena, the creative director of Patch (a division of AOL), on the spot.
The basic standard for kindness is to consider everyone as being human, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, colour, orientation, lifestyle, status or affiliation. I can’t believe I need to write this in 2017; however, all too many bosses are unable to progress past this. The hard reality is that bias and bigotry are at the core of the erosion of civility. Once moving past this inequity, we are able to bring balance to the equation of how you interact with others versus how you want to be interacted with.
In testing this, please consider how you:
. acknowledge others
. recognize someone in need
. respond to a request
. provide critical feedback
. hold others accountable
. include others
. express gratitude
. celebrate the success of others.
. hear someone out
. express displeasure
. give praise
. make people happy
. understanding how others feel
. stay connected with people you cherish
. react to bad news
. challenge others
Another often overlooked aspect of kindness is that it must come naturally. Being kind is just the way you are, without expecting anything other than reciprocity.
I was talking with someone recently who had divorced her husband. She realized that she actually didn’t know him as well as she thought, because she had made her choice to marry him based on how nice he was. It was not until many years later that she discovered that although he may have been nice, he was not very kind. Kindness is innate; niceness is created.
The real meaning of kindness really registered with me when I was 28 years old. I was a beneficiary in the will of someone with whom I had only had a casual relationship. For over a three-year period I sat beside Dan at the local coffee shop having my morning coffee. Dan had a stroke before I met him and had difficulty communicating; so while reading the newspaper, I would comment on what I read; and, this became our routine. When Dan passed away, his daughter sought me out at the coffee shop and indicated that he wanted to thank me for being so kind to him.
Our own acts of kindness should not be viewed by us as anything special or even significant; however, we must appreciate how special and significant to the receiver these acts are. Whenever someone makes a comment to me about an act of kindness, rather than saying, as I used to, “Oh it’s really nothing”, I now respond with a simple thank you for their kind comment because I recognize and appreciate that the act was not “really nothing” to them; and by their comment, it really means a great deal to them.
Andrew Faas (www.andrewfaas.com) is an author, activist, revolutionist, philanthropist, and management advisor promoting psychologically healthy, safe and fair workplaces. Before becoming a philanthropist, he led some of Canada’s largest corporations for over three decades as a senior executive. He founded the Faas Foundation, which supports non-profit organizations concerned with workplace well-being and other personal health and research endeavors. Currently he is partnering with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence on a ground-breaking initiative, Emotion Revolution in the Workplace, which will revolutionize the way organizations operate, leveraging the power of emotional intelligence; and Mental Health America, to help reduce unnecessary stress factors at work and eliminate stigma around a condition that affects one in five adults. His latest book “From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire,” reveals deep-seated dangers of bullying to everyone who works pinpointing the identifying characteristics of bullies and outlining how bullying undermines corporate profitability and value and how CEOs and boards can remedy it.