Matt Tenney, Contributor
Research has shown us time and again the benefits of kindness in the workplace. Practicing kindness at work makes employees happier, more engaged, and better performers, giving companies with kind cultures a competitive advantage.
Leaders who practice and encourage kindness in their organizations not only see improvements in profits and efficiency, they see improved relationships and a higher level of trust, which is so vital to a company’s success.
Though it may seem like a daunting task, creating a culture of kindness in your organization is easier than you think if you approach it with authentic intentions and a servant leader’s heart.
Here are 11 steps to creating a workplace culture where kindness is not only the norm, it is contagious.
Step 1: Model Kindness
This is the very first, and most important, step in establishing a culture of kindness in your organization.
Since leaders play such a pivotal role in establishing and reinforcing culture at all levels of the organization, kindness should guide the culture-building process from the beginning. This is why leaders should themselves model the behaviors they want to see in their employees.
Any leader who wants to create a work environment where kindness informs both how the company does business and how it treats employees must not only encourage employees to treat customers and each other with kindness, they must continually model kind behavior as part of their leadership approach.
As a leader, you set the tone for your organization’s culture. By showing kindness toward employees, you are demonstrating your dedication to a kind culture and showing employees how it is done.
Taking a servant leadership approach, where you serve others and put people over profits, and demonstrating a high degree of compassion and emotional intelligence will set the tone for a kind culture in your organization that employees can get behind.
Step 2: Mentor Employees
Mentoring is a great way to show kindness to employees because it demonstrates to them that you care about their well-being and personal and professional development.
Mentoring also helps build trust, which makes all the other steps you will take to create and maintain a kind culture in your organization easier. If employees trust you, they will feel valued and, in turn, value their co-workers—and they’ll treat each other with kindness and respect.
Taking an active interest in their growth as people, their career progress, and personal well-being shows employees that you are invested in their happiness and success beyond their day-to-day role in the organization. This sets the stage for kind, caring behavior and a positive work environment for employees at all levels of the organization.
Step 3: Make Time To Listen
You may be the kind of leader who regularly checks in with staff, casually asking how they are doing as you pass them in the hallway (or during a Zoom meeting). You may have established the habit of setting aside time on Mondays to ask what your employees did that weekend.
It’s good to establish such habits because these “check-ins” are an integral part of a kind culture. But are you really listening to your employees’ responses? Or are you asking out of a sense of obligation?
Employees know when you are expressing genuine kindness or feigning an interest in their lives that you don’t truly feel. Always be aware that they can spot the difference between a cursory, obligatory “How are you?” and an honest inquiry into their well-being because you care about their happiness. When you ask them questions, really listen to the answers.
Step 4: Keep It Kind (Even When It’s Hard)
As a leader, you are often faced with the difficult task of providing feedback to employees when there are performance or other issues. Whatever the scenario you find yourself in, remember to take a kind approach to addressing issues when they arise.
It’s not always easy to maintain kindness in challenging situations, but always be mindful of the impact of your words and demeanor when addressing others.
Handling difficult situations with kindness and empathy will produce a better outcome than an unsympathetic approach and shows employees that you value them. Again, if employees don’t feel valued, they aren’t going to feel engaged with the work they do.
Negativity inevitably leads to more negativity. The more an employee is exposed to negativity and harsh criticism, the more it affects the employee’s overall mood, morale, and, ultimately, productivity, and the more likely that employee is to respond to their environment of constant negativity with unkind behavior.
To keep employees united with a shared sense of purpose, kindness is key. It is also such an important tool for combating toxic workplace environments, which I’ll address in the next step.
Step 5: Eliminate Toxicity
It is inevitable in most companies for toxic relationships to develop, no matter how hard we work to deter them. Even one employee can “poison the well” and create a negative environment for the rest of the team.
According to the 2018 Hiscox Workplace Harassment Study, 45% of employees in the United States have witnessed the harassment of a co-worker. As CEO and author Betsy Parayil-Pezard points out, this lack of kindness doesn’t just come from internal corporate culture.
