The value of kindness in corporate leadership

Monday 01, October 2018

Gay Haskins looks at how kindness could be the key to rebuilding trust in business.

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It is unlikely that you have ever thought you should be emphasising kindness as a key feature of organisational success, or that kindness is a core value of your organisation. The importance of kindness in leadership is equally unlikely to come up often in the context of board appointments or in board meetings.

Yet those of us who live in English speaking countries will hear the word ‘kind’ very often. It is one of the five hundred most frequently used words in the English language. Kind actions are remembered; they have a ‘boomerang’ effect – ‘kindness begets kindness’. Such acts cost nothing but can create significant value.

21st century context

In our recent book, Kindness in Leadership, we obtained input from 200 leaders around the world in the public and private sectors. Among these were 30 leaders currently working with private and public sector organisations in the UK, with several of the public sector interviewees employed within the National Health Service (NHS).

“Awareness of earnings disparities has fuelled an erosion of trust, commitment and engagement within organisations.”

We began by asking them about their current organisational context. In both sectors, we found that there had been a significant erosion of trust in organisations, triggered particularly by the global economic crisis in 2008 and, for those working in the NHS, the publication of the Francis independent inquiry into the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust in 2013. Events like these have brought to public attention serious systemic failings in the leadership and governance of our most important institutions.

A perception of ‘unfairness’ is also evident. In the US, a recent Forbes report cited the findings of an Economic Policy Institute report on pay in 2016 within 350 US companies: the average CEO made $15.6 million, 271 times what the average worker earns.

In the UK, steps are now being taken to publish worker-to-boss pay ratios. Awareness of these kinds of earnings disparities has fuelled an erosion of trust, commitment and engagement within organisations.

In response to these developments, our interviewees underlined the need for leaders to adopt a strategic organisational focus on people and relationships: a leadership approach to a more relational style. Alongside this, a need to focus not just on what an organisation does, but how and why they do it.

Within this context, what role, if any, does kindness have to play?

Defining kindness

We found a marked similarity in the definition of kindness among the UK and worldwide samples of interviewees. Defined by all as relational act or behaviour, a typical response was: ‘Kindness is active. Acting with the interests of the recipients at heart.’

It was also generally felt to be a virtue (showing high moral standards, goodness and decency) and to be something that can be learned and developed through practice.

The interviewees emphasised that kindness in leadership is characterised by a variety of behaviours, all of which reflect a strong relational style, including: fostering a sense of inclusion; accommodating personal issues; treating others with respect; being generous in giving as well as receiving; caring and being responsive; communicating with a personal touch; sharing information transparently and explaining logically; giving time and listening intently; valuing the views of others while giving truthful and constructive feedback; counselling and mentoring; and embracing diversity and tolerance.

A core value

The leaders also subscribed to philosophies about kindness as core to the values of their organisation. These included beliefs that people are central to the success of any organisation; equity and fairness as important ideals in enhancing employee confidence and loyalty; and that respect and care stimulate ownership and commitment.

Among those that were interviewed were a number of founders of successful independent owner managed businesses.

“Equity and fairness are important ideals in enhancing employee confidence and loyalty”

Sally Waterston, founder of IT consultancy Waterstons, states her beliefs as: ‘We believe completely in people first – we do not have fixed hours, we do not have fixed holidays – we measure people on what they do and not when they do it … I am absolutely passionate about kindness, but not from a paternalistic point of view. I think it should be within the company, it should be peer to peer, and we see examples of it every day in our business.’

Kathleen Kenehan Henson is founder and CEO of Agency H5, a boutique PR consultancy in Chicago. Since 2001, this company has grown to be a mid-sized company with a team of fifty, committed to kindness as a core value.

‘I made a conscious choice to create a company on the foundation of most important value in life: kindness,’ she writes in her epilogue to Kindness in Leadership.

‘I am very proud to know that we are known for that value throughout the USA and beyond … As a leader, I have found that when people are genuinely happy, they practice kindness to each other and that makes our clients happy and it is an ongoing cycle of kindness.

‘I firmly believe that if more companies focused first on making their employees happy … they would have better retention, results and profitability.’

Positive impact

There are a number of larger organisations that have put kindness to the fore with a positive impact. Two well-known UK examples are retail giant John Lewis, established with a core belief in fairness and kindness to employees, and Nationwide building society, set up to ‘build for good’ and still using advertising messages around the ‘currency of kindness’.

In the US, researchers Jane Dutton and Monica Worline of the Ross School of Business have examined performance over two years, across forty units in the financial services industry. They found that when compassion was part of the values of the business units, these units exhibited better financial performance, were perceived as more effective and realized higher employee and customer retention.

A number of our interviewees were graduates of the Oxford Advanced Management and Leadership programme, run by the Saïd Business School. They echoed the findings of the US research, suggesting that kind leadership behaviours had a strong positive impact on organisational well-being and performance.

For employees, the result is greater contentment, higher motivation, higher engagement and participation. Teams and management, they found, were more creative and innovative, with positive relationships more prevalent.

This positive outcome was encapsulated by Richard Everard, chairman of Everards Brewery Ltd. He wrote: ‘Kindness is at the very heart of our philosophy, but it demands that everyone lives and breathes it every day. The human, financial and societal outcomes are tangible and will endure through future generations.’

A place in the boardroom

If the impact of kindness in leadership is as tangible as Richard suggests, would a greater emphasis on kindness help to dispel the erosion of trust in organisations that has taken place? If so, how can greater kindness be brought into the boardroom?

“Some feared being ‘too kind’ might be seen as weak leadership and counter-intuitive in environments where there is pressure to reduce cost and meet targets”

In our research with UK public and private-sector companies, we found some leaders associated kindness as a behaviour relevant when colleagues required compassion (for example, supporting colleagues with sick loves or bereavement); however, they struggled with kindness as a genuine leadership style that would be accepted by their board and shareholders.

They feared being ‘too kind’ might be seen as weak leadership and particularly counter-intuitive in environments where there is pressure to reduce cost and meet targets.

Yet both public and private sector leaders regarded kindness as a relational leadership behaviour, promoting trust and connection between people – elements which are critical to high-performing work environments. It seems there is work to be done at board level to build organisations in which kind leadership can flourish.

The key attributes of kind leaders included empathy, altruism, respect and fairness. Empathy, as the key foundation for emotional intelligence; altruism because it was felt to be part of a belief system too truly care about people and society; respect was emphasised because of its association with humility and the ability to genuinely care about people regardless of rank and hierarchy and, fairness because without fairness somehow kindness cannot flourish.

Opportunities for action

As emphasised by the recently revised UK Corporate Governance Code, the board plays a key role in a company’s purpose, values, strategy, culture and the directors running the business should act with integrity, lead by example and promote the desired culture.

The work of the board starts with the way that the board interacts with the executives; board directors can demonstrate the attributes of kind leaders. The board has the opportunity to build kindness in to publicly available statements and make kindness part of the mission and strategy.

Finally, through the work of the board committees there is opportunity to place foremost respect, fairness and kindness in policies and practices.

Our research highlighted concern that the attributes of kind leaders are not sufficiently recognised by nomination committees; nor that fairness underpins remuneration policy or that a focus on kindness to customers underpins the practices of risk committees.

Kindness potentially holds the key to building trust in commercial business; this leap of faith starts with the board.

Gay Haskins is an associate fellow at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford; and Alison Gill is co-founder and director of Bvalco

Find out more

Gay Haskins is the co-editor, along with Professors Lalit Johri and Mike Thomas, of Kindness in Leadership (Routledge, 2018); Alison Gill wrote two chapters of the book.

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