Try a Little Kindness

It’s an effective, low cost business strategy

By Charlotte Westerhaus-Renfrow

Here’s a simple question: When is the last time you saw an employee skip? I don’t mean skipping a meeting or skipping a task. I mean an actual skip – when individuals were so happy that they eagerly collaborate with colleagues, enthusiastically offer better customer service, and actively provide value at work rather than sleepwalk through their tasks.

I get it –most of us probably stopped skipping because we didn’t want to seem childish. What a shame. But what if a business leader could inspire that type of excitement and joy in their employees and customers? Perhaps their future long-term success (and the success of their business) is just hop, skip and jump away.


Happy Shoppers

Unemployment in this country is at its lowest level since 1969, and it’s no secret that a lot of these employees are not happy or energetic. A recent Harvard Business Review survey reveals that 58 percent of people say they trust strangers more than their own bosses. According to a Gallup Poll released in 2017, 85 percent of workers worldwide admit to hating their jobs, when surveyed anonymously. The same survey found that only 30 percent of American workers are engaged at work.

Failing to inspire happiness in customers also adversely affects business. A prime example is the recent bankruptcy of one of America’s most iconic retailers, Sears. In an interview with CCW Digital, brand strategist Ali Craig said one of the many mistakes Sears committed was failing to create a pleasant in-store experience for customers. “Shopping at Sears wasn’t a fun experience; it was very pragmatic,” said Craig. “If you look at the stores that make it today, they create an experience for the consumer, which is the whole beauty of what a retail space does.” Put another way, competitors like Target and Home Depot were much more successful than Sears in attracting and converting casual browsers into eager buyers due to better store design and visual merchandising. Customers were happier shopping there and as Simon Sinek succinctly put it in his book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, “Happy customers ensure happy shareholders.”

Naïve and soft

To enhance workplace momentum, employee engagement and financial outcomes, some of the most successful business leaders consistently implement a seldom-recognized, yet powerful, ethical principle: kindness.

Aristotle defined kindness an ethical behavior that epitomizes “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, for that of the person helped.” But what does an ethical principle from the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle have to do with success in business today?

The answer is simple. According to business coach Jill Lublin’s book, The Profit of Kindness: How to Influence Others, Establish Trust, and Build Lasting Business Relationships, business owners, entrepreneurs and angel investors have profited by focusing on kindness. “By practicing kindness in your business, you can increase your income, generate new clients, stimulate repeat customers to buy, and much, more.” In other words, Lublin believes kindness is the new currency for creating pathways to profit.

Now here’s the rub: Many well-regarded leaders believe you must be strong and tough to successfully compete in a dog-eat-dog, win at all costs and get the deal done corporate environment. Cynical naysayers are often quick to mock kindness as being naïve and soft. For example, there is no mention of niceness within some of the most often quoted mantras about winning and success: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” said NFL football coach Vince Lombardi; “There is no such thing as second place: either you’re first or you’re nothing,” from Major League Baseball general manager Gabe Paul. Likewise, even research shows that nice people struggle financially.  According to a study published in The European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, employees who are agreeable and nice have lower salaries than their more assertive and domineering counterparts.

There is, however, an important and key difference in employing ethical kindness as competitive advantage, rather than just being nice at work. While Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines nice as acting in a “pleasing way,” the characteristics of ethical kindness within the context of reaping profits are compassion, flexibility, patience, positivity, generosity, gratitude and connection. These identifiable traits can have revolutionary and positive impact to the bottom line when done right.

Compassion = power

Here, then, are three ways business leaders and managers can invest in the currency of kindness to improve sales, raise prices, increase revenues, cut losses and reduce costs:

  1. Demonstrate compassion.

Emma Seppala, associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University shared in a recent article that “Managers may shy away from compassion for fear of appearing weak. Yet history is filled with leaders who were highly compassionate and very powerful: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu, to name a few. They were such strong and inspiring leaders that people would drop everything to follow them.”

Wouldn’t any leader wish for that kind of loyalty and commitment? In fact, researcher Jonathon Haidt at New York University found that employees are more likely “to act in a helpful and friendly way with other employees for no particular reason” when their leaders are fair, ethical and act with compassion towards others in the workplace.

  1. Help others to win and succeed the right way.

Near the end of his life, Vince Lombardi – who coined the “winning is the only thing” quote – lamented, “I wished I’d never said the thing… I meant the effort. I meant having a goal. I sure didn’t mean for people to crush human values and morality.”

As Zig Ziglar said, “You can have everything in life you want, if you will just help other people get what they want.” Lifting up your employees at work can help your company achieve success in attracting and retaining employees.

  1. Acknowledge your mistakes.

SPOILER ALERT: If you are a leader, you will make mistakes. Welcome to leadership.

My favorite coach of all time is John Wooden. His words of wisdom and lessons about what it takes to win don’t just apply to the game of collegiate basketball (and he knew how to win big time), but they apply to all areas of life – including business leadership. One of my favorite quotes and lessons from Coach Wooden is this one: "If you're not making mistakes, then you're not doing anything. I'm positive that a doer makes mistakes.”

As a role model, what will you do? As a business leader, what will you say to those around you when you make a mistake? Will you have the courage to you own it and admit your vulnerability, or will you blame somebody else?

Author researchers Brene Brown and Michelle Reina say innovation cannot exist without vulnerability, and when leaders admit they’ve made a mistake, they don’t erode trust in their leadership, they strengthen it. Organizations with a high level of trust report increased employee morale, more productive workers and lower staff turnover.

All of this is achieved with an effective no-cost resource: kindness. If ethical kindness can lead to improved business outcomes and greater employee and customer satisfaction, the ROI on doing the right thing may be greater than ever.