In another study, of 198 telephone customer service agents, 60% claim to have experienced insults and shouting from customers.
A study in the Journal of Modelling in Management found that toxic workplace environments can adversely impact job productivity, with job stress playing a statistically significant role in the interplay between toxic workplace environments and job productivity.
Employees who work in a toxic environment where they face the daily stress of harassment and abuse from management, co-workers, and customers, aren’t going to perform at their best or feel loyalty to a company that lets such behavior go unchecked.
This is why it is so important to address any potentially toxic situations that arise before they fester, infect the team, and lead to a toxic work environment where employees disengage.
Practicing kindness on a daily basis can go a long way toward preventing this from happening, but senior management should always be quick to address personnel issues with tact, diplomacy, and fairness when they arise. Employees aren’t likely to treat each other with kindness in work environments that are toxic.
Step 6: Encourage Employee Bonding
According to a study in the UK, eight out of ten respondents said they would not accept a position, even if it paid a higher salary, if it meant working with co-workers they did not get along with.
This evidence underscores how important, and essential to a company’s success, it is for employees to get along, especially in roles that demand frequent collaboration.
While elaborate, often expensive, team-building events have become a popular way for some leaders to try to achieve a culture where employees trust and like each other, it isn’t necessary (or even that effective) to throw so much money at building trust. You want to create an environment where trust grows organically.
Having a boss and co-workers who show concern and understanding when you are sick or have lost a loved one, or who celebrate your big life changes and events, can have a far greater impact on a company’s culture than those elaborate team-building activities and forge stronger relationships between employees.
Step 7: Reward Kindness
This can and should include recognizing and providing positive feedback to employees for practicing their kind actions and behaviors. By recognizing and rewarding the kind actions of employees, you are reinforcing the kind of behavior you want to see in your organization.
In our recent interview with author Chester Elton, Chester discussed the importance of encouraging employees to recognize and reward their co-workers, singling them out for a kind act as a sign of appreciation. Encouraging these “random acts of kindness” strengthens employee relationships and creates a culture of kindness where employees feel valued by senior leadership and their co-workers.
Such kindness initiatives are a great way to get employees involved. It encourages employees to participate and can help lay the groundwork for a caring culture, ensuring that kindness is strongly embedded in a company’s overall strategy.
By making an acknowledgement of the kindness of the employee, rewarding it, and encouraging more kindness through initiatives, other employees will become more aware of the ways their teammates are demonstrating kindness on a daily basis.
And this will inspire them to do the same— because kindness is contagious.
Step 8: Encourage Employees To Pay Kindness Forward
Once you’ve established a kind culture and a system for encouraging and acknowledging random acts of kindness within your organization, encourage employees to spread kindness outside the organization, within and beyond their communities.
Providing opportunities for group volunteering or giving your employees regular volunteer time, either weekly, monthly, or through yearly volunteer time accrual, is a great way to reinforce kind culture with your employees by helping them see the ways their kindness can help others.
By encouraging your employees to spread kindness outside the organization, you are helping them fulfill their potential, helping them help others, and actually helping to build a positive perception of the company in the process.
It’s important to keep in mind that if you are going to offer volunteer time during the workweek, give employees time to make use of that time. It’s hard for employees to use that volunteer time if they are working 50-hour work weeks on a regular basis.
Step 9: Practice Gratitude With Employees
Practicing gratitude with your employees is another great way to create a culture of kindness.
In our fast-paced work environments, with digital communication that both eliminates and, at times, creates distance where meaningful human interaction is concerned, it can seem difficult at first to make a conscious effort to remember to practice “old-fashioned gratitude.” It may even seem awkward to talk about being grateful at first.
However, once it’s a habit and you incorporate it into your daily conversations with employees, it gets easier. Employees begin to develop a gratitude mindset that makes kindness a more natural behavior for them in all aspects of their life.
We recently sat down with author Piyush Patel and discussed how he created a culture of gratitude within his company by utilizing an activity called “The Three Happies.” During this daily activity, employees share three things (one personal, two work-related) that have brought them happiness over the course of the last 24 hours.
By making this a habit, it helps employees be less critical and more aware of the things they love about their jobs. It also makes them more mindful of their own personal happiness outside work, providing an opportunity to share positive experiences with their co-workers and get to know each other on a deeper level.
Step 10: Be Fearless – Be Vunerable
As coach and mindfulness trainer Karen Liebenguth points out, genuine kindness comes from the heart, not the head.
While showing vulnerability can take some leaders out of their comfort zone, one should never underestimate the power of vulnerability. Being vulnerable can have immeasurable benefits for leaders and their employees.
Liebengauth says of vulnerability, “It requires us to let our defenses down, and to show our tender side. It means taking a risk to be vulnerable in a world where performance, productivity, and competition are more highly valued.”
This can mean sharing personal stories or struggles, which can be difficult but so rewarding because it can forge strong bonds and connections between employees and decrease psychological distress.
For some great insight into this subject, check out Brené Brown’s extraordinary TedTalk from 2010 about the power of vulnerability. Also check out our interview with author, consultant, and leadership coach John Spence to learn how to become comfortable with vulnerability in business.
Step 11: Understand Where People Are Coming From
Being a vulnerable leader can help employees be more open, which can, in turn, help you get a better understanding of where they’re coming from. And being understanding is sometimes the greatest kindness you can offer your employees.
As Sarah Goff-Dupont at Atlassian says, we don’t always know what our team members are going through. Some battles, physical illness or loss of a family member, are usually more obvious. Others, less so.
In fact, most battles employees are fighting are invisible, particularly when it comes to mental health. Employees do not often feel comfortable talking about issues like anxiety and depression because, though much progress has been made toward awareness and acceptance over the last few years, there is still a stigma attached to mental illness.
Employees hide mental illness because they fear they will lose their jobs, not be trusted with certain projects and responsibilities, be turned down for promotions, or judged harshly by their co-workers and senior management by discussing their mental struggles. Many cope with these struggles in silence.
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), 40% of people experience persistent or excessive stress or anxiety in their daily lives, and 72% of people who have daily stress and anxiety claim it interferes with their lives at least moderately.
The topic of mental well-being can be a tough topic for employees to openly discuss, but anxiety and depression can have a significant impact on an employee’s performance. Providing a non-judgemental space for employees to discuss these issues can improve both an employee’s mental well-being, decrease their stress and anxiety, and improve their performance.
Why Create A Culture Of Kindness In Your Organization?
According to Dr. Pragya Agarwal, what we see when we practice kindness in the workplace is that it propagates and spreads. Regularly practicing kindness in the workplace really does create a positive ripple effect throughout the company’s culture.
Kindness isn’t just a trendy concept for leaders to grab onto in the ongoing pursuit of improved employee engagement. It is a physiological and neurological human need we all have.
Kindness can lower blood pressure and cortisol, a hormone that directly affects stress levels, and the practice of kindness is associated with better mental and physical health and improved life expectancy.
Since so much of our time is spent at work, whether in-person or remotely, creating a culture of kindness in our workplaces could significantly improve the quality of our lives.
Leaders who establish kind cultures in their organizations are helping their companies and their employees thrive. And it just feels great to lead from a place of love and kindness.
Matt Tenney is the founder of PeopleThriver and The Generous Group, two companies that aspire to create the best workplace cultures in the world. Matt is also the author of Serve To Be Great: Leadership Lessons from a Prison, a Monastery, and a Boardroom, and The Mindfulness Edge: How to Rewire Your Brain for Leadership and Personal Excellence. Matt is frequently invited to present keynote speeches at leadership conferences and meetings. His TEDx Talk has been viewed over 1,000,000 times since January, 2020